Re-Defining Chinese Art

On Wednesday October 12, Jerome Silbergelb, a visiting professor from Prince University’s Art Department, gave a lecture entitled “Curatorial Study: Bull Marketry and the Defining of Contemporary Chinese Art,” as a part of the Eric J. Ryan Lecture series.

Professor Silbergelb began the lecture by emphasizing the currently “trendy” nature of contemporary Chinese Art, which has, in the last few years, begun attracting the attention of many curators seeking sound investments. Although most American interest (and spending) has centered heavily on the more avant-garde practitioners of Chinese Art, Professor Silbergelb shifted the focus of his lecture to five recent exhibitions, two taking place at Harvard University, one in Seattle, one in the New Britain Museum and one that has yet to take place at Princeton University. All have chosen to testify to the diversity of Chinese Art rather than catering to recent tastes.

“Most exhibitions over the past 15 years have focused on the ‘new order’ of things,” said Silbergelb.

These five exhibitions have chosen instead to display works distinguished by their range, oftentimes at the risk of confusing both critics and the audience through their intentional lack of focus. Indeed, from what Silbergelb showed of the artwork on display at these exhibitions, many of them seem to stray too close to traditionalism to be considered exciting or relevant by today’s viewers. An example of this observation is the work of Arnold Chang, a Chinese American artist whose landscapes are of an intensely traditional nature, with modern variations that only the most trained of eyes could detect.

“Avant-garde is exciting,” said Silbergelb, “but it’s only a part of what’s going on.”

Silbergelb then went on to discuss what is perhaps the most confusing of the questions raised by these exhibitions, which has to do with what exactly is required for an artist or artwork to be considered Chinese.

“These exhibitions have given rise to the notion that the concept of ‘Chineseness’ has possibly become too geographically latent to be considered useful,” Silbergelb stated.

Silbergelb then presented a number of examples of the exhibitions’ artwork that most obviously challenge the label. One of these was a piece entitled “Altered States” by artist Zhang Huan. Though Huan designed the image himself, the photograph was actually taken by an American, and was developed and modified in the U.S. Perhaps the most puzzling example that Silbergelb presented was artist Michael Cherney, otherwise known as Qui Mai. Cherney is an American, born in Brooklyn, New York and has no Chinese ancestry. The nature of his art reflects deeply traditional Chinese roots, however, allowing his work to be included in these exhibitions.

“These days anyone that wants to become a Chinese artist can become one,” Silbergelb said. “It can be negotiated.”

Eric J. Ryan, the man for whom the lecture series was named, was an artist, adventurer and Colgate professor who died at the age of 40 in 1971.