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February 17 - March 24 at Robert Savedra Gallery

by Diane Calder

Chinese artists living overseas are seriously rethinking their origins and addressing changing relationships between the local and global, the spiritual and material, the production of art and the producer. Many are striving to develop a means to communicate with audiences who may not be totally familiar with Chinese iconography. Post-colonialist culture critic Homi Bhabha suggests that the "oriental" identity of these artists is not an irreducible given; it is always in negotiation.

Some émigrés like Huang Yong Ping and Cai Guo-qiang continue to reference Chinese mythology in their work, simultaneously employing strategies of appropriation, allegory and cynicism. Huang, a founding member of the Xiamen Dada group, now lives in Paris and represented France in the 1999 Venice Biennale. His recent installation, TaiGong Fishing, Willing to Bite the Bait, examines a Chinese parable about the importance of patience in difficult times. New Yorker Cai Guo-qiang used a traditional Chinese story in the visual form of a straw boat shot with arrows to comment on contemporary transcultural issues in the acclaimed Chinese new art survey, Inside Out. In an earlier work, Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan, Cai formed the head of a dragon with sheepskin and used Toyota engines for its tail, linking the Mongolian invasion with the current threat of Asian economic power.

Hou Fengmin offers a less rebellious synthesis of Eastern traditions and Western techniques in Journey through the Silk Roads, his first exhibition of paintings in this country. Hou is a 1958 graduate of the Luxun Art College in China who recently acquired a residence in Los Angeles. At the end of the Cultural Revolution, when an increasing interest in self-focused modernity saw Wenda Gu incorporating Western Surrealism into Chinese ink painting, Hou was perfecting his oil painting technique on rice paper. In his search for new subject matter, he reached back to a time when an ancient transnational economic system was leaving its mark on China. Murals from the caves of Dunhuang Mogao became his inspiration.

Cross-cultural influences are as apparent in Hou’s Journey through the Silk Roads as they are in the history of the site that informs this work. Matisse meets an orientalized Madonna in Hou’s alluring Dancing Bodhisattva #6. Her gene pool is as rich and complex as the trade routes, now known as the Silk Road, which once connected China, India, Persia and lands to the west. For more than ten centuries, beginning with the rule of the Han emperors around 200 B.C.E., caravans traversed segments of these arteries bartering commodities like silk, ceramics, tea, and cinnamon for amber, ivory, glass, and gold, on what was also to become a highway for religious thought.

Sinjiang Caves #1," from the
Dunhuang Impressions Series,
oil on rice paper, 1990.

"Dancing Bodhisatva #6",
oil on rice paper, 1998.

"Flower Girl", Dunhuang Impressions
Series, oil on rice paper, 27 x 27", 1990.

"#2", Dunhuang Impressions Series,
oil on rice paper, 27 x 27", 1986

The Mogao grottoes are located in a landscape of barren rock mountains and vast sand dunes at the edge of the Gobi Desert about a thousand miles west of Beijing. It was here that Buddhism, which first flowered in India, gained a foothold in China, powerfully influencing the area’s art and culture. Today this World Heritage site holds nearly 500 temples, constructed from the 4th- to the 14th-centuries, containing polychrome clay sculpture, silk banners, scrolls, and documents written in Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Tangut. The Diamond Sutra (a Buddhist devotional text and the earliest known printed book) was found here, along with the largest single collection of Buddhist mural art in China. The walls of the grottoes depict a remarkable array of legends, portraits, ornamental designs, and scenes of social and commercial life.

Hou draws from this rich tradition, favoring late Tang style imagery. His use of oil paint on paper effectively captures the colorful nature of ancient cave art. The linear is emphasized in his fluid treatment of the figure. Lines of relatively even thickness are made capable of suggesting volume through contour. Hou’s forms are round and fleshy. Their gentle swaying bodies capture an air of liveliness and interest in life.

The bodhisattvas depicted by Hou are creatures who have earned the right to flee earthly agony and ascend into the absolute, but instead choose to devote themselves to acts of salvation for the earthbound. In earlier lives, bodhisattvas played a role in Indian reincarnation beliefs. Since the Getty Museum is taking an active part in efforts to conserve the site where Hou Fengmin first encountered them, these gracious ladies seem right at home in the city of angels.