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Paper trail: part of Lu Shengzhong’s site-specific installation at the University Art Museum.

Cutting to the Spirit
By Jeanette Fintz

The New Emerging From the Old—Lu Shengzhong: Works 1980-2005

University Art Museum, University at Albany, through Nov. 13

Can one summon the spirit by cutting paper dolls? Is it possible to attain a more enlightened state of being through a repetitive activity such as chanting, knitting or mark making? Lu Shengzhong would answer affirmatively. Shengzhong is a Chinese artist and professor of folk art from Beijing who was in residence at UAlbany last month, creating and installing a powerful new piece composed of red paper dolls. Over the past decade or so, Shengzhong has been engaged in this Chinese folk art, practiced by his mother and peasant families for generations, with the intention of reviving a humanist and spiritual dimension that he had felt draining from contemporary Chinese art.

Repetition in art brings to mind Agnes Martin and Philip Glass, who have used it as part of minimalist processes. Their actions may encourage a state conducive to their own meditation that perhaps may induce a similar effect in their audiences. The essence of Shengzhong’s art is found less in the results of the paper cutting (which are pretty spectacular evidence of his actions), but more psychically concentrated in the process. It is the ceremonial and physical act of cutting the little red figures that brings “void of mind,” to quote from his catalogue essays. Because of this, we might approach his work as akin to performance art.

The cutting of Little Red Figures is ritual and performance in its pure sense, practiced for generations as a devotional act to bring fertility to the family and as a symbol of ancestral continuity. Lu Shengzhong is not totally inventing a ritual that may have been lacking from his life, as many contemporary artists and performers have done. He is reaching deeply into his cultural heritage for practices that light a spark, as he says, “to summon the soul.”

A festival atmosphere suffuses the double-height gallery. Red vibrations fill one’s eyes and quicken the senses. Three red cut-paper curtains cascading from the ceiling and rhythmic swirls and repeated patterns in red, white and black wrapping around the upper gallery walls attempt to fill your peripheral vision. Being a bit overwhelmed is a prerequisite for a sublime response, and this is potentially an effect Shengzhong is after. A combination of terror and fascination often built by repetition and scale typically are associated with the sublime. They set up an atmosphere of mystery and open the mind to nonrational processes. If you’ve ever been in a Chinese temple you know what I mean. The vast space of the University Art Museum works both for and against this effect. The scale permits an installation of grand proportions, but the separation of elements that could have reinforced each other create a less combustible atmosphere.

The sublime is not typically associated with humor or humility, but the realization that the bristling red energy is composed of funny little people, some with pigtails, some with the oversized head of a newborn baby, embryo or frog, brings a smile to one’s face. Continuity and fecundity of both culture and race is the subject, and it is treated with a lightness of spirit.

The floor-to-ceiling piece The Empty Book—The Book of Humanity that Shengzhong completed at UAlbany comprises three books at ceiling height, containing 900 hundred pages that have been cut to liberate and suspend strips of textless paper. Each contiguous line from each page attaches like an umbilical cord to little red people that splay out along the floor. This piece boldly sets aside dogma and affirms the vitality of the people, and is the standout of the show.

The act of cutting is also important as a symbol of the Dao, the principle that embraces positive and negative forces. Shengzhong’s piece The Vertical of Negative and the Horizontal of Negative, a 42-foot-long cut-paper mural, embodies this principle. Large, big-headed babies create islands around which masses of smaller figures swarm like schools of fish or sperm, building currents that carry the eye. Shapes in black and red transform from figure to ground and to figure again in a joyful display of formal invention.

In the four panels from the piece The Poetry of Harmony, Shengzhong equates figurative recombination with the derivation of language, an alphabet of form. He cleverly creates mandalas from symmetrically placed cut figures, and lays out lines of shapes vertically or horizontally beneath, created from snippets of broken cutouts. From a distance these pieces appear to be traditional calligraphy scrolls, but it is clear Shengzhong has a sense of humor that is a bit subversive.

Close viewing is always rewarded. Subversive humor was a survival tactic that Shengzhong used in creating erotic subtexts hidden in the charming peasant narratives of Love Song, seemingly traditional paintings on silk. Other early designs displayed on the ground floor of the gallery have a generic, stylized hand that, though informative, tend to draw energy away from the visual statement made by the installation.

Shengzhong’s only retreat from an optimistic vision comes in the 10 long vertical black-and-white finger-painted monotypes, Record of Emotion, done after the Tiananmen Square massacre. Their sweeping, continuous gestures and textures recall landscape scrolls, but their directness and strength imply a reserve of suppressed emotion that Shengzhong usually channels into a more meditative artistic practice. His unusual work poses lingering questions about art and the cultural continuum that are vast and haunting.


-no peripheral vision this week-


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