"28 Chinese." The Rubell Collection at San Antonio Museum of Art, Sept. 5, 2015 - Jan. 3, 2016. Photo by Page Graham.

In a ground-breaking exhibition, “28 Chinese opens at the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) on Saturday, Sept. 5, and will remain on view through Jan. 3, 2016. Works by 28 contemporary Chinese artists will take over six galleries of the San Antonio Museum of Art for the duration of the show.

Drawn from the Rubell Family Collection (RFC), this exhibition is the culmination of the family’s six research trips and more 100 studio visits throughout China between 2001 and 2012. This is one of the largest privately owned contemporary art collections in the world. “28 Chinese” represents both new talents and several of China’s best-known artists including Ai WeiweiWorks on display include paintings, photographs, sculpture, installations and new media, with a healthy dose of video, to boot. Included is the immersive sculpture by Zhu Jinshi that is a 50-foot suspended “boat” created entirely of paper, bamboo, and cotton thread. This delicate piece was meticulously re-constructed entirely on site by museum staff and volunteers.

Many of the works deal with social, political, and historical issues that can be connected to China, but are also universal concerns. Other works engage with the genres of landscape, portraiture, and abstraction. “28 Chinese” is an exploration of the variety of material being used today. Some are traditional, others are not: wood, oil and acrylic paints, bronze, taxidermy animals, tea, coca cola, and worn clothing. A number are very provocative including the sculpture of Ai Weiwei’s prone body, “The Death of Marat” by He Xiangyu, or Huang Ran’s exquisite video installation, “Blithe Tragedy” with its undertones of sadomasochism.

"Boat" by Zhu Jinshi. Photography by Page Graham.
“Boat” by Zhu Jinshi. Photography by Page Graham.

Anna Stothart (Brown Foundation curator of modern and contemporary art) added a small disclaimer, “It is actually 29 Chinese and not 28. I ran into Donald and Mera Rubell at Basel during the art fair, and they said ‘We just bought this new work! Can we add it to the show?’ So, as you can see, they are still committed to a global conversation about art making and still interested in the work that is coming out of China.”

This will be the first exhibition in Texas for many of these artists, all born between 1954 and 1987. It is certainly the largest exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in a single venue in Texas to date. “28 Chinese” was previously exhibited at the Rubell Family Collection in 2012, a 45,000 sq. ft. gallery in Miami, and at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco in the summer of 2015 before arriving in San Antonio to finish the tour.  

Stothart said that each iteration in the tour has been a little different.

“Obviously, in Miami they have a very large and beautiful gallery space to exhibit the full collection. In San Francisco, the organization (of the show) was media-based with individual pieces scattered throughout the collection.

“For our installation (Stothart’s first at SAMA), it covers six different galleries – it’s everywhere. For this to make sense to our visitors – and frankly, to myself – I decided to tease out some overarching themes.”

Anna Stothart discusses "Epoch Color" by Zhu Jinshi. Photography by Page Graham.
Anna Stothart discusses “Epoch Color” by Zhu Jinshi. Photography by Page Graham.

This ambitious exhibition begins in the Cowden Gallery (Social and Political Activism in Art), spilling into the second level of the East Wing, occupying the Arcade Gallery, Contemporary I (Landscape: New Traditions), Contemporary II (Contemporary Portraiture) and Golden Gallery (Abstraction: Optical Play).

There is also one more room housing two video installations by Yan Xing, which reveals as almost a secret chamber that you come upon after making your way through the exquisite Asian Collections on the second level of the West Wing. It is such an extensive installation that a map has been printed to keep us sure of our path.

Stothart and the SAMA crew – including staffer Lana Meador, who was recently promoted as Stothart’s assistant in contemporary – have done an excellent job in creating materials and signage that educate the audience and makes connections to influences and practices for us. We aren’t left hanging, expected to just get it. This education is accomplished without condescension or pedantry.

Now, for a bit of back story. For those not plugged into the world of Important Contemporary Art, the Rubells are rock stars, and not of the nouveau variety, either. In the contemporary period we are currently occupying, where art has become a trading commodity for Russian oligarchs, Qatari sheiks and filthy rich Americans, the Rubells did it the old-fashioned way, with passion and care over a long period of time.

Don and Mera Rubell began their adventure in art as a newly married couple in New York City in 1964. He was a young obstetrician and she was a teacher, but somehow they devoted a budget of $25 a month to their nascent collection. Studio visits emphasizing the importance of getting to know an artist and “collecting them deep” has perhaps been their greatest strength.

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Today, now known as the Rubell Family Collection, the collection is housed in the aforementioned 45,000 sq. ft. warehouse with 28 rooms in Miami, Florida. This is a working space as well as a gallery that is open to the public December to May. Their Contemporary Arts Foundation (CAF) was created by the Rubells with their son Jason Rubell in 1994 to expand the public mission of the RFC.

This is a constantly expanding collection and features well-known artists as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman, Kara Walker and Andy Warhol. In addition to displaying internationally established artists, the RFC actively acquires, exhibits and champions emerging artists working at the forefront of contemporary art. It is a collection numbering around 6,800 pieces.

RFC Director Juan Roselione-Valadez joined in Stothart’s comprehensive tour. He said that at any given time perhaps 6,300 of these pieces are in storage.

“We loan to support individual artists. We like to support monographic, solo-exhibitions. As a public entity, work is always on display, but this maybe gives us an opportunity to make works available that aren’t always public. Sourced, say, from the penthouse on the Upper East Side. We are always willing to lend,” he said.

The RFC normally has one or two exhibitions touring.

“What we try to do is have hours two days a week – even when it’s chaos with artists at work on site –when visitors are walked through the galleries and have an opportunity to see artists at work, stretching canvases. Or works still in crates, leaning against walls, being installed. Artists making work, making a mess, whatever they are doing. We want to keep the space as open and alive as possible,” he said.

As always, SAMA has a full slate of public programming in place for the “28 Chinese” exhibition. A highlight on the calendar is “The Rubells on ’28 Chinese.’” We are invited to join Anna Stothart in conversation with Don and Mera Rubell in the auditorium on Sunday, Sept. 27, 3 – 4 p.m. They will discuss their love of art, travel and the works in this exhibition. This discussion is free with admission, but seating is limited.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully-illustrated 262-page catalogue with short texts from each artist in both Chinese and English. Please keep in mind that there will be a $10 special exhibition surcharge for “28 Chinese.”

The San Antonio Museum of Art is located at 200 W. Jones Ave. For more information about the museum and its programming, call 210-978-8107, or just visit the website, www.samuseum.org.

*Featured/top image: “28 Chinese.” The Rubell Collection at San Antonio Museum of Art, Sept. 5, 2015 – January 3, 2016. Photo by Page Graham.

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Tami Kegley

Tami Kegley has lived the life of an artist. Through multiple careers — dancer, percussionist, performance artist, sculptor, goldsmith, gallerist — she has pursued her need to create. The Great Recession...