Art Review: 'Salute to Symbolism' at Kortman

Chinese artist Zhao Yanli calls herself “Color,” exudes impeccable design and asks difficult questions in her tight and exciting exhibition at Kortman Gallery.

Drawing on techniques from China’s artistic roots, Color masterfully uses wood block printing in most of her pieces. Her figures jump and punch out martial art techniques, their limbs foreshortened and aggressive. Dancers pirouette, and Mao smiles and ages gracefully through the images—all through the medium of wood block prints.

And, yes, these are true prints. Her work consists of small editions of hand-pulled silk screen images combined with the wood blocks. Limited edition lithographs and work such as hers are considered “prints” in the fine art world. Color copies, even expensive ones such as Giclees, should be called “reproductions.”

Two prints are of traditional Asian topics depicting rooms with such perfect proportions that they put you at ease and make you feel at home. Bird cages hanging in the rooms add tension to the works, though. They bring to mind something Indira Gandhi once said— “I feel as though I was born in a cage too small,” and Maya Angelou’s book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Most of the show is devoted to breaking out of the cages of China’s Cultural Revolution.

In “Mao in Long March,” Color uses a smiling, young Mao in a red, linear style. He is silk-screened onto a digital image of a young woman facing out of the picture plane with her hair blowing freely. The image is obviously an ad, for in the corner it says You can’t help but leave this exhibition wanting to know more about the current situation in China. So I came home and looked up this Web site. It is for a construction company putting up row after row of condos or apartments after, I understand, tearing down ancient walled cities for the space.

“World Revolution” again combines digital imagery with the look of ancient wood block prints. Young, strident protesters rebel while the underlying photo of a scrapbook emerges in bits and pieces. It is of a trip to Italy, complete with Italian Renaissance art depicting the Virgin Mary and a cathedral. Born in 1968, Color seems to speak for China’s young people who have chafed at their society’s confines and are ready to move out in the world.

Her artist’s statement talks about political satire–to some, this is still a dangerous topic in her country. It shows up in “Mao’s Era” where workers lunge out of the print holding a spear-sized pen and pencil. The Cultural Revolution used the arts to promote its agenda. This is implied by the figures set on a background of repeated, red-stamped marks. The image on the stamp appears to be Mao’s profile, rather than signature stamps, called “chops,” that authors and artists would use to identify themselves.

We all know Andy Warhol’s “Mao,” surely the largest canvas at Chicago’s Art Institute. We are familiar with the photos of huge imagesm of Mao hanging everywhere in China. In Color’s prints, though, he comes to life, he smiles and he ages. He interacts with workers, dancers and Chinese youth. You come away from this exhibition with a gut feeling that Mao was dictatorial, but was revered by some as well. Ultimately, you come away from the show with a thirst to know more about the world’s most populated country.

“A Salute to Symbolism” continues through June 10 at Kortman Gallery, upstairs from J.R.Kortman Center for Design, 107 N. Main St., downtown Rockford (968-0123).

From the May 11-17, 2005, issue

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