Rebel Without A Cause — Preview from Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Sale At Heritage Auctions

Maybe our article “Won’t You Try Saturday” reached the management of the auction houses, now Heritage Auctions is offering previews on Saturday (at least for the current Signature Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Fine Art sale).

There’s no lack of weekend previews in New York city. Auction houses draw large crowd from collectors who may not have time during the week. But the strong presence of interior design trade seems to have made weekend preview peripheral in Texas. But we were told that Heritage is going to add more weekend previews in the future.

Not many were in the Slocum Street show room for the Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Sale At Heritage Auctions (June 9) when we were there. But all seemed to be younger collectors, a contrast to the boomers and beyond at the recent Art of American West sale.

Drawing by Shen Liang

From the photography displayed in the front area (this auction is Vintage and Contemporary Photography, June 9), passing the corridor where some impressionism paintings were hung, I immediately noticed the mood change in the room where the modern and contemporary works are displayed: bright, graphic and most of all gigantic in scale. David Hockney’s The Giant Buddha”, a photo collage, is 5 feet tall and equally wide. Even though the color is tinted and the assembly was oddly manipulated, the Buddha in the image still commands respects and somehow separates and elevated himself from the rest of the chaos (including perhaps a glimpse of one shoe of the artist).   On the other hand, Edward Ruscha’s “Golden Words” would have been mistakenly as a modern version of Mather poster with cute slogans if it were in the Swann Gallery.

A large portion of the sale features Chinese contemporary art, whose market, after the astonishing booming years, has softened recently. Unlike the Chinese antiques, the market of which was mostly driven by the growing number of wealthy Chinese in search of national heritage and pride around the globe; Chinese contemporary art first found the echos across the continent and thus more or less reflects a western-tailored style. The ideological baffle, social strife and anti-governmental themes were a consequence of not only what artists are capable of, but also what the market is looking for.

Three works are now offered in the sale by the artist Shen Liang, who is about the same age as I. In other words, he was born right after the Cultural Revolution. The official-approved art style which featured heroic men and sweet yet sturdy women at work was still dominant through my childhood, perhaps also taught in art institutes. Yet legacy words or slogans were carefully removed, thus it would required post-cultural-revolution generations some efforts to study the iconographic images during the Cultural Revolution.

Lot 72216 seems to be a typical pencil and charcoal drawing after some poster or art textbook sample from the Cultural Revolution, as indicated from the subtitle at the bottom of the drawing – Part of “Building our communism loyalty through hardship.” The young boy looks optimistic and healthy, yet on the right side of the paper, there are some graffiti-like writings in pen and ink. One is an poem written in a strict ancient style (“bu suan zi”), yet it described a young prostitute who slept over until morning,  and received a customer at dusk. After giving full service and sending the customer off, she found out that the cash were fake. “Fuck, I gave him free service”, the poem ended in the first-hand narration.

Girl with Pet, Wei Dong

It was totally unimaginable for such writings to appear in any official images during the Cultural Revolution, yet it found its echo in ordinary Chinese when fake money is so rampant that everyone has similar experience. Geo commented the artist may have intended the story to be a commentary on communism. For me, such expressive and aggressive wasy to destroy and transfigure the meaning and the value of the original  image, is at the best kitsch, at worst conveys a lack of creative resources. But what strikes me most is that here it was in Texas, where, as Gertrude Stein said, there are more space where nobody is than there anybody is and that is what makes America what it is. Would the original collector, if not of Chinese origin, know the existence of defacing graffiti as the denial and joking of the values of academic training, an essence of Chinese contemporary art? Perhaps the real punch line, of this particular work of art, is that whoever the final western collector is that wins the painting, without the ability of reading Chinese, he (or she) will be the punch line in a long series of jokes.

Wei Dong’s “Girl with Pet” is a disturbing image that different persons can read out different meanings. The background wall and a hanging scroll has a Vermeer-istic tranquility. However, the pantless girl, bathed in full light with a tag saying “bride” from her blue shirt, is combing a guinea pig on her bed. For me, it symbolizes with what is going on with Chinese contemporary art. It is an eccentric assembly of pro and anti-Chinese heritage, western influence, social and personal instability and the compulsive craving to be singular. It finds its way to commercialism and financial success by hearing what the market says; yet it is impotent to find its own voice, like that neutal-looking girl squinting her eyes from the audience, lost in nowhere.

Below is the original poem in Chinese mentioned in this post. The author information has not been found yet.

清晨睡懒觉, 暮色嫖客到。已是全裸肤如雪,犹有双乳俏。呻吟带欢笑,魂迷臀自翘。待到深夜客去时,她在数钞票。操!假钞!白挨一炮!

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 – 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that “his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.


Leave a Reply