Ambivalence and ambiguity haunt all the contemporary works in “Conceal/Reveal: Making Meaning in Chinese Art.” Still, with its mix of old and new, the exhibit at Seattle Asian Art Museum — assembled by Xiaojin Wu, the Seattle Art Museum’s associate curator of Japanese and Korean art — is a bit of a puzzler.
The pieces from the past 20 years have an incisive and even overwhelming presence. The older and more traditional works — mostly ceramics — seem an odd fit with these newer experiments.
With the exception of one loan from Seattle collector Jon Shirley, all are drawn from SAM’s collection. That one loan, however — Zhang Huan’s photo-sequence “Family Tree” — is a humdinger.
It consists of nine headshots in which the artist’s face and shaven head are gradually covered in calligrapher’s ink. In the final image, his features, coated in a black as thick as an oil slick, virtually disappear under the weight of ancestry as his eyes stare out in alarm. (“I cannot tell who I am,” Zhang writes on his website. “My identity has disappeared.”)
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Obliterated identity is explored in another Zhang photograph, “To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain.” In it, nude men and women, their faces averted from the camera or masked by hanging hair, are stacked like a cairn on a mountain peak. Naked human presence in this rugged setting couldn’t look more vulnerable or ephemeral.
Lin Tianmiao’s equally impressive “Focus No. 37” combines a digitally manipulated photograph with white embroidery to create a paradoxical effect. The gossamer-thin threads converge in a surprisingly solid braid hanging from the center of a blurred face’s forehead. The combination of tactile braid and obscured human features is magnetic and unsettling.
Human features are also partly obscured in Fang Lijun’s “No. 13 23/25.” The medium is simple enough: ink on paper. But the expression on the drawn face, poised between serenity and distress, is complex indeed.
So is the sense you get that this face is either emerging from or about to vanish into the crosshatch of ink work. (Fang’s massive four-panel woodblock print “No. 19,” in which five male figures peer out at the viewer as if struggling to decipher something in plain view, is also richly enigmatic.)
Other new items in the show are nearly as beguiling. In Xue Song’s “Coca Cola,” the classic soda-bottle shape contains vertiginous Chinese landscapes. Wang Huaiqing’s “Ping An — Peace VII” is a Hockney-esque study of a vase upturned on a table (its punning iconography, relying on Chinese homophones, is well explained in a wall panel). Li Jin’s “A Feast,” a lengthy handscroll in colored ink, is a never-ending Chinese banquet, with a submarine sandwich and soda can turning up among the bok choy, chicken feet and snow peas.
“Colored Vases,” by famed dissident artist Ai Weiwei, has a whole room to itself. Its nine antique vases, dipped in bright-hued industrial paint, resemble a candy-colored dream. The vases’ original historical character, the artist says, is “no longer visible, but is still there.” Whether his treatment of them will be seen as enhancement or desecration depends entirely on the viewer.
“Colored Vases” comes with plenty of background info posted near it. But most pieces in the show need better contextualization, especially concerning the curator’s perceived links between old and new. Artists’ biographies would be useful. So would translations of the Chinese text incorporated in “Coca Cola” and “A Feast.”
Still, the exhibit’s stated purpose — to showcase how Chinese art constructs “layered meanings in an indirect but intriguing way” — is pulled off with style, particularly when it comes to its newer pieces.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com