Culture- ART FEATURE- Revolution's children: Chinese art's eastern edge

Imagine the police shutting down the University of Virginia and jailing its professors simply for being intellectuals. Think of soldiers ransacking the McGuffey Art Center and ordering its residents to produce uniform, state-dictated art or endure hard labor in prison camps. Now picture government officials co-opting Monticello and turning Jefferson's hallowed house into a cattle barn.

For the 26 artists whose work comprises the touring exhibition, "Regeneration: Contemporary Art from China and the U.S.," now on view at the University of Virginia Art Museum, such fantasies are analogous to the realities of their youth during Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution. Like compressed steam, their firsthand experience of political repression then powers their current pieces with an explosive energy.

The work in "Regeneration" is diverse and encompasses paintings, photography, prints, installations, and videos. What all the artists share is the impulse to recover Chinese aesthetic traditions and reconsider them in a modern, often global context. 

For instance, photographer Chen Ling Yang's menstrual series plays off the seasonal symbolism of flowers in China. In her graphic and lovely "The Seventh Month Orchid," a woman's leg bisects a circular frame like a branch. A round birthmark near her knee echoes the frame's shape and punctuates a red rivulet of blood forming a calligraphic line from thigh to calf. Skillfully lit, a green shadow on the upper thigh ties the leg to the orchids blurring into a deep green background.

Several artists creatively address the alienating Western view of China as the "exotic other." Xu Bing's innovative "Computer Font Project" asks visitors to type a few words of English into a computer and then print out what they've written. What emerges is a page of seeming Chinese characters that are, upon closer examination, actually composite arrangements of the English words. Despite the party-trick aspect, the resulting designs are striking as they convey the message that language is language.

Other artists examine post-Mao China's position in the world. Hong Hao's technically stunning "New World" silkscreen prints mimic antique maps bound in a weathered atlas. The artist displays a wry wit, however, distorting countries' proportions (e.g., to reflect their global economic heft) and adding tongue-in-cheek annotations and symbols.

In his "New World Geomorphologic," a tiny slogan printed over China encapsulates the childhood lesson learned by all the "Regeneration" artists: "The only way to win proved by history is to keep it." And the visual history they're keeping and making is complex and rich.

"Regeneration: Contemporary Chinese Art from China and the U.S." is on display at the University of Virginia Art Museum through December 21. 155 Rugby Road. 924-3592.