'My Generation: Young Chinese Artists' at OCMA

If “My Generation: Young Chinese Artists” at Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA) is any indication, Chinese artists are an angry bunch. Post-Mao and his disastrous Cultural Revolution, they've been part of the country's one-child policy; blossomed in a rapidly growing economy (until this past summer's market crash changed things); witnessed a mass movement from country to city with its resultant overpopulation, pollution and splintering of families; and had to deal with mixed signals from a government that supports contemporary art but censors and jails dissident artists.

Jeff Widener's famous Tank Man photo comes to mind while looking at Chi Peng's Sprinting Forward No. 4, featuring the artist's lone nude figure standing on the steps of an oppressive glass building. We see no one else, but we can feel the hundreds of eyes looking down at him from behind the safety of the mirrored glass. Buildings and red flags to his rear are reflected in its façade—even though he isn't—with some of the flags transforming into red airplanes, though it's unclear whether they're bombers or passenger jets. Ma Qiusha's video From No. 4 Pingyuanli to No. 4 Tianqiaobeili is another veiled reference to censorship: Talking about art and an oppressive mother, blood begins to pinken her teeth until she reaches into her mouth and pulls out a razor blade. The most aggressive of the pieces is Zhao Zhao's mirror filled with bullet holes, Constellation No. 4. It's a disconcerting image, again referencing the 1989 massacre of democratic protesters in Tiananmen Square, the fractured glass reflecting the viewer in its charged undercurrent of violence.

While much of the exhibition's video quickly wears out its welcome (Double Fly Save the World, despite its frathouse politics) or needs a less obvious point and pretentious title (Disruptive Desires, Tranquility and the Loss of Lucidity), there are three worth sitting through: Liu Chuang's anarchist backhand against conformity, Untitled (The Dancing Partner), has two white sedans driving the speed limit in tandem with each other, releasing a hilarious barrage of horn-honking fury. Sun Xun's surreal animation, The Time Vivarium, is crudely drawn in a way that almost makes you want to walk away from it midstream, but its multichannel delivery is so bright, odd and original in its ugliness you can't help but watch. Openly gay artist Yan Xing's Arty, Super-Arty recalls Warhol's subversively tedious video work, his male ensemble enacting gay-cruising rituals in carefully lit, silent, black-and-white tableaux.

The crushing number of people leaving the country for the city is responsible for some of the most compelling work: Chen Wei's exceptional That Door Is Often Kept Closed, Some Dust and Blue Ink are carefully curated and photographed installations that are some of the finest representations of depression, decay and bureaucracy I can think of: an overflowing toilet of a room, the sole way out an illuminated blue door, probably locked; a slumped pile of clothes in a chair, still bearing the figure of the body that wore them, slowly being buried under a pile of dirt; a workspace in a sewer, complete with desk, lamp and chair, partially submerged by a flood of ink. Sunlight shines from a manhole above, but clothing floating in the ink suggests the worker didn't make it out alive.

Liang Yuanwei's oil-on-canvas Piece of Life 1 and Diptych Painting 2010-2 (left) are made to resemble fabric and, from a distance, actually do look like tapestry or fine wallpaper. From a few steps back, you can even see the shine of silk, but step up, and the drab colors and monotonous detail immediately bring to mind the sweatshops Liang references. I thought Hu Xiaoyuan's Wood Pair was just a couple of white-washed planks until I saw the trompe l'oeil illusion: The artist had painstakingly inked every knot and wood grain on silk cloth. Liu Di's manipulated photography has dinosaur-sized deer, rabbits and monkeys surrounded by urban sprawl. Nature being isolated in its former home works as a potential read, but when a picture offers us the ass end of a panda, I'm inclined to think we're also looking at an oppressive government turning its back on its people.

None of what's displayed is immediately easy to read, all of it requiring thought; the friend I brought with me had so much to say, argue about and look at while we were there that a docent had to interrupt us to tell us the museum had closed. We'd lost track of time; I don't remember the last time that happened. Kudos to curator Barbara Pollack for amassing a consistently high-quality group of artists, all exceedingly brave for confronting their government, struggling with its issues in such a meaningful way, and asking the questions that need to be asked. It made me wish there were more artists like this in the United States—or, at the very least, American art like this being shown locally.

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