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Asian exhibits show art rising up from oppression (April 27, 2003)

Displays feature Cambodian and Chinese works

By Cate McQuaid, Globe Correspondent, 4/13/2003

Artists bear witness to and try to make sense of the world's horrors. Sometimes it's their only way to survive. Often, their art clears a path for the rest of us to understanding and healing. The Brush Art Gallery in Lowell and the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University have shows up that feature works made after two of the worst acts of oppression in Asia in the last 50 years: the Cultural Revolution in China from 1966 to 1976 and the genocide of more than a million Cambodians perpetrated by the dictator Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979.

To this day in Cambodia and China, artists are discouraged from expressing overt criticism of their governments. Works in these shows are not necessarily political: They also celebrate cultural traditions that were suppressed by dictators.

""Emerging Voices/Healing Souls"" at the Brush, curated by E. Linda Poras, offers an understandably raw vision of the slaughter of a people. Many of the artists in the show have left Cambodia for the United States and Canada, where they're freer to speak their truths. It's a more political exhibition than the Art Institute's ""Realized in Wood."" Sometimes the art suffers because of the intense, polarizing emotions it expresses. It's harrowing and full of rage and despair - natural to depict in the juicy medium of paint, in which many of the artists in this show work.

Many of the artists in ""Emerging Voices/Healing Souls"" were refugees; some were imprisoned or orphaned as a result of actions taken by the Khmer Rouge.

Yari Livan's painting ""Nobody Can Destroy You But You"" is a searing panorama of images: An amputee pushes away a needy child; a soldier feeds a dog; statues tumble to the ground. A single eye winking from a map of Cambodia sheds a tear; to one side, freedom in the form of a red, white, and blue emblazoned hand opens to receive a Cambodian baby. Chanthou Oeur's limestone sculpture ""Innocent Prisoner II"" depicts a huddling figure with shackled ankles and an empty plate. The even more desolate ""Dark Legs of Dark Land,"" a painting by Chanthou, shows rows of feet and legs glowing from the shadows, all bound to a metal pole.

Chath pier Sath paints similar images, although they lack the grace of the older and better-trained Chanthou. Chath covers boards with dark faces, their white eyes flashing out of the shadows, full of fear and desolation. Khem Chantha's ""Economic Government,"" a painting of a government Land Cruiser whizzing by a homeless family, was ordered destroyed by the Cambodian government. When Khem immigrated to Canada, he made this copy of the original painting. All of the aforementioned artists now reside in North America.

Then there are those who still live in Cambodia. Leng Sekong's collages examine the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. One is built over the silhouette of a helmet, which is plastered with handwritten text and black-and-white photos of refugees. This is the most contemporary work in the show, and it's more sophisticated than simple narrative painting.

""Emerging Voices/Healing Souls"" also offers up many more traditional paintings, like those of Duong Saree, who teaches at the Cambodian Royal University of Fine Arts. Her watercolor scenes of everyday life evoke the minutiae of a morning in rural village. Vann Nath, one of only seven survivors of the nearly 20,000 Cambodians confined in Tuol Sleng Prison, here shows picture-postcard oil paintings of men fishing. He has also painted images of his experience at Tuol Sleng, which has since been turned into a museum. They hang there. In this show, the fishermen are a poor substitute.

""Emerging Voices"" turns out to be an odd mix of traditional work with passionate declarations about the Khmer Rouge, with the occasional saccharine painting of a sunrise thrown in.

Artistry is the message

""Realized in Wood: Contemporary Prints From China"" features many works, like Li Yanpeng's masterful landscapes, that have no political slant at all. The show celebrates artists with exquisite technique, all from Hebei Province. Curator Renee Covalucci puts the focus on their artistry, and when we glimpse their politics in their prints, it's an added level of meaning.

""It never was `Chinese' to make art about government failure or in protest,"" Covalucci says. ""This is a Western concept.""

Covalucci built ""Realized in Wood"" around the work of the patriarch of woodblock printmakers in Hebei Province, Dong Jiangsheng. Dong was exiled to a rural labor camp in 1957, when he made a remark about Russian bicycles that didn't sit well with government officials. He wasn't free to return home until 1974.

Dong, a social realist, has early works here that include a poster he made in 1965, assigned by a local newspaper, to demonstrate China's support of the North Vietnamese in the war with the United States. The poster, of burly Chinese coal miners, looks straight out of a World War II-era recruiting drive. Since then, Dong has studied art formally, and he developed a distinct vision, packed with allegory and metaphor. ""The Great Wall"" portrays that structure with an almost M. C. Escher-style labyrinthine complexity. During the Cultural Revolution, the wall both protected and isolated the Chinese from the rest of the world; Dong imbues it with majesty, but also with threat. Flightless black birds perch on a parapet, not entirely unhappy, but nonetheless trapped.

From a distance, Li Yanpeng's woodblock prints look like color landscape photographs. He carves his large blocks, three feet across, with needle-thin lines to achieve the clarity of a photo. ""Slope Covered With Goats"" shows a rocky hill with light and shadow playing over its many outcroppings and goats grazing along its precipices.

Teng Yufeng starts with photographs and creates equally large and photorealistic woodblock prints portraying the people of Hebei Province in black and white. ""The Old Couple"" depicts a childless couple in front of their home, which is built into a cave. They're weathered. He smokes a pipe; she wears a scarf. They're on their way to tend their farm, which they would no longer have to do if they had offspring.

The most provocative artist of the group, Zhang Minjie, flirts with criticizing Chinese militarism, but he does it in such a playful and sophisticated way, it feels as if he's having a good laugh rather than starting an argument. Zhang draws the trajectory of human movement - leaps, dances, falls - and shows the same repeated figures moving along that trajectory. With many of these in one print, it's like watching an acrobatic troupe.

""Extending Line"" sets a black line whipsawing over the picture plane. Featureless men and women hang on. Four women in the center parade with grace and pride. But as the rope spirals outward, people lose their grip and fly off, or they hold on for dear life. It's a clever depiction of the balance between order and chaos.

""Games I"" puts forth a similar dance, but this time a military helicopter, armed with machine guns, sits at the center, and robotic men sit inside. Some figures prance around it and play on the wings. Others look crushed beneath it. The message might be a biting indictment of the Chinese military, or it might be an invitation to play. That ambiguity makes it a rich, enticing print.

""Realized in Wood"" is a more succinct exhibition than ""Emerging Voices/Healing Souls,"" and purely in terms of technical artistry, the Art Institute show outstrips the one at the Brush Art Gallery. But the passion and rage in ""Emerging Voices/Healing Souls"" give it a vision and a voice that can't be ignored.


At: The Art Institute of Boston at Lesley University, 700 Beacon St., through April 21. 617-585-6676. www.aiboston.edu.


At: The Brush Art Gallery, 256 Market St., Lowell, through May 2. 978-459-7819. www.go.boston.com/brushartgallery.

from the Boston Globe Newspaper Company


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