Xu Zhen is the bad boy of the Chinese art scene. He has mocked foreign curators and their stereotyping of China and targeted his country’s overheated art market. In 2009, he presented himself as the CEO of a corporation called MadeIn, after the ubiquitous imprint “made in China.” He even showed under the name MadeIn, while developing his company into an art-production machine with dozens of assistants. Three years ago, he refined this marketing strategy by having MadeIn launch a brand named Xu Zhen. Since then his artworks have been attributed to “Xu Zhen as produced by MadeIn.”
Despite this strategy, or because of it, Xu Zhen has had a highly successful career in China and in Europe where he has been the subject of numerous museum retrospectives. He is less known in New York, in part because his work does not fit easily into a gallery setting. But for this show he has tried to overcome that hurdle by offering a sampler of his works in a variety of mediums.
Upon entering the gallery, visitors are greeted by Eternity-Aphrodite of Knidos, Tang Dynasty Sitting Buddha (2014), one of Xu Zhen’s many sculptures combining Western and Asian statuary and satirizing the clichéd concept “East Meets West.” By literally standing the Greek statue on its head and attaching it to the headless neck of the Buddha, the artist creates a commentary on such issues as globalization and national identity.
Showing in the main gallery are several paintings from Xu Zhen’s “Under Heaven” series (2015), lightweight abstractions featuring bright pink pigment on canvas, like frosting on a birthday cake, at once luscious and sickeningly sweet. But, it is important to know these works are intended as intentional critiques of the art market, purposely superficial so as to both undercut and take advantage of collectors’ preference for “mindless” abstractions. In the same vein is Corporate—(Erected), 2016, a wall relief constructed out of S&M paraphernalia, another work that combines rigorous formalism with transgressive content.
Perhaps the best way to understand Xu Zhen’s oeuvre is to watch his video Rainbow (1998), one of his earliest works, which appeared in the 2001 Venice Biennale when he was just 24 years old. In this work, we watch as a bare back turns red from multiple slaps. We hear the blows being struck, but never see the hands inflicting them. This meditation on pain and pleasure and the push-pull of the viewing experience are cornerstones of the artist’s investigation of aesthetics.
Xu Zhen is ultimately a very cynical artist with a penchant for black humor. His true talent is his ability to trick viewers into participating in a critique of the art system, which they do willingly because his art is so enticing, even its meaning can often be hard to decipher.