No illusions, nostalgia in `Passports'

Art: Collages, sculpture evoke sense of global wandering of a Chinese artist whose work is shown at Towson University

Fine Arts

April 04, 2000|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Hai-Ou left China 12 years ago, and with her departure she gave up both an established career and a reputation as one of her country's most progressive young artists.

Much of the pain and ambivalence that marked that separation is evident in the artist's current exhibit, running through April 23 at the art gallery in the Union Building at Towson University.

Titled "Passports," about half the show consists of mural-size collages that bespeak lifetimes of global wandering. They have a brown patina of age and imagery drawn from various kinds of official documents, maps, passport stamps, ticket stubs and other travel memorabilia. The other half of the show consists of free-form ceramic sculptures whose surfaces are covered with the same sort of travel-related markings as the collages.

In some of the collages, the viewer can make out faces or parts of figures that seem like subliminal reminders of absent loved ones -- fossil traces of people whose presence abides in memory despite the separations imposed by time, distance and circumstance.

In 1987, Hai-Ou was teaching at Hubei Fine Art Institute in Wuhan, a city 700 miles southwest of Beijing. That year, she exhibited her work with a group of four other young artists in a show that challenged the tightly controlled socialist realist style approved by the government.

The group, which called itself "Black Friday," did not directly criticize the government. But by presenting abstract and experimental works along with works in the officially approved style, it implicitly championed the right of artists to create according to their own inspiration.

It was the first time since the revolution that Chinese artists had been permitted to display abstract or experimental art, and the show attracted widespread attention. Hai-Ou and her colleagues joined the vanguard of an explosion of new art movements at a time when China had only recently opened up to the West.

Soon after that show, the artist's personal situation changed dramatically. She fell in love with an American who taught English at the university, to the great displeasure of the authorities, who were more tolerant of artistic non-conformity than the social defiance an involvement with a foreigner implied. Soon after their marriage, the couple was forced to leave the country.

In the United States, Hai-Ou worked odd jobs -- first on an Alaskan shrimp boat, later as a waitress at Friendly's -- while struggling to learn English and re-establish her career as an artist in a new country.

Eventually, the couple settled in Crofton, where her husband started a home remodeling business and she set up a tiny studio in the basement of their home. For the past five years her work has been exhibited regularly in New York and the Baltimore-Washington area.

Although Hai-Ou's earlier paintings in this country hark back to the socialist-realist style of her years in China, the new pieces at Towson are sophisticated, conceptually engaging works that evoke a painful past without illusions or nostalgia -- perhaps the most compelling realist style of all.

The Union Art Gallery is located on the campus of Towson University in Towson. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. For information, call 410-830-2787.

Conventions of beauty

The gallery at Photo Works presents an exhibit by Monika Andersson, a Boston artist whose pictures explore society's fascination with beauty and beauty contests.

Andersson's show, titled "Pursuing Beauty," draws on work she has done in the last decade photographing high-school proms, beauty contests and drag queens.

What all three subjects have in common, the photographer suggests, are judgments about personal attractiveness and a set of rigidly defined conventions based on appearance.

The pictures also explore the peculiar disconnect between the way people think they look and the way they actually look to others.

The photographer Diane Arbus once called a photograph "a secret about a secret," by which she meant that a picture hides as much as it reveals. We take our cues as much from our sense of what isn't being shown as from what the subject wants us to see.

Andersson's subjects are full of the anxious self-consciousness of people caught between the need for extravagant display and a keen yearning for normalcy. They want to be both more and less than what they are. They want celebrity and love, even though they may already suspect one doesn't necessarily lead to the other.

I'm moved by the touching vulnerability of Andersson's subjects. By definition, most of them are going to be losers, since the rules of the game allow for only one winner. In the face of such bad odds, their stoic cheerfulness provokes my heartfelt admiration.

Andersson is a marvelous observer with a uncanny eye for gesture and the telling details of expression and costume. She's also a technical whiz: Her flash camera work looks so natural that the viewer has the impression of being in the same room as the subjects of her pictures.

Her pictures are also funny and sly without making fun of the people she photographs. This is an art that truly makes the familiar seem strange, and the ordinary seem extraordinary.

Photo Works is at 3531 Chestnut Ave. in Hampden. Hours are Monday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. For information, call 410-889-4600.

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