Frost art exhibit explores Big Macs and Mao

A new exhibit at the Frost Art Museum crams Chairman Mao's Little Red Book through the shredder.

In fact the gang of 12 Chinese artists whose works are on view in "East/West: Visually Speaking" traffic with the currency of American pop culture and runaway globalization in a way that probably has the ghosts of Mao's vicious wife Jiang Qing and the Maoist radicals known as the Gang of Four turning cartwheels in their coffins.


Eastern and Western art

"East/West: Visually Speaking": Through September 11 at the Frost Art Museum, 10975 SW 17th St., Miami; 305-348-2890; thefrost.fiu.edu. Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. "Art Formulations": Through June 11 at Platform Gallery, 2320 N. Miami Ave., Miami; 305-542-9470; jgplatform.com. Wednesday through Saturday 1 to 5 p.m.

The traveling group show features works by a generation of artists who were born or came of age during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and have experienced an alternate vision of Mao's blueprint for China's great leap forward.

Seamlessly curated by Dr. Lee Gray, the sprawling exhibit includes close to 40 contemporary works by Cai Lei, Cang Xin, the Luo Brothers, Ma Baozhong, Shen Jingdong, Shi Liang, Sun Ping, Tang Zhigang, Zhang Hongtu, and Zhong Biao.

Caught between the dense weight of history and tradition, this generation is the first in many years to come into widespread contact with the West and live through sweeping changes in Chinese culture.

Consequently the artists on view have filtered the lexicon of American and European visual arts and represent a more democratic and multifaceted view of the real and imagined swaps underway between the world's two biggest superpowers.

While some of the works reflect an adoring view of the West, others parody our values.

The loss of innocence in the face of rampant capitalism seems to be the subject of Can Xin's sensational image of a fetus with McDonald's famous golden arches sprouting from its head.

Beautifully rendered in charcoal and standing a whopping seven by ten feet, the haunting closeup of the baby seems to address the demise of traditional spiritual values in a growing world of materialism.

Equally arresting is Shi Liang's quartet of large oil-on-canvas paintings, titled Human Confusion 1 Through 4, depicting a man sitting in a chair in an empty room. The anonymous figure is trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey and unable to reach the books scattered at his feet like stacks of kindling.

As one glances from image to image, the psychological tension ratchets up. It is obvious the bound man is aware of the viewer but is as helpless to extricate himself from his dilemma as the spectator is to free him. One is left wondering if the books at his feet are banned and the man is being punished for reading them. In one of the images, he stares hopelessly at his feet, while in another his face is frozen in a primal scream of frustration. Liang's paintings are as quixotic as they are jarring.

Among the more unusual and attention-grabbing works on display are by Sun Ping, who hijacks classical sculpture and reinterprets agonized figures as acupuncture dummies. As if skewering the West's fascination with alternative medicine, Ping re-creates Michelangelo's Dying Slave and a fragment of the iconic Laocoön from Greek antiquity, using painted copper instead of marble and then poking them full of needles until they bristle like porcupines. Greek legend had it that Laocoön, a Trojan priest, warned his countrymen not to accept the wooden horse given to them by the Greeks, so Poseidon sent two sea serpents to kill him in retaliation.

And not unlike the two classical statues symbolizing the soul's struggle for freedom, Ping's works also appear to be riffing on the temptation to sacrifice Eastern ideals for Western values. For Ping, the needles represent both healing and torture, as well as a way of warning his compatriots of invading forces while also attempting to heal adversaries.

But when it comes to delivering corporate America a smack in the snoot, it's the Luo Brothers who pull the fewest punches.

These guys employ images of hamburgers, fries, Coca-Cola cans, and even Pizza Hut boxes in their image bank to communicate capitalist gluttony and Asia's addled consumption of Western culture.

Their sculptures, embroidery pieces, and paintings are redolent of the kitschy knickknacks stereotypically found decorating your neighborhood Chinese restaurant. Their series of works on display were created from 2001 to 2008 and are collectively titled Welcome the Famous Brands to China. Some of the pieces depict celestial babies springing from lotuses while carrying Big Macs or riding the back of a dragon while holding a bottle of Pepsi and a Whopper.

Don't miss the painting of a horned Chairman Mao haloed by a Pizza Hut Meat Lover's pie as a team of wild, unbridled stallions gallops above him under the vault of Heaven. Or how about yet another opus that features the portrait of a leering Sly Stallone appearing alongside one of Red China's sober commies?

The trio's work is jaw-dropping — like experiencing a notion of capitalism as theorized by the Marx Brothers rather than Karl — and alone merits a visit to the museum.

But hey, that's what you get after going batty from seeing the mugs of Colonel Sanders and Ronald McDonald suddenly given equal billing with Mao's sour puss all over Tiananmen Square.

At Wynwood's Platform Gallery, "Art Formulations" represents the type of contemporary Western talent, some locally based, that dealer and curator Aldo Castillo hopes to export to China this coming fall.

Castillo, who recently relocated here after operating an eponymous gallery in Chicago for two decades, has been named executive director of the inaugural edition of the American Pavilion for the 15th annual Shanghai Art Fair, opening this September.

Since moving to South Florida a few months ago, Castillo founded Art in Alternative Spaces Miami, a nomadic project of contemporary art exhibits he plans to organize at various venues across town.

The group show at Platform is his first local project and offers a bit of everything — from paintings, sculptures, glass, and ceramics to videos, installations, and conceptual art.

Miami's Daniel Fiorda is one of the local artists he has invited to the Shanghai fair. The Argentine sculptor, known for employing industrial detritus and technological artifacts in his work, is displaying one of his red painted microcosmic pieces that appears compacted by an unseen, crushing force and is as spindly as a sea urchin.

Also on view is a gem-like collage of a young girl by Chicago's Lorna Marsh. In it, the waif wears a tiara and a smock covered with buzzing flies.

And the Windy City's Scott Ashley portrays Saint Sebastian as a mirrored disco ball pierced by arrows, referencing the early Christian martyr.

"Miami has such a rich and diverse arts community," Castillo says. "This is a great way for me to become better acquainted with local culture and discover local talent and galleries to showcase in China this coming fall."

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