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With a market that's giving off more heat than Beijing's Tibetan crackdown, Sotheby's Hong Kong auction of contemporary Chinese art shattered expectations last Wednesday. A wild bidding spree sent sales soaring above $18 million.
Zhan Xiagang, whose canvases commanded under $50,000 just a few years ago, set a record at the sale for highest price ever paid for a work by a contemporary Chinese artist, topping a whopping $6 million for a 1995 painting.
The lesson is not lost on Coral Gables dealer Virginia Miller, who has organized back-to-back Chinese shows at her space since November.
"Under the Radar: Nine Chinese Artists Interpret the Figure," at ArtSpace/Virginia Miller Galleries, marks the U.S. debut for eight of the participants. Most are at the beginning of their careers, with scant exhibition histories. The artists include Liang Haopeng, Li Jia, Wang Limin, Liu Qi Ming, Zhu Yan, Liao Yibai, Liao Zhenwu, and He Zubin.
Most of the 22 works are oil on canvas in the $2,200 to $45,000 range. Astonishingly, Miller's local and international clientele have already snagged more than half the pieces on display.
Liao Yibai, the sole sculptor in the show, was born and raised in a top-secret chemical engineering plant that made missile propellants during the Cold War. His parents worked there. The family's address was Mailbox 5.
As a child, Yibai rarely left the factory grounds and often heard explosions while attending school. Teachers would comfort students by telling them they could grow up to become employees of the plant if they behaved.
Yibai creates intriguing stainless-steel sculptures bursting with mercurial appeal.
Calm Thinking depicts a globe-headed angel sitting in the lotus position with his hands clasped in prayer. His crown bristles with quicksilver raindrops that look like tadpoles or sperm. The stylized figure represents the Buddhist water festival, where people splash each other with water to offer blessings for the new year.
In another of his works, Shooting Star, Yibai burnishes the angel's dome to a mirror sheen that reflects the spectator's features. He cordons off the figure's feet with hammers, sickles, axes, wrenches, and other industrial tools hinting at the dismal conditions of his youth.
In fact many of the works exude an undeniable political veneer.
Li Jia's The Mind of the Rose #2 depicts a lollipop-headed dumpling clad in a skimpy red dress while swinging on a single red rose. The girl crosses her legs tightly to protect against prying thorns. Fat tears roll down her cheeks as her crush on socialism hits a dead end.
Across from it, Wang Limin adopts a less coy approach to his subjects in door-size portraits of fetching young women. He drapes them in Mao Zedong-style tunics bedecked with a huge red chrysanthemum bud.
Praise Series # 19 is reminiscent of the socialist realist style of the Cultural Revolution's cult of personality era. Limin exaggerates the woman's skin tones by rendering her in a jaundiced yellow and cloaking her in drab olive green.
Ciu Jin delivers a welcome emollient with Wait Behind and Wait Far, perhaps the most cryptic image in the show. In it, a woman appears cocooned in plastic wrap, her face obliterated by a red cowl. Scarlet lace gloves snake up to her elbows as she floats against a luminescent pearl background. Oddly, in a society where women long suffered from foot binding, the anonymous figure's tootsies are the only part of her body that remains free.
China's 12 Girls Band sweetens the air with the ancient sounds of zithers, dulcimers, and gourd flutes piped in through the gallery's speakers.
But disturbing the harmony is Liao Zhenwu's Times Tag #16, a sweeping portrayal of the drowning roar of traffic and choking smell of exhaust fumes. Devouring an entire wall, the 27-foot-wide oil-on-canvas triptych depicts an atmospheric vision of life in Szechuan, the gritty, mountainous region from which the artist hails.
Dozens of workers, peasants, and students appear on motorcycles in the densely textured monochrome work, rendered in bleached bone, tarry black, and ochre emulsions. A sooty gray sky conveys the city's pollution problem.
Another piece dealing with China's transportation problems is Liang Haopeng's Stolen Bicycle Person, brimming with a gutter-swept vitality all its own.
The large oil on canvas captures a group of five goons caught in the act of cannibalizing a bike for spare parts. Strange, mournful flickers of light and shadow pepper the piece, while limpid blue and crusty sallow hues mar the men's features. The cops have surprised the hoodlums, and they lash out with clenched fists, clawed fingers, and feral howls. Haopeng also rims the men in a red outline, heightening the menace of the scene.
Zhu Yan knocks the starch out of the Chinese Communist Party in his riotous I Love Tiananmen Square, displayed near the gallery's entrance. A pack of identical bobble-head party poobahs casts dour glances at the spectator while another one of the dolts clutches a tulip bouquet. Behind them the Bamboo Curtain opens onto the Forbidden City, where a picture of Mao graces an imposing wall. Fighter jets streak across the distant sky. There is nothing subtle about Yan's stab at the constipated mumbledicks controlling the regime.
Even though none of these artists are household names back home, let alone here, Miller would argue that until recently, neither was China's freshly minted $6-million man, Xiagang.
Most amazing is that the works of Yang Na, whom Miller exhibited in an earlier show, could have been had for $10,000 a pop. Since this past winter, her canvases have skyrocketed into the $50,000 range.
"I've wanted to do a Chinese exhibit for years," Miller says. "This is a growing market and one that's become globally important now."
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