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A&E: Chinese art from within and without

July 7, 2008

This week, China art at the Indianapolis Art Center. And a famous scroll finds itself in remarkable company at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

Anyone who has set foot into the Indianapolis Art Center has bumped into the name Fehsenfeld. It is, after all, half the moniker of the center's Churchman-Fehsenfeld Gallery.

And so I think some skepticism was to be expected when I heard that one of the two artistic worlds showcased in the Indianapolis Art Center's "Two Worlds, One Language Through Art" celebration would be that of Becky Fehsenfeld, one of the Broad Ripple landmark's major patrons.

But I'm happy to report that Fehsenfeld's work-separated from the rest as its own exhibition, "Outside Looking In,"- offers an interesting counterweight to that of the Shandong instructors featured in the main space. Fehsenfeld, also represented in her own Zionsville gallery, offers melancholy scenes of everyday life-a music lesson, a rickshaw driver waiting for a fare-told with muted earth-tones. And even if she hadn't helped organize the exhibition, her work would warrant presentation here.

The center of attention, though, is reserved for "Art, Harmony and Nature: From the Land of Confucius" and its more than 60 prints and paintings by faculty and master artists from the Shandong College of Arts.

The Chinese artists present a wide range of styles. When it comes to figures, the approaches travel from the hyper-realistic nude of Zhao Yang to Li Yan's Renoir-like woman lounging against a piano to the confrontational punkiness of Shan Bo's "Dating at Nightfall." Landscapes can have artist Liu Ziangxin's squishiness or the desolation of Zhang Hongzhong's "Abandoned Pass."

Meanwhile Zhang Lihua's "Riding on a Cow in Spring" and Qu Lei's "Dawn" each seem to open up a world of stories, like children's books that look great on your coffee table (even if they aren't ever read).

None of the work is as interesting as that of Shandong graduate Sui Jianguo (Google his work and you'll see what I mean), but educational institutions aren't usually known for their innovation. Still, this is a sampling of academic art from a far-away school's talented faculty that is worth seeing. "At present," states the school's Web site, "there are many talents and adequate excellent teachers in Shandong University of Arts."

I'll second that, I think.

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At the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the lengthy scroll in the glass case is likely to draw your attention immediately, but the photos on the wall are what you are most likely to linger over.

The scroll is the original manuscript for the Beat Generation classic "On the Road," furiously typed by Jack Kerouac and published in 1957. The photos are the work of Robert Frank, whose evocative cross-country shots were first published in 1958 as "The Americans." Together, they are greater than the sum of their already highly important parts.

While the scroll doesn't hold many surprises-it is, after all, a bit of history more than a work of art unto itself-the photographs are revelatory. "That crazy feeling in America when the sun is hot on the streets and the music comes out of the jukebox or from a nearby funeral," said Kerouac himself, "that's what Robert Frank has captured."

I'd be a fool to try to come up with better words than those. Instead, I'll just encourage you to go, pay homage to the scroll, and lose yourself in Frank's unsentimental photos of not-quite-lost souls getting by.
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