As the Shanghai art world is a volatile place, with museums and galleries constantly opening, closing or moving, it was gratifying to see the local Don Gallery celebrate its 10th anniversary with the lively group show ‘Shanghai Dandy’. The dandy metaphor is a natural fit for this city: its brief history and heyday are rooted in modernism, its residents are notoriously fastidious and, at least domestically, it is a magnet for style mavins and cultural producers. With over half the participating artists being from Shanghai or well-established there, the show provides an insightful perspective on the city.
Many of the works engage with Shanghai’s cityscape to expose the social and psychic forces that undergird it. In Architectural Fittings 2 (all works 2017), Zhang Ruyi creates a conjoined version of a typical pillar found throughout the city. The artist, who grew up in Shanghai and witnessed its staggering transformation over the past 20 years, has constructed these eerie, life-sized pillars to evoke how rapid urban development restricts the mental and physical space of inhabitants. With his six-panel, LED-lit folding screen, Sprawl, Hu Weiyi also bears witness to the city’s breakneck growth. Candid black and white photographs of the civic landscape are printed on glass, which is then broken and placed piecemeal back into the frames. The horizontal format, skewed cropping and material breakage embody the city’s disruptive and continual expansion.
Works by a.f.art theatre Fangling (founded by Huang Fangling) and Xu Yi explore the performative nature of this allegorical dandy’s identity. In Fangling’s video, No Content, the artist is beholden to an off-screen presence who repeatedly reacts to her words and actions with the word ‘wrong’. With each rejection she becomes increasingly desperate to satisfy her interlocutor. The dynamic is compelling. Possibly conflating the actress’ role with the dandy’s, the video dramatizes the mental strain that occurs in seeking to satisfy an audience. In a pair of photographs that read almost like film stills – The Lovers (Portrait) and The Lovers (Hands) – Xu takes cues from René Magritte’s ‘The Lovers’ (1928), in which a couple’s intimacy is stifled by a white cloth covering their heads. Xu restages Magritte’s scene with two female figures – one in men’s and the other in women’s clothing – and thus opens the original tableau up to expanded gender matrices and novel complications.
Time is the final subtext in this exhibition, particularly in the works of Qu Fengguo and Liu Ren. Early in his abstract painting practice, Qu eschewed the brush, opting instead to layer horizontal bands of paint across the canvas using lengths of wood. In End of Heat 1 Four Seasons and End of Heat 2 Four Seasons, the resulting stratifications within the picture plane, along with the careful orchestration of hues calibrated to the tenor of the seasons, read as meditations on the passing of time. In Inches of Time – Wave, Liu similarly employs a repeated monadic format to conjure a succession of moments. An image of the sea, rendered in blue with a subtle gold glaze, is overlaid with a white grid. The title helps elucidate the work, as the phrase ‘inches of time’ refers to a Chinese saying that loosely translates to: ‘time may help you buy gold, but gold cannot help you buy time.’
Most of the works in ‘Shanghai Dandy’ illuminate aspects of the city’s character and inner workings. Yet one painting in particular, Li Shan’s Blackstone Apartments – Balcony, conjures memories from the local art scene. The intimate oil on paper looks like a domestic interior, but actually depicts Don Gallery’s second space, which at one point housed Liu Ying Mei’s 140sqm Gallery. ‘Shanghai Dandy’ presents a nuanced reflection on the changes and continuities that have occurred in the city over the past ten years, both within the vast metropolis and the art community that it houses.
Main image: Exhibition view, 'Shanghai Dandy', 2017, Don Gallery, Shanghai, China. Courtesy: Don Gallery, Shanghai