The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is in the grip of full-on Fridamania when I first pay a visit to "Half-Life of a Dream: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Logan Collection." Nonetheless, Yue Minjun’s terracotta warriors attract photo-ops: a little girl poses next to a solitary Yue sculpture with his hands behind his neck, while five other Yue statues (each a life-size body barefoot in white T-shirt and blue jeans with an enormous head: eyes closed, mouth frozen in anxious "smile") stand in formation near the exhibition’s threshold.
A single Yue also welcomes visitors to the quieter, more expansive "Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection" at the Berkeley Art Museum, where 25 more Yue statues (from the 2000 installation 2000 A.D.) and numerous oil-on-canvas renderings of Yue including a chain of 13-or-so Yues looking down on everyone await inside. A decision to use this icon of cynical realism as a host of sorts unites the SFMOMA and BAM shows, which also feature a number of the same artists: Bird’s Nest Stadium designer and provocateur Ai Weiwei; satirical painter Yu Youhan; gay gazer Zeng Fanzhi; repetitious self-portrait specialist (like Yue) Fang Lijun; disturbing dreamer Yang Shaobin; chilly portraitist Zhang Xiaogang; candid snapper Liu Xiaodong; mordant physical observer and landscape artist Liu Wei; Tiananmen Square lookout Yin Zhaoyang; and Li Songsong, who coats memory in cake icing.
A collection of work dating from 1988 to 2008 by 25 artists, "Half-Life of a Dream" is less expansive than "Mahjong," which draws from Uli Sigg’s world’s-largest collection of contemporary Chinese art and dates back to the late stages of the Cultural Revolution. Its conceit is also more specific and restrictive: digging beneath the Beijing Olympics slogan "One World, One Dream," the SFMOMA exhibition taps into the myriad dream facets or "masks, shadows, ghosts, reveries" (to quote from Jeff Kelley’s titular essay) that drift through pre- and especially post-Mao China.
This dream theme is clear and to the forefront in paintings such as Liu Xiaodong’s 2007 Xiaomei and Zhang Xiaogang’s 2005-6 Untitled, but it grows strained when applied to, say, Liu Dafang’s urban photorealism. At times, it obfuscates the layers of a work, as when the complex mother-daughter vision of Yu Hong’s 2006 She White Collar Worker is summarized with the quasifeminist remark that "women remain trapped in dreams of themselves." Regardless, "Half-Life" presents more than a few standout works: Gu Wenda’s hair-raising united nations babel of the millennium (1999) and Sheng Qi’s autobiographical political memorial My Left Hand (2001) are especially formidable. Its dream analysis fits most snugly and dramatically around one of the most recent pieces and the exhibition’s climax of sorts Sui Jianguo’s The Sleep of Reason. There, an eternally resting Mao is surrounded by multicolored masses of toy dinosaurs.
Here’s a Mao, there’s a Mao, everywhere’s a papa-oom-Mao-Mao in the relatively playful "Mahjong," where Sun Guoqi’s 1973 Chairman Mao with the New National Emblems greets viewers with false cheer at the first of five floors (leaving aside the lower levels and snaky hallways, where some of the most provocative work resides). This traditional view of Mao is quickly punctured by Yu Youhan’s hilarious 2005 Warhol pun Untitled (Mao/Marilyn), the young androgyne Mao of Li Shan’s 1995 RougeFlower, the Nintendo Mao of Feng Mengbo’s 1994 Taxi Taxi, the decaying Mao of the Gao brothers’ acerbically watchful 2000 An Installation on Tiananmen, the art connoisseur Mao of Shi Xinning’s 2000-01 Duchamp Retrospective Exhibition in China, and the flirtatious Mao of the same artist’s 2001 Dialogue, to name but a handful.
Strong currents of irreverence surge throughout "Mahjong," thanks to children of Mao and Coca-Cola such as the Luo brothers, whose vulgar, comedic keepsakes of fast-food capitalism enliven "Dialogue China Part II," a group show at Elins/Eagles-Smith Gallery. (Also at Elins/Eagles-Smith, Xing Danwen’s urban fiction dioramas bring the post-human romance of Tsai Ming-liang’s 1994 Vive L’<0x2009>Amour to mind.) The exhibition’s sub-strands of subject matter include militarization and the "little emperors" and troubled girls of China’s one-child policy.
While mahjong might not be the deepest or most revelatory thematic motif for an exhibition devoted to a nation, it more than suits both BAM’s multitiered or tiled space and the rich varieties of the Sigg collection. "Mahjong" doesn’t have to beg for repeat viewings the magnitude of the show and quirks of its arrangement demand it. In general, contemporary Chinese painters tend toward large-scale representation, perhaps most successfully when as with Zhou Tiehai’s looks at Joe Camel one gets the sense that the grand gesture itself is being mocked. But one of the exhibition’s best works is also its tiniest: Lu Hao’s A Grain of Sand (2003) is a 1/4-by-1/4-inch memorial to the individual, a figure perpetually under assault whether by communism or hypercapitalism.
DIALOGUE CHINA PART II
Through Sept. 30
49 Geary, Suite 520, SF
HALF-LIFE OF A DREAM: CONTEMPORARY CHINESE ART FROM THE LOGAN COLLECTION
Through Oct. 5
San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
151 Third St., SF
MAHJONG: CONTEMPORARY CHINESE ART FROM THE SIGG COLLECTION
Through Jan. 4, 2009
Berkeley Art Museum
2626 Bancroft, Berk.