If you took “Chinese” out of the subtitle of the current exhibit at UMMA, you might not recognize the exhibit as such. Yes, all the artists in Multiple Impressions: Contemporary Chinese Woodblock Prints are from China, but that is truly the only unifying theme. That’s not to say it’s unorganized, just that the perspectives represented are nearly as diverse and broad as China itself. Striking and beautiful, the prints cover a dizzying array of styles and subjects–from pure abstraction to photorealism.
I was most intrigued by the prints that depict peasant life–which, according to these images, is a lonely existence. Despite using a diverse mix of styles and showing everything from field hands to shepherds, the artists almost always portray only one person in a vast landscape. Some of my favorites were Li Yangpen’s Bright Autumn and Autumn Harvest. Both are highly detailed landscapes in various shades of ocher that give the pieces a nostalgic quality. You have to look hard to see the lone peasant in each. Tiny and obscured by the monochromatism, they have become part of the land they work.
Of the works in the exhibit that seem to have a political leaning, two stand out. Li Chuankang’s A Family of Four is a photo of a young man in uniform standing with his wife and their baby and dog. One of the great strengths of this exhibit is the inclusion of short artist statements next to many of the works. Chuankang says of this 2004 print, “I seek to depict, realistically and at a sympathetic eye level, a scene in which a young People’s Liberation Army soldier, who is Tibetan, returns home to visit his wife and child.” It’s a brave Chinese artist who turns a sympathetic eye toward Tibet.
Another of the more overtly political works is Dai Daquan’s Builders. It’s a huge black and white print in the blatant style of socialist realism. A massive laborer takes up most of the space, with his giant hands wielding a tool in the foreground. Due to foreshortening, the hands are far larger than the head–a symbolic comment on the embodiment of a worker whose physical labor is more important than his intellect. His eyes are obscured by the shadow cast by his hard hat, completely eliminating his individuality.
The exhibit could be better only if it said more about the artists’ experience of censorship in China. For this reason, I recommend seeing the exhibit on a Sunday at 2 p.m. when there are tours led by docents who might be able to answer such questions. The exhibit runs through October 23.