Between 1966 and 1976, millions of Chinese were tortured, imprisoned, stripped of their property, or killed in the name of the Cultural Revolution. Eight artists examine the legacy of that upheaval in “Chinese Dreams,” at Massachusetts College of Art and Design’s Bakalar & Paine Galleries through Dec. 2.
Lisa Tung, director of the galleries, partnered with Arne Glimcher, MassArt alumnus and founder of Pace Gallery, to mount “Chinese Dreams.” The exhibition’s opening coincides with the announcement of the galleries’ upcoming $12 million renovation, partially underwritten by Glimcher. The space will close next June and reopen in September 2019, Tung says, with a new entrance on Huntington Avenue, improved climate control, and a new gallery education room and offices.
“Chinese Dreams” doesn’t flinch from all that was lost, and in some ways reclaims it. These artists — seven were children during the upheaval, one was born later — intentionally cite traditional Chinese mediums, including porcelain and painting. The Cultural Revolution threatened to wipe out the “Four Olds” — ideas, customs, habits, and culture.
For “Family Tree,” Zhang Huan asked three calligraphers to write folktales, poems, and more all over his head. They ultimately blackened his face with ink, making a picture of how deeply inscribed such traditions are in Chinese culture.
In commanding and weighty impasto, Li Songsong’s painting diptych “Public Enemy” reprises images of a man executed in 2008 for stabbing six police officers after being treated poorly by police for a minor crime. Official versions of any public story are simplistic and thin, the artist seems to say; many layers of paint suggest what really happened is densely complicated.
Zhang Xiaogang was small when the Cultural Revolution began, and his parents — government workers — were sent to labor camps. His mother never recovered. He painted “My Mother” after her death in 2010. In it, a vigilant, self-contained boy watches a blank-faced woman. The child’s reserve is wrenching. It’s a family scene, but the pain it captures reflects the scars of a nation.
At Bakalar & Paine Galleries, Massachusetts College of Art and Design, 621 Huntington Ave., through Dec. 2. 617-879-7337, www.massart.edu/galleries