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"Creamy Strawberry" 2008
oil on canvas
"Flash #2" 2009
59 barber poles
A world-weary poodle-its ears tipped in punk-manqué orange and gathered into bushy ponytails-stands in a garbage dump strewn withbrightly colored commodities, perhaps the carcasses of things from our era of shameless consumptive excess. Among the refuse is a Louis Vuitton bag, a vintage perfume atomizer, a toy luxury car, various digital devices, and much more. A man with a pickaxe and a helmet skulksin the background, armed to dig for gold among the cast-off goodies, but the poodle is not interested in scrounging for a share of the loot. It looks put upon-loathing the tiny jester's crown upon its head and yearning for a respite from human foolishness-and stares resignedly at apoint in space somewhere around the viewer's kneecaps.
The person holding the poodle's leash is gender ambiguous. With a paunchy body slouched to one side, and a broad, head cocked to theother, he/she is a train-wreck of counter-intuitive visual signals. The corkscrew locks of his/her wig, black as squid ink fusilli, barely cover upthe crew cut beneath, and yet these incongruous tresses frame that squat face with a dissonant coquettishness. Trendy yellow eye shadowhighlights piggish eyes. Berry-colored lips pout above a non-existent chin. Narrow shoulders bracket a ballooning pear-shaped torso; a sadlittle frayed feather boa snakes down between the saggy man-breasts, while a loop of gray pearls fetchingly encircles a lopsided breast, and agelatinous mound of belly fat undulates above diaphanous nether-garments.
The visual effect of all these exaggerated details should be hideous, and yet Chen Hui has taken human imperfections-the sort we all have,like it or not - and brought out their endearing qualities rather than making them into the butt of a cruel visual joke. In an era overloaded withnauseatingly "cute" art, Chen Hui's light touch with the saccharin and cloying aspects of China's nouveau riche-inspired, urban material culturecomes as a relief. With a deft hand, and the sober eye of a mask-maker who knows what our masks are meant to hide, she playfully shows our human frailty along with our vanity. In showcasing the risible futility of our attempts to fashion convincing glossy images of ourselves, ChenHui manages to capture both the attempt and the failure to conceal what she posits as a flawed but real "true nature." She does so, moreover,in a way that eschews both the grotesque melodramatic posturing of the "cute" genre, and the hyped up "tragic drama" of more realist worksthat seek to illuminate human shortcomings. For Chen Hui, that we are mere plebs, laughably dressed up as celebrities parading around inpiles of our own tacky garbage is no tragedy-it's just a fact of life that our contemporary pretenses are hollow and our disguises fail to foolmost of the people most of the time, including ourselves, and yet she suggests that there is a poignancy in our constant resort to thesedevices, in spite of the ineffectual clumsiness of our efforts.
With a series of new works, presented for the first time at her solo exhibition at Galerie Urs Meile, Chen Hui crafts scenes bursting with thesilly and the strange, the flawed and the fabulous, the absurd and the banal, the throwaway refuse and that which can be scavenged. In doingso, she manages to reconnect images of hyperbolized popular culture, stylistic overkill and consumptive excess, with the latent humanity andsheer ordinariness of the flawed, imperfect people who populate her paintings.
As a professional make-up artist, teaching her craft for the stage and set at the Communication University of China, Chen Hui is intimatelyfamiliar with the ways a surface can be manipulated to present the simulacra of the externalized selves we hope others will see. Through herpaintings, and in her own explanations of her work, she posits that no matter how much make-up we cake on, which elaborate costumes wemay don, or what kind of shiny trinkets we take up to signal our tastes and values to the world, we can never really escape who we are.
Rather than posing as a critical unmasker, using her paintings to rip the scales from our eyes and show us the ugliness of the contemporaryera in all its grotesque glory, instead Chen Hui offers a gentler sort of meditation. She lets us have our fun and poke fun at it too. She seemsto understand that even as our masks are false, we need them to negotiate our place in a world dominated by polished veneers andsuperficial values. By making the disguises worn by these people in her latest series obvious costumes, she allows us to see both the surfaceand the subcutaneous at once; to see the ham-fisted attempts to adorn and embellish ourselves, in spite of the scars and the blemishes, thesag and the wrinkles, that we can never really conceal.
The flamboyant wigs, the burlesque adornments, the sagging bellies, the scarred, lined and pitted skin, appear and reappear throughout thisseries. Yet these flaws and faux fixes are neither the object of the artist's mockery nor her pity. They are simply the testaments to theunvarnished, pedestrian realness that lurks beneath the hyperreal, gleaming surfaces of modern identity in this age of glib commercialism, andthe gimcrack gaudy baubles with which we so often define ourselves. By exaggerating the exterior packaging, and squeezing her everydaycharacters into vaudevillesque glamorous costumes-costumes into which they never quite fit-Chen Hui lightly reminds us that all that glitters isnot gold. Nevertheless, if the value of the "fool's gold" of our commodified, cosmeticized, costumed identities is its capacity help us constructthe externalized selves we use to interface with the social world, then it is precisely our use of that fool's gold-those fantasies of ourselvesalchemized into something sparkling, desirable, and valuable-that offers the richest visual food for thought in these works.
The collaborative work of Sabina Lang and Daniel Baumann (hereafter referred to as L/B) unites the symbolic and the spectacular in apractice that has been defying genre for nearly twenty years. Together they have created installations, environments, public interventions,paintings, games and even a mobile hotel room, often using visual languages that are often reminiscent of Op and Pop-inspired design. Intheir previous works, brightly-colored patterns run across the walls, floors and windows of art centers, community centers and galleries andeven cover a stretch of rural roadway. Elsewhere, giant, inflatable plastic tubes span the windows of a building's facade, becoming a twisted(but highly regular) latticework of impossible passageways. Shiny, decorative "modules" and light fixtures made of molded plastic are arrangedinto patterns that bring a set of visual variables into harmony. Throughout L/B's universe, there is an emphasis on creating new connectionsbetween and within existing spaces and sets, and a desire to activate otherwise aesthetically neglected zones of connection (hallways,stairwells, etc.). Visually stimulating, the work highlights the act of seeing while inviting viewers to forge their own pathways towardinterpretation.
For "I'm Real", Lang/Baumann's solo exhibition at Galerie Urs Meile in Beijing, the result of their three-month residency at the gallery, theartists have combined two elements to create a site-sensitive response to the city of Beijing and the gallery space. Entering the exhibition,one's eyes are immediately directed downward, toward Beautiful Carpet #1, which covers the gallery in zigzagging bands of color that includelemon yellow, Barbie pink and midnight blue, amplifying the existing architecture's angularity. The carpet's pattern suggests a fractured,crisscrossing network of galvanic pathways that visitors can use to navigate the space, trying one and then another as they move about theinstallation. Walking on the artwork, one is suddenly surrounded by it; rather than studying wall-hung artworks from a measured distance, wehave no choice but to move into and through an immersive visual experience that ignites the senses.
Afterward, we pass through a dim corridor to reach Flash #2, an installation comprised of 59 custom-made barber poles arranged in a circularconfiguration of swirling green and silver bands that curls opens on one end to admit visitors into its vertiginous center. Spinning in unison andlit from within, the poles, which are 230 cm high, form a curving wall that nearly encloses viewers; once in its epicenter, the familiar symbol ofthe barber's pole becomes dizzying and hypnotic, an optical experience that begins to impact the body's equilibrium.
On the one hand, the installation that recalls the work of Op artists like Bridget Riley, and Duchamp's works from the 1920s, termed "PrecisionOptics," which put patterned sculptures into motion in order to create optical illusions. Such works, including Flash #2, foster not only a senseof illusion; with dual perception comes an awareness of the fragility of the mechanics of vision itself. Rather than eroding our confidence,Flash a#2, with its disorienting embrace, reminds us of how various experiences and meanings can exist simultaneously, without cancelingeach other out.
The barber pole's macabre history dates back to the 18th Century, when, after performing surgical procedures that included bloodletting,barbers would wash their bloodied bandages and hang them on poles outside their shops to dry, leaving the long strips of fabric to twist inspiral patterns that became the pole's defining characteristic.
When L/B traveled to Beijing to conceive of the new works on view in "I'm Real", it seems that they were drawn to the familiar ? the patterns ofthe barber's poles in China rhyme nicely with L/B's artistic vocabulary of bright, flat colors often put into dynamic, curving and geometricformations. In the city of Beijing, the effect of barber poles is greatly intensified: they are often grouped two or three at a single storefront,lighting up dark alleys and adding extra color to busy intersections, especially near residential areas, where salons are grouped three or four ina row. But the poles do not just announce a place for a haircut; at night, girls in short skirts and heavy makeup call outside to passersby,"Massage? Massage, sir?" In fact, the barber poles connote that prostitutes' services are available. The contradiction between this overtlyvisible sign and its covert meaning was not lost on L/B, who observe:
The Beijing-style seemed easy, fun and somehow "Italian": very colorful, eccentric and blinking seem to be very popular. The barber poles wenoticed everywhere. Of course, soon we found out about the double meaning of them and this even seemed more absurd: to have a secretcode for something illegal and it's this blinking large sign you could not ignore. Why wouldn't they make it a bit more discrete (we as typicalSwiss asked ourselves)?The polyvalence of the symbols employed by L/B attests to an interest in the "local," in as much as certain pieces of the landscape of Beijingresonate with their pre-existing sensibilities.
Like many of their previous works, L/B's latest exhibition at Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing simultaneously dazzles the retina and opens a liminalspace for the contemplation of vision itself. At the same time, it allows us to test the interpretive filters that form the screens of visuality as weengage with different associations offered up by the work, sex and death among them. As a result, our sense of spectatorship is amplified fora time that extends beyond the gallery.
Galerie Urs Meile Beijing
D10, 798 East Street, 798 Art District
No. 2 Jiuxianqiao Road Chaoyang District
100015 Beijing, China
Galerie Urs Meile Lucerne
6004 Lucerne, Switzerland