Imagine President Barack Obama visiting China and being “honored” by the gift of a Leroy Neiman painting of eight recent Chinese premiers—that’s pretty much the effect that must have been created today when Obama presented People’s Republic President Hu Jintao with a work by the Chinese-born, Chicago-based Zhou Brothers.
The 86-by-68-inch painting (8 and 6 are auspicious numbers in China) depicts, in squiggly outline fashion, the eight U.S. presidents who have held office since Richard Nixon made his historic, policy-changing trip to China in 1972. The portrait heads, floating on a patchy, multicolored background, are accompanied by a few not-so-subtle Chinese elements, most notably a stretch of the Great Wall and a black, vaguely calligraphic black swipe.
Who are the Zhou Brothers? A collaborative duo, given to Siegfried and Roy attire, who have resided in Chicago since 1986. They exhibit paintings, prints, installations and performances worldwide, mostly in art fairs and second-tier venues.
Not to be confused with China’s masters of consumerist satire imagery, the Luo Brothers, or the merry prankster Gao Brothers (known for their nude “actions” and slick sculptures with exaggerated anatomical features), Zhou Da Huang (b. 1957) and Zhou Shan Zuo (b. 1952) specialize in kitschy live showmanship and an anodyne version of semi-abstraction that has won them such accolades as a Prize for Creativity from the Peace Corps of the United Nations.
For all their harmlessness, the pair are still an odd choice for this diplomatic gesture. Doesn’t the U.S. have enough native artists—sappy or otherwise—who could offer a trans-cultural link? Conversely, haven’t some of the most important Chinese artists of the last 30 years—Xu Bing, Cai Guo-Qiang, Gu Wenda, Zhang Huan—lived and worked here? Finally, is this really the kind of work that will appeal to a high-ranking Communist Party official?
Uli Sigg, perhaps the world’s top collector of contemporary Chinese art, often tells how, when he lived in China three decades ago and began seeking out experimental pieces, his professional colleagues would frequently come to him with gifts of classical or safely “modern” Chinese art—so that, in their view, he would not have to disgrace his walls with avant-garde work.