A View from the East Side: Photographers capture 50 years of Chinese history at the Lowe

The Lowe Art Museum opens China: Fifty Years Inside the People’s Republic through November 17 with 172 color and black-and-white photographs, beginning with earlier pictures that expose communist China, while later shots reveal the country’s open-door policy and how the landscape, people and ideology of the country has drastically changed. As artist Zheng Nong wrote, the point is “to keenly observe a world of everyday people and places, [and] to find those who will shape our inner spaces.”

The rich tradition that draws China into this century has been somewhat hidden to the West since the rise of the People’s Republic. The photographers in this exhibit have tried to make it accessible to us. Lois Conner, in an attempt “to acknowledge the beauty of the land,” captured a picture of the Le Shan Sichuan Province in 1986, which is cropped into a rectangular frame and hangs down like a painter would suspend a scroll. The messages that are culturally embedded in her works express man’s insignificant place in the natural world.

Wang Jinsong, in his series “Parents” and “Standard Family,” elucidates the socio-economic ramifications of a nuclear super-power with a population that has doubled to one billion since communism. Pay attention to the details of the composition as the photographer places couples into categories of personal wealth or geographic region, every object and line telling a story.

In Macduff Everton’s “Special Economic Zone,” a Chinese metropolis is crowned with American advertisements for Coca-Cola, Marlboro and Salem. At the bottom corner of the piece, a woman is walking with a Mickey Mouse t-shirt. The irony of Chinese people in a homeland pervaded by American commerce is thick and informative. The artist Robert Glenn Ketchum wrote that it is a “collision of ancient and modern.” “Students on Hunger Strike,” a photograph of Tiananmen Square, Beijing in 1989 by Stuart Franklin, speaks well of the determined human will.

Also by Franklin, “Tourists photographing Welcome Pine Tree,” shot in the Huangshan Mountains in 1998, shows an unsettling landscape of some of the most beautiful mountains in the world in the background, an amateur photographer adorned with an “Amusement Park” hat in the foreground. Perhaps seeing this forbidden land of the East (the sumptuous mountains) may invoke a vaguely familiar visualization of the forbidden land of opportunity in the West (the economic bastion of the U.S.).

Chinese art brings to light the mystic paradoxes of life (such as man vs. nature), not the answers to our endless existential questions. Browse through scroll paintings and other works from the museum’s permanent collection in “Ink, Water, Brush, Hand, and Heart: Painting from the Chinese Collection” to learn more about the country’s culture.

Ultimately, the experience of seeing China through so many artists’ eyes is a privilege of learning in itself, especially through the time span of these formative 50 years. The photographers’ artistic documentation here excels in milking Chinese culture out into the complex arena of human connection.

Alex Saleeby can be reached at claysaleeby@hotmail.com