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Contemporary artists in spotlight in ’28 Chinese’

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Zhang Huan’s 1997 photograph “To Raise The Water Level in a Fishpond (Distant)” is among the arresting pieces on view in “28 Chinese” at the Asian Art Museum. COURTESY RUBELL FAMILY COLLECTION
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San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum’s new exhibit “28 Chinese” showcases the fruits of Don and Mera Rubell’s labors, which began 51 years ago when they got married, and started  collecting art.
The exhibit of 48 works by 28 Chinese artists ages 30 to 60 from the Rubell Family Collection of Miami also reflects Asian Art Museum Director Jay Xu’s extensive plan to explore and showcase Asia’s contemporary art.
The couple, who attended the show’s opening, recalled how they started collecting art in 1964 when they wed in New York City. He worked as an obstetrician, she was a teacher, and soon they started a family. Somehow, they set aside $25 per month to buy art. (Don’s  late brother Steve was the famous co-owner of the Studio 54 disco in Manhattan.)
In 2001, the Rubells went on the first of six trips to China (“on 9/11, we saw on TV what we thought was an action movie,” Don Rubell says), and they returned repeatedly, supporting young artists by buying their work.
Curated by Allison Harding, the show’s major portion, designed by Marco Centin, fills street-level galleries, but various works also are scattered throughout the permanent collection. The exhibit includes a wide variety of styles and pieces, both notable and uninspired (such as a pile of discarded clothes).
The North Court is dominated by Zhu Jinshi’s colossal “Boat,” a 40-foot walk-through installation of 8,000 sheets of calligraphy paper, constructed in rows.
What emerges from the exhibition’s many subjects and themes is political content,  although it’s not being emphasized in order to protect artists still living in China.
Examples include Zhang Huan’s “12 Square Meters,” a body covered by flies, which comments on horrible conditions in China’s numerous public toilets; and Qiu Zhijie’s “Darkness Illuminates Me,” a conceptual Plexiglas, neon and stainless steel piece referencing the Yangtze River Bridge – considered a “symbol of progress” during the deadly Cultural Revolution, a place where more than 2,000 people jumped to their death.
“Ton of Tea” by Ai Weiwei, the most famous artist the show, is a sculpture of compressed tea leaves on a wooden base.
A dramatic piece by He Xiangyu called “The Death of Marat” is a sculpture of a dead Ai Weiwei: a body lies on the the floor of the Chinese galleries on the third level, amid artifacts from ancient tombs.
Two other striking works are Xu Zhen’s “Spread B-051,” an unusual embroidery on canvas with cloth collages, images of exotic bestiaries and political cartoons; and Zheng Huan’s haunting photograph of immigrant workers in a fishpond.

IF YOU GO
28 Chinese
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, except until 9 p.m. Thursdays; closes Aug. 16
Admission: $10 to $15
Contact: (415) 581-3701, www.asianart.org

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