art in Communist China

Chehalem center hosts rare exhibit of Yunnan School art

Chinese painters isolated during the Cultural Revolution combined European influences, New Age perspectives, and knowledge of traditional Chinese art

The Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg rarely devotes more than one of its half-dozen galleries to a single artist or exhibition, so when curators decide to allocate three galleries to one show, one is obliged to pay attention.

Last week, the center unveiled a sprawling collection of Asian art that highlights the so-called Yunnan School of painting that emerged from the wreckage of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s. Remarkably, it is possibly the first public showing in Oregon featuring the work of the artist widely regarded as a key founder, Jiang Tiefeng. The show intrigues on several levels.

Jiang Tiefeng's "Blue Lady" (deluxe edition serigraph print on rice paper)

Jiang Tiefeng’s “Blue Lady” (deluxe edition serigraph print on rice paper)

One, it was produced by artists who, either by choice or dictate, were sequestered in the southwestern province of Yunnan (which shares a stretch of its own southern border with Vietnam) during the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Two, the work is the quintessence of “melting pot” art. The paintings were produced by urban, university-trained Chinese artists who left familiar surroundings to live in an isolated rural area, bringing with them European influences, New Age perspectives and, of course, a  knowledge of traditional Chinese art, which dates back thousands of years.

Far from the scrutiny of Beijing, the artists found themselves working in a rural region with its own traditions of folk and indigenous art. More significantly, they used the freedom afforded by isolation to experiment with styles and content.

Finally, all the pieces in this show are “generously on loan from the Royal Arts Gallery.” Except that there isn’t a Royal Arts Gallery. Upon inquiry, I learned that this is shorthand for: They’re from a private Oregon collector who wants to remain anonymous and whose identity the curators aren’t releasing.

All of which is to say the exhibition, which runs through April 26, is unique, unorthodox, and must-see.

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