At first look, the enormous black and white photograph appears to capture a snapshot of a dreamy yet natural landscape. Towering gray mountains stand in a thick layer of fog and harbor white, flowy waterfalls. A closer inspection reveals that this is no ordinary photograph, but a detailed work of immense skill and patience. Carefully and digitally layered city buildings make up the surface of the mountains, which are connected by thin, winding highways. Visually stunning, Yang Yongliang’s “Artificial Wonderland #1” alludes to the accomplishments and problems of contemporary urban China.
The photo collage is one of 57 works in the Asian Art Museum’s latest exhibit, “First Look.” The collection showcases thematic highlights from the museum’s contemporary art acquisitions over the past 15 years. “First Look” is conceptually and aesthetically elegant, exploring how contemporary art comes from a lineage of Asian histories and traditions. The pieces exist at the intersection of abstraction and reality, and they explore humanity’s relationship with the material world and nature.
The exhibition suggests that abstract art is not necessarily rooted in lofty ideals. Instead, abstraction can emerge from sensual guidance. In that way, artists can emotionally reconnect with the materiality of art. Blending Chinese paint traditions with Western abstraction, renowned ink artist Zheng Chongbin is hinged by no canon, describing his works as having “the style of no style.”
In “Ended Season,” Zheng emphasizes the physicality of art. In the painting, black ink splashes, streaks and lines in varying intensities create three tarnished square panels. To the left of the squares, a cluster of deep, gray creases dig into the white canvas. The overall image is emotionally immediate rather than cohesive, conveying both calmness and chaos.
“Untitled, No. 25” shares this raw, emotional charge. Yet, the photograph, taken by husband and wife RongRong and inri, harnesses a stronger sense of structure. In the black and white image, the couple turn their backs towards the viewer as they look outside a nearly blank window, framed by cascading white curtains. Strands of their long, black hair are intricately braided together. The braid skeleton resembles the curvature of a river and the branches like the veins of a leaves. The couple sits stiffly upright in a private room, wearing matching sleeveless white outfits. A small, framed photograph of inri stares back at the couple, as though to validate this moment.
What cannot be expressed in vibrant color is expressed through texture and light manipulation. RongRong and inri apply minimalistic technique skillfully. Each visual detail contributes to the conceptual complexity of the piece. What emerges is a sense of quiet intimacy in a busy world.
While many of its most eminent pieces are monochrome, “First Look” also holds vibrant and colorful works that explore similar themes. One of the boldest pieces in the exhibition is Chen Man’s photograph, “Long Live the Motherland, Shanghai No. 1.” The subject of the work is a pale woman in a scarlet cocktail dress. She salutes to a tall, bold Chinese flag. Besides the woman and the flag, the rest of the photograph is faint. The sky above her is a cool, gray canvas, and the skyscrapers behind her are almost ghostly.
For an image untouched by post-production technology, the piece is striking. Chen, known for her commercial works in Harper’s Bazaar, Elle and Vogue, puts modern Western aesthetics in conversation with Chinese tradition in the photograph. The saluting woman’s faded world is one shaped by globalization. Yet the essence of the photograph is neither Western capitalism nor technological progress. It is Chinese tradition, which is emphasized by red, a color associated with luck and joy in Chinese culture.
In terms of form alone, the pieces in “First Look” are breathtaking. As for content, the exhibition is thematically rich, sketching out timeless themes in contextualized settings. It is emotionally intense, urging viewers to engage with art not only with the mind, but also the heart. Indeed, the beautiful collection demands more than just a first look.
“First Look” is on view until October 11th.
Contact Stacey Nguyen at [email protected].