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The epic year of 2008 has finally drawn to a close in Beijing, and now we are left to ask what it has wrought. Modernist architectural masterpieces dot the fringes of the city, temples to a new urban condition, a new stage of socialism, a new governmentality that has not quiteyet been named. A new consumer infrastructure has been set in place, its restaurants and hotels and shopping centers churning in attemptedoblivion to the chaos beyond. The people of the capital rub their eyes, awaking from the latest in a sixty‐year progression of ideologicalreveries. In a boxy grey‐brick studio in the village of Caochangdi, Nie Mu sits at her digital drawing board, in front of her MacPro computer,making paintings with a plastic stylus and the latest version of Adobe Illustrator, as she has all year. Outside, the giant village dogs bark.
Titled simply "digital paintings," Nie Mu's 2008 works do not immediately reveal themselves to the curious. What appear from afar as tense,expressionistic compositions in a fragmented palette are-and this is the main thing-compilations formed from layer upon layer of digitalfreehand drawings, each a day's work, each completed separately. These individual layers draw their source material sometimes from newsphotos she sees while browsing the Internet, sometimes from childhood memories or cultural and generational commonplaces, sometimessimply from her own discrete sense of design. Colors, likewise, may come directly from other digital images, or she may select them with aclick at the digital color wheel. "Black is always 000," she says, "and every other shade has a number; the relations among them neverchange." She varies the size, which is to say the resolution, of each drawing, altering the digital scale of each day's work even as her physicalparameters never exceed this A4‐sized plastic board. Sometimes she reproduces her own elements across a single composition with thesimplest of digital tactics: Ctrl‐C for copy, Ctrl‐V for paste.
Nie Mu likes the definitive brush strokes that a computer seems better suited to make than a human. "People have their judgments," shesays, "but the computer is unsentimental." She likes the play of perspective among images of different resolutions, the way it echoes classicalquestions of illusionistic gamesmanship and compositional acumen. She likes the bricolage of potentially infinite reproducibility, which takesher back to her Central Academy training as a printmaker. She likes the way that even once pieced together into larger compositions, eachcomponent image still reveals the traces of its making in the jarring vertical and horizontal edges it retains from the day she drew it, alone, onthe plastic board. She likes how the possibility of accidental deletion, data loss, looms over her every brushstroke. She likes how thesepaintings exist only when she says stop, deciding based on some ineffable alchemy of aesthetic criteria and arbitrary principles that a givenwork is "done."
But it is in the deceptively simple step of organizing and ordering the component layers for printing is where the digital paintings reveal theirstakes. This final act of layering is the stage where the composition takes shape, and it is here that Nie Mu plays out one of the key tensionsof recent art, between individual will or taste and some external set of criteria, in something like what critic Jörg Heiser has called "the paintingof decisions." And yet the tension seems to go even further than the sphere of contemporary art. Each marking totally obscures everythingbelow it, but every image is only that: a floating image, completely lacking what traditional painting knows as support. Nie Mu's digitalpaintings are amalgamations of other paintings, each full of holes. They are paintings of memory and control, paintings about what is and is not allowed to show through and appear on the final, single visible plane of the surface. And so the act of layering becomes an exertion of will,a verdict about what is allowed to cover what else, in a process that begins to seem-perhaps appropriately for Beijing in 2008-a lot like writinga history or planning a city.
Nie Mu has ultimately decided to respond to this tension in two distinct ways, creating some paintings that consciously foreground arecognizable figurative gesture, and others that serve as diaristic records of the passage of time. The former are relatively straightforward,structured according to principles she knows from an older standard of painting, something that has to do with balance and beauty, somethingthat rests finally on the artist's judgment. In these smaller works, the layers below serve mostly as adornment, an abstract background to acentral, meaningful flourish. The latter, time‐based works present more difficulties. "I want to arrange the layers without any choice, withoutany contrivance, such that if something is gone, it's simply gone," she muses, but quickly turns to say, "and yet I hope the key elements don'tdisappear. Those are the two tendencies of this language." Even if the conceptual impulse is to organize these diaristic paintings withrecourse only to chronology-creating, say, a suite of four paintings each compiling a season's efforts, spring, summer, autumn, and winterotherfactors cannot but enter into play. She cites the example of one particularly strong Peking Opera mask, painted in vermilion late into thesummer. If that painting were arranged chronologically, it would become nothing but a painting of a mask. And so the mask is inserted into theflow earlier, and compositions that technically predate it obscure it. "In the end," she concludes, "there are still choices."
Finally, Nie Mu decides to abandon the seasonal framework and organize her paintings based solely on an ascending number of layers: 11,29, 70, 100. The final "100," shown in this exhibition, is both the summation and the obliteration of everything that has gone before it. A nowimperceptible diary of shifting emotions and interests, this is one woman's 2008.
Tracey Snelling's artistic vision is fueled by images of urban streets, most notably as they appear in American genre films of the 1940s and50s. Her multimedia sculptures channel the romance of low rent noirs, tales set in worn out motels and on rain-slicked streets or dry westernsettings where someone's on the lam. The narratives may be 20th century, but they emerge from an older spirit of the frontier and manifestdestiny, in which the quest to move forward is embodied by lone wolves and outcasts. They are characters who forge their own realities inlandscapes just outside a sheriff's jurisdiction. These places may evolve over time, but even Snelling's updated urban settings happily maintainan outsider dignity.
Hers are fictional sites inspired by actual ones. Movies, after all, are filmed in real places, on constructed sets or in spiffed-up, art-directedreal life locations. It seems to rain a whole lot more in film noir Los Angeles than the authentically arid City of Angels, yet there's something sotruthful about the psychological atmosphere of those wet streets. In this sense, Snelling's art is emphatically about place, however invented itmay be.
Moving her focus East is an exciting development as China is the kind of wide-open frontier that the American West once was. China isbuffeted by accelerated change and with that comes the tension between hope for the future and loss of the past.With the support of the Galerie Urs Meile Caochangdi residency, Snelling has been able to live in and respond directly to contemporaryChinese culture, and to sites and conditions rooted less in media than in the artist's own experience of them. Unlike her previous work, thisseries, Where Mr. Wong Sent Me, was made in close proximity to the subjects depicted, and to where the work makes its premiere galleryappearance. This provides an opportunity for Snelling to expand her practice and engage more explicitly documentary elements, such asvideo and photography. Being in China has opened up narrative possibilities, some particular to the location. The Mr. Wong in the show's title,for example, refers to a Hong Kong fortuneteller to the stars (and political kingpins), a public figure she learned of here, and one that quicklyconjures up colorful tales of true and false predictions.
It's difficult for anyone not to be fascinated by China's rapid growth and economic shift. Snelling describes Chonqing as "a crazy mix ofskyscrapers, old falling down villages, and new buildings." There is plenty of inspiration in this collision, and she is most specifically drawn tothe stuff that's being left in the rubble. She trains her eye on outmoded ramshackle architecture, street markets, coal-burning stoves, massageparlors, all in neighborhoods where a public bathhouse compensates for a lack of indoor plumbing. These places are rapidly being eradicatedin the name of progress, even if sometimes the wrecking ball might take with it a colorful, fragrant sense of history.
She's created a sculptural slice of the old Caochangdi Cun village, where the gallery compound and residency is located, as if to preserve thesite as she sees it. In the process, she also saves it for the rest of us. Scale is fluid. Her work emulates model train set villages or movieprops of towns that might be blown up for a pivotal scene. Viewed through the camera eye you might be convinced that the place actually didget the dynamite treatment. In a gallery, however, we can have direct interaction with objects. Snelling shrinks things down, but also approaches them on their own terms, at life size. Her Caochangdi includes small buildings, along with a full scale, wire-tangled telephone poleand an enterable edifice that contains a cramped room with a cot to rest on and a past its prime TV set. Confining yet cozy, the space alludesto the precarious refuge these old buildings become as neighborhoods change visually and economically. The contrast of the reduced-scaleversions echoes the idea by making the architectural elements of the city seem like easily manipulated toys.
Snelling's work shares this interest in narrative model making with American makers such as Michael McMillen and Michael Ashkin, as well ascontemporary Chinese artists Zhou Xiaohu and Chen Shaoxiong, all of whom use a toy-like vernacular (as well as video and photography) tocomment upon urban shift. Each of them engage this deceptively playful arena to seduce viewers to ponder more troubling concerns.
In Snelling's case, one of those is the cultural gap between east and west. With a series of photographs she depicts the glitter and bustle ofurban China, along with gritty yet visually textured scenes from the Yangshuo market, which includes stalls selling dog meat. The latterimages may appear grisly to pet-owning viewers from the U.S., yet are they really so different than a French Impressionist painting of abutcher shop?
Discussing her sense of China, Snelling points to hearty indigenous wit and proverbial inclinations. In a piece composed of blinking neonsigns, she uses Chinese characters that roughly translate to English as "to hit a dog with a meat-bun." From a Western perspective, it'stempting to read this as an allusion to America's favorite baseball stadium snack-the hot dog. But Snelling is more intrigued by the variety ofinterpretations attached to the saying, not the least of which is that "the dog will not be driven off, but will enjoy the meat bun instead." Whichmight be to say that the artist has encountered a number of marvelous, unexpected visions during her visits to all the places Mr. Wong senther.
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