tseng kwong chi

If I were in NYC I'd be at Paul Kasmin Gallery tonight when the resurrection of the late, great photographer Tseng Kwong Chi begins! (If you have PAPER's March issue laying around read my L.A. Woman column for the inside scoop!) Kwong was a dear friend of mine during the glory days of Downtown NYC and we shared a lot of laughs (and tears) from 1979 until his untimely death from AIDS in 1990. According to the gallery's press release, the show will be "a comprehensive survey of Tseng’s pioneering series of self-portraits featuring 100 large-scale, black-and-white photographs, some of which will be on view for the first time."

Kwong Chi had a magnificent eye and an equally magnificent sense of humor. Dressed in a vintage Communist Mao suit he would insinuate himself into iconic American (and worldwide) landscapes creating arresting tableaux that are simultaneously ironic and beautiful. Check 'em out! (And try to make the opening which I'm told will be a scene reminiscent of the good ole daze. I'm so bummed I can't be there! But I'll just commune with Kwong's delightful spirit here on the left coast, somewhere under the Hollywood sign!) FYI to those of you across the pond: the show will also be in London from April 15-May 31 at Ben Brown Fine Arts!

More about the show (which runs until May 3) from the Paul Kasmin Gallery:

The son of exiled Chinese nationalists, Tseng Kwong Chi was part of an intimate circle of artists, Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, and Cindy Sherman among them, who took the center stage of the New York art world during the nineteen-eighties. As a Hong-Kong born, Paris-trained artist, Tseng viewed himself as a citizen of the world and eschewed labeling himself or his art as “Chinese.” However, his ironic self-portraits posed in a Mao suit in front of American landmarks found their way to Communist China and were profoundly influential for China’s avant-garde, including conceptual artists Song Dong and Zhang Huan, who were exposed to Tseng’s images through western magazines smuggled into the country in the 1980’s.

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Tseng’s photographs not only satirized relations between the United States and its emerging rival, China, but also broadcasted his freedom of movement - a privilege denied most Chinese artists at the time.

Tseng originally conceived the idea for the series shortly after Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972. Responding to the unfulfilled promise of greater openness between the two nations, Tseng dressed in a Mao suit he bought in a thrift shop and donned reflective sunglasses to become an ‘ambiguous ambassador.’ Cast in his new persona, Tseng inserted himself into the American landscape, touring the nation’s most popular travel destinations, from California’s Disneyland to Washington, DC’s Lincoln Memorial.

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Alternating between a rigid vertical stance and relaxed, activated poses, Tseng related his body to the surrounding environs and created an artistic dialogue, one that pitted the architectonic tailoring of the Mao suit and the chiseled, yet anonymous, features of the Chinese face against the architectural iconography of the American landscape. The photographs both parody and indulge in the genuinely American appetite for imitation and kitsch and presage critical interest in architecture as an art object as well as appropriationist concerns with imitation and authenticity. Many of the photographs resemble and playfully parody the typical souvenir snapshot. But for each composition, Tseng combined light, location, and even the stray tourist to produce dramatic, crystalline, silver-gelatin prints.

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As Tseng continued to follow his expeditionary impulses, the series expanded to include photographs of Tseng with iconic figures, such as Mickey Mouse, as well as at tourist destinations in more distant places in Europe, South America, and Asia. As he began to explore the American and Canadian West in great detail, in the tradition of the Hudson River School of painting and the landscapes of Ansel Adams, his photographs reveal a growing interest in the sublime. Thematically, the series shifted; from playful satire to a more spiritualized, interior vision of North America. These developments brought Tseng psychologically and artistically closer to his Chinese heritage. Lake Ninevah, Vermont, a pivotal work, depicts Tseng floating alone in a small boat on a misty lake.

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The profoundly contemplative mood and subtle tones clearly reflect his reconnection to his earliest artistic experiences as a child prodigy in Chinese brush-and-ink technique. Tseng continued to wear his Mao suit to maintain consistency; nevertheless, the series began to take on a life of its own. As Tseng embedded himself more deeply into the evocative topography, the photographs express Tseng’s individuality and, ultimately, his isolation. Renowned curator Dan Cameron’s elegiac observations of Tseng’s oeuvre capture the artist’s magnificent accomplishments. Cameron writes, “Tseng Kwong Chi neither entered the world nor left the world by himself, but the photographs he made while he was amongst us remain a powerful embodiment of the philosophical paradox within the designation of the self as a lone individual in the midst of an increasingly crowded, public world.”

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With growing global interest in Chinese contemporary art and China poised to dominate the world’s attention with the advent of the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing, the photographs of this Chinese artist who never set foot in his family’s native land, seem more incisive and prescient today than ever before.

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