The Collection of Excellent Alumni Works from China Central Academy of Fine Arts made its United States debut Oct. 4 at the Leonard Pearlstein Gallery in the URBN Annex of the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design.
The exhibition showcases various oil paintings, Chinese paintings, prints, installations, sculptures and videos from 24 CAFA graduate students that have been created in the past two years and will run through Nov. 22.
The Start of a Long Journey, as the exhibit is titled, was first shown in China and celebrates, in part, the 95th anniversary of the founding of the school from which CAFA was born.
CAFA was formed from two smaller schools in Beijing in April 1950 and is the first national academy of fine arts in Chinese history. It is comprised of eight different schools: a School of Fine Art, School of Chinese Painting, School of Design, School of Architecture, School of Humanities, College of City Design, School of Continuing Education, and the Affiliated High School of Fine Art. Over 90,000 students apply for admission each year, but only a select 1 percent of applicants are accepted.
The welcoming of the CAFA exhibit to Drexel’s campus completes an exchange between the two schools. Last summer, nine Drexel faculty members traveled to Beijing to display paintings, sculptures, installations and photographs, and CAFA students received the work with great appreciation. This fall, the Pearlstein Gallery hopes that the exhibit will spark conversation among artists in the Philadelphia area and titillate mindfulness of China’s evolving creativity.
“I would hope that Westphal students come here. This is like their peers’ work, in China. It’s very informative work, educational work. We hope it will attract people from all over Philadelphia,” Marnie Lersch, graduate assistant at the Pearlstein Gallery, said.
A work titled “Adding and Subtracting” used the advanced craft of “trimming fur.” It consists of books stacked in a haphazard structure. Each book lays horizontal with pages facing outward, and the paper is cut meticulously so that the alternated jaggedness of the shaved volumes makes up the greater design of a tiger’s black-and-white fur.
Gabrielle Zayas, a freshman in Westphal College who visited the exhibit in its opening week, found the work exhilarating. She favored a piece by Wu Wengehi with lavender and blue coloring, where branchlike tentacles dance off of the canvas, titled “The Growth of Emptiness.”
“The way it grew out was really interesting. It looked like leaf growth. It looked like a different medium than it actually was,” Zayas said.
“When you think of China, automatically you’re thinking of red dragons and flames,” Amber Lauletta, Pearlstein Gallery manager, said. “But this is extremely advanced. There’s a mix of so many ideologies, icons, concepts. It’s really a reflection of what’s going on in China right now. It really speaks to the institution and the strength of the teachers.”
Lauletta said that the work of CAFA graduate students is evolution to be emulated here in the United States.
But CAFA students have only just begun. “This is sort of considered the jumping-off point for each student’s career. After this show, it allows them to meet the necessary people to really start their career in the arts, in the art world, in China,” Lersch said.
Students and graduates of CAFA also have the opportunity to display their work in the CAFA Art Museum in Beijing, which is connected to the academy. The elite receive attention from audiences who view the work as professional and groundbreaking.
“Worm Installation” by Wengehi displays small, black, worm-shaped balls writhing on a white-clothed pole. The lifelike critters are stimulated by an electric current and appear to be cocooning.
“It takes you back a little bit. It was kind of creepy, but it was very interesting,” Courtney Klinger, a senior interior design major in Westphal, said. “It drew me in to figure out exactly what it is. I knew it shouldn’t be a bunch of bugs inside. There’s a mystery behind what’s happening.”
An oil-on-canvas piece by Jeong Seong Jun titled “The Sound of Peace” spotlights the artistic integrity and fearlessness of CAFA students. It depicts the story of a Chinese boy standing in a vacant battlefield with his animals, playing the trumpet and praying for peace. A helicopter looms overhead and the street stretches empty before the hopeful adolescent as he offers music to the sky.
A neighboring display of the work, presented in new media art and animation, brings the emotion of the scene to life. Carrots sprout from the instrument’s horn to satisfy the wishes of the boy’s donkey, and fishes swim out to the contentment of his hungry cat.
“That idea of dystopia we all have of China is present here. It’s really beautiful,” Lauletta said.
The beauty of each work lays in its hidden complexities — its ability to baffle the mind while expanding the soul, according to Lersch. “It definitely has an emotional impact on the viewer, which is what good work should have, right? That’s the point of art. To impact you and make you think about it,” Lersch said.
The artwork arrived at the Pearlstein Gallery Oct. 1. Gao Gao, one of two international curators at CAFA, constructed the layout of the exhibition. Lauletta oversaw the setup.
About 200 visitors attended an opening reception for the exhibit Oct 4. Audio tours were available. Westphal College Dean Allen Sabinson gave remarks at the reception. The current dean of CAFA’s School of Design, Wang Min, who aided the design of promotional materials for the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, also spoke, as did Julie Mostov, vice provost for global initiatives at Drexel.