Certain Chinese Conceptual Art has a lot in common with the so-called appropriation work done in New York in the 1980's, which involved irreverent reworking of canonical images and styles. There's at least one difference, though: in China the stakes involved in such Conceptual games are higher.
Western artists can knock anything from the "Mona Lisa" to Barnett Newman and basically nobody cares, unless maybe sex or religion are part of the picture. But in China, art forms like calligraphy and landscape painting have a kind of quasi-religious aura as part of a national heritage. Mess with them, and you could be asking for trouble.
This is worth keeping in mind when seeing the New York solo debut of the young Shanghai-based painter Zhou Tiehai (pronounced Zhoh TEE-high). In the past Mr. Zhou's work has dealt with the frustrations of being a Chinese artist trying to break into an international market. A few years ago he wryly finesses the problem by placing his face on fake Western art magazine covers. (They were exhibited at the Venice Biennale.) Convinced that only "Chinese-looking" art from China appeals to Western taste, he has pointedly kept his own works as un-Chinese as possible. His last group of paintings were variations on the "Joe Camel" cigarette ad.
With the new work at Ise, he changes course. He makes a bid for the heart and bankrolls of the exotica-smitten West by positioning himself directly in the rarefied world of Chinese culture. All of the paintings are copies of world-famous brush-and-ink landscapes, but with everything updated and slightly off.
The faithful hand-copying of masterpieces has an honored place in Chinese tradition, but Mr. Zhou's copies, often of close-up details, were done by a studio assistant. The work was executed with a modern airbrush rather than an ink brush, setting up a sly association between calligraphy, the vaunted source of landscape painting, and graffiti.
Finally, while traditional landscapes are regarded as unique, total-immersion spiritual experiences, Mr. Zhou's vistas are inspired by painted backdrops found in commercial photography studios in China today, some of which incorporate all-purpose classical motifs.
Despite the all-around skepticism implied by these twists, the overall effect of Mr. Zhou's works, with its soft-focus images, is disarmingly pleasing, the visual equivalent of synthesizer-produced New Age "Chinese" music. A result in a market-friendly show with plenty of Conceptual grit: exactly the sort of passived-aggressived, win-win approach that made appropriation art such a success.