China’s vivid subconscious 

Startling, bizarre, funny, awkward, shocking, beautiful, provocative — "Half-Life of a Dream: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Logan Collection" now at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is like no other exhibit.

It’s a strong recommendation from an observer who is usually allergic to self-conscious, trendy, post-soup can pop art.

Keep things simple. Go to the show, which features some 50 paintings, sculptures and installations spanning 1988 to 2008, and look at the art and experience how it makes you feel. Disregard the politico-socio-psychobabble that surrounds it. Let the data and deep thoughts wait until later.

The title — "Half-Life of a Dream" — would take volumes to explain (supposedly juxtaposing Mao Zedong’s dream of one nation under his god-figure and dreams of the Chinese people), but the exhibits speak for themselves.

Sui Jianguo’s 2005 "The Sleep of Reason" offers an indelible image: Mao is lying on his side, surrounded by thousands of luridly colored plastic toy dinosaurs. It’s the swirling patterns that matter, not that — supposedly — this is the first Chinese portrayal of The Great Helmsman not standing up. The meaning of the dinosaurs, or the technique of their creation, matter little against the vivid, memorable visual impression of the work.

Lin Tianmiao’s 2004 "Initiator" is a stunning fiberglass figure of woman, shrouded in silk, with the end of a long veil held by a large frog. "Lin represents the vanguard of a nascent Chinese feminism," intones the catalog.

There is nothing beautiful about Yue Minjun’s grotesque faces, contorted in frozen, somehow painful laughter, but his 1998 "Ostriches" — duplicate images of the artist riding a herd of the flightless birds, their heads nowhere near the sand — will stay with you.

On the other hand, the same artist’s identical life-size resin/acrylic figures at the entrance to the show are simply cute.

There are some violent and repelling images, such as works by Sheng Qi, who cut off his finger in protest following the 1989 Tiananmen Square slaughter, buried it in a flowerpot in Beijing, and fled the country, "leaving a part of himself behind."

Warts and all, including works that are primitive or not interesting, "Half-Life of a Dream" is an eminently worthwhile experience, especially when paired with a visit to the Asian Art Museum’s "Power and Glory: Court Arts of China’s Ming Dynasty."

The distance between the two shows is far greater than the 600 years separating them; they seem to come from different planets.

IF YOU GO

Half-Life of a Dream

where: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St.

When: 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily through Labor Day, except closed Wednesdays and open until 8:45 p.m. Thursdays; exhibit runs through Oct. 5

Tickets: $7 to $12.50; half-price Thursday evenings and free first Tuesday of the month

Contact: (415) 357-4000 or www.sfmoma.org

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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