Art Review: Wang Yan Qun's 'Face Value' at Kortman never tires

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-116181182618112.jpg’, ‘Photo by Susan Webb Tregay’, ‘Wang Yan Qun’s sold-out show “Face Value” remains on display at Kortman Gallery, 107 N. Main St., through Nov. 20.’);

Contemporary Asian art is at the fore of the art trends for the new millennium, and Kortman Gallery has brought fine examples of this to Rockford. Wang Yan Qun presents two bright, compelling series of work in her sold-out show “Face Value.”

One group of paintings manipulates the Maoist poster style, satirizing it with today’s brand names and logos. While exploring the explosive social and economic changes in China recently, the silk-screened look of these figurative paintings is also reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s signature style. But when you see the Coca-Cola trademark, or realize the word “DANONE” stands for Dannon Yogurt, the link to Warhol’s Brillo boxes and Campbell’s soup cans is fun to contemplate. Warhol, too, was exploring the social and economic changes in his time.

“#7356” shows a familiar image of workers brandishing a pen in the poster-style painting in red, yellow and black. These numbers, repeated throughout the painting, add texture to the work, both visually and, mysteriously, metaphorically. In this piece, the modernization and globalization of China is represented by the words “PATEK PHILIPPE,” the Swiss watchmaker. Are these watches now made in China?

I need to pause here and emphasize that mystery is always an integral part of lasting art. A painting should never reveal all of its secrets, lest the viewer become tired of the piece. This will never happen with Wang Yan Qun’s work, though, because we know little about her specific thoughts behind each of the pieces, since her English was extremely limited. So viewers are left to explore their own imaginations for her intent. As an artist, I know that this is a good thing. Viewers’ interpretations of paintings are every bit as valid and important as that of the artist. They add a surprising depth to each piece.

Wang Yan Qun’s second series of paintings is closely tied to the commercial dolls and imagery emerging from China today. The Mao influence in these may be limited to clothing, but the figures are close relatives to Strawberry Shortcake and the spin-off figures of her generation. The idiosyncratic scale of these figures’ heads, hands and genitalis is one key to interpreting the portraits. Their oversized heads may show the recent gains in the importance of the individual. Or, is the artist satirizing the trend in product development and marketing?

“Pink Boy” has magenta skin and a very startled expression on his face. Caught bare bottomed, there may be tears in his eyes. Dressed in a Mao jacket and hat, thin streaks of paint and a strange mark mar the surface of this smoothly contoured painting.

These faint marks appear in all of the paintings in this series. They tie this young artist from China to artists everywhere, of every period. When paintings get too polished and perfect, the “hand of the artist” is no longer evident. Marks like these deface the work a bit and show our humanity. These marks may have become her signature element, but they speak to the understanding of all artists, both famous and ordinary.

“Jet Girl” bridges the gap between the two series. Created in the polished style of “Pink Boy,” this girl has the proportions of Strawberry Shortcake—and breasts, which she is admiring—or flashing. As Western diets and boob jobs enhance the figures of Chinese women, this painting’s commentary about the new lifestyles is as straightforward as some of the poster pieces. But, alas, it is less mysterious.

“Jet Girl” may be admiring herself, but the other figures in the show are staring at you! As you look at these paintings, they warily watch you. But their eyes are somehow blank. Are their thoughts turned inward? Are they dazed by the rapid changes in their country and their lives? Or are they watching us?

“Face Value, the works of Wang Yan Qun,” continues at Kortman Gallery until Nov. 20. The gallery is upstairs from J.R. Kortman Center for Design, 107 N. Main St. They are open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Monday-Saturday.

Susan Webb Tregay is a Rockford artist and author. She is in England filming a DVD to accompany her upcoming book, Master Disaster, 5 Ways to Rescue Desperate Watercolors, (North Light, 2007).

From the Oct. 25-31, 2006, issue

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