Monday, October 6, 2008

Chen Jiagang, The Great Third Front @Houk

JTF (just the facts): 11 large scale Lambda prints, shown in two sizes, in the main gallery and the small adjoining room. 3 of the prints are in the 63x80 size (editions of 6) and the other 8 are in the slightly smaller 40x70 (editions of 12). All of the negatives are from 2008. (See installation shot at right.)

Comments/Context: The rapid ascendancy of Chinese contemporary art in the past few years has been astounding. A decade ago, the vast majority of these artists (in all mediums) were virtually unknown in the West; now many are fetching multi-million dollar prices and are cornerstones of the secondary market. Chinese contemporary photography is a subset of this wave. Since there have few if any major museum or gallery shows of this work in New York, I think many collectors are still getting educated about where this work fits and how to think about it, trying to get a little deeper than just "it's the new hot thing".
Chen Jiagang is a Beijing-based former architect, turned photographer. The show's title, The Great Third Front, refers to a period in China's history when it relocated many of its strategic resources (read heavy industry and military) away from the populated coast and further inland to make them safer from attack. Huge factories and mills were built in small villages, bringing in large numbers of workers to fill them. When China moved to a more market driven economy in the 1980s, these industrial areas were all but abandoned, and all the activity moved back to the traditional economic centers.
Like many artists of his generation, Chen is interested in the changes that have come with the rapid growth and modernization of the country and what it means to be Chinese in this new age. Most of the images in this carefully composed series contrast these huge, hulking industrial structures with one or two solitary female models. The scale of these buildings is immense, so the fragile blank faced models are dwarfed by comparison. The mills and furnaces are filled with smoke and fog and mist and evoke a deep melancholy. Surprisingly, there is almost a feeling of nostalgia in these staggering environmental wastelands. Perhaps like many Chinese, Chen is struggling with how to measure the past and the present in his country. Regardless, he has developed a clear artistic point of view; these are not like pictures you have seen anywhere else.
Collector's POV: These huge pictures are bigger than any wall in our home and their subject matter doesn't fit our genres, so there isn't any fit for us here. The images range from $18000 for the smallest to $36000 for the largest size, which seems a bit high, given the artist and work are pretty new to the photography world. But if this work skyrockets like all the rest of the Chinese contemporary art, these prices may someday seem like bargains, so who knows. Overall, the show is well worth seeing, both for the quality of the work itself and for the opportunity to sharpen your understanding of what's going on in Chinese contemporary photography.
Rating: * (1 star) GOOD (rating system defined here)

Chen Jiagang, The Great Third Front
Through October 18th

745 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10151

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