Chinese artist Chen Jiao’s first solo exhibition in the United States ran from March 26 until April 24, 2011 at Tally Beck Contemporary, 42 Rivington Street, New York.
When we first glance at Chen Jiao’s compositions, we are struck by their crispness and simplicity. She presents precisionist paintings of the buildings, architectural elements, vegetation and the scholastic and bureaucratic vignettes remembered from her youth in Southwestern China. The basic compositions and subdued palette belie a deep semiotic complexity concealed in her methodology and subject matter.
Most of her pieces involve a tightly composed, central subject surrounded by acres of neutral space. This space is broad and deliberately textured to evoke the worn exteriors of institutional buildings. Chen applies paint and other media to suggest pale, eroded concrete, which lends the surface an ersatz, romanticized austerity.
The central element in her pieces is often a nondescript building—typically a factory or school—that exemplifies the plain, no-frills architecture characteristic of Chinese state-owned enterprises. In other compositions, architectural elements such as lampposts or more traditional pagoda-like structures take center stage. From time to time, she gives us a botanical central image ranging from lush green bamboo to barren, knotted trees stripped by an unforgiving winter.
Regardless of the subject matter she presents in this format, she describes her material with very thin, precise lines and immediately makes us think of drafting. To lead us further with this hunch, she provides perspective lines and arithmetical marginalia that radiate from the central image. If we rely solely on cursory observation and dismiss Chen as a Chinese precisionist artist with an architecture fetish, we miss the main story.
A closer look will reveal that Chen’s perspectives are intentionally skewed; her compositions do not obey the laws of linear, one-point perspective. Roofs and eaves are lopsided, and connecting sides of buildings flare out slightly to reveal more of the walls and fenestration on both sides. The meticulous calculations that orbit the compositions are often meaningless. The geometry of the razor-like perspective lines? Pure ornament.
It is no accident that Chen creates this charade with symbols of state-run operations. These are the familiar, mundane townscape elements from her childhood, but her apparently cautious straight edges and ostentatious peripheral sums lend an air of scientific authority and certitude. These trappings of faux science are deliberately included to mislead and function as understated satire. Chen’s gentle betrayal attracts us and makes us smile while calling into question accepted pillars of authority.
The largest and most essential element to this exhibition does not fit into this aforementioned compositional structure. Chen employs her superb skills as mixed media impresario to recreate a typical middle school blackboard from her 80s and 90s generation. The Chinese characters proclaim emphatically that “Labor creates the world” and remind students of the importance of Karl Marx and May Day. Dominating the right side, a chart ranks students publicly on their hygiene and behavior. In the context of Chen’s oeuvre, we can make the links between early indoctrination and the establishment of totalitarian authority.