The notion that there might be an esthetic reaction to the Chinese art boom, with its exorbitant prices, government sanction of mediocrity and brazen mimicry of the worst Western Pop styles, emerges in the work of Hu Xiangdong, a 46-year-old artist from Nanjing, whose efforts are now on view at M. Sutherland Fine Arts. Hu’s life follows those of many of his confreres: influenced by the "No U-Turn Show" in 1989, a series of jobs -- including window dresser and wedding photographer -- and association with a collective, the Artists’ Colony at Yuanmingyuan.
He has styled himself as a critic of the new Chinese materialism, a street-corner prophet in Chinatown. The motif of his first American show of paintings is to portray traditional Chinese postcard scenes of landscapes and winning youth, and then congeal the images behind painted cellophane, as if China-packaged and thus neutered for the West. Esthetically, Hu’s work has its strong points, dreamy greens and reds, wistful faces and magic pagodas. The irony is served with the tummy-pleasing blandness of a soft-boiled egg.
Prices, by the idiotic standards of the Yues and Zangs, are dirt cheap: $20 grand for a canvas, with the scale sliding down towards zero for prints and drawings. Sometimes, when your eye alights on a particular misty gesture, the works seem almost worth it. Western critics are caught in an Eastern conundrum when considering the Chinese elephant, an ungainly animal full of power and drive that cannot be considered a great beauty. With a little finesse, perhaps market forces and critical distance can cut truly awful, derivative artists such as Zhang Huan down to mouse size, and elevate the Hus of this weird world. We can only hope!
"Hu Xiamgdong: Estranged," Nov. 8, 2007-Jan. 18, 2008, at M. Sutherland Fine Arts, 55 East 80th Street, New York, N.Y. 10021
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).