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A mind for universal forms

Special to The Times

“Chen Zhen: a Tribute” isn’t the first farewell exhibition devoted to this memorable artist, who died in 2000 at 45 from cancer related to treatment side effects of a rare blood disease. Since then, exhibitions have been mounted in Greece, Italy and the United States.

The artist, who in the 1990s wowed audiences with massive and intimate sculptural works exhibited throughout Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, probably will inspire more tributes, but there hardly could be a more appropriate setting than the converted schoolhouse at P.S.1 here, where he exhibited in 1997 and ’98.

Born in Shanghai in 1955, Chen came of age during China’s Cultural Revolution, a period marked by intolerance and suspicion of traditional Chinese philosophy, Western influence and avant-garde practice, all of which interested Chen as the climate eased in the late 1970s.

He was a student and then a teacher at the Shanghai Fine-Arts and Craft School, and studied and then taught at the Shanghai Drama Institute, where he specialized in stage design, developing skills that would inform his later art practice.

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Chen, who was painting and drawing at the time, wished to expand into sculpture. In 1986, he emigrated to Paris to attend the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux-Arts and the Institut des Hautes Etudes en Arts Plastiques.

“Tribute” was organized by P.S.1 operations director Antoine Guerrero, who was Chen’s assistant in the early ‘90s, and by Gilbert Vicario, assistant curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, where a smaller version of “Tribute” premiered last fall. Xu Min, Chen’s widow and artistic partner, advised on installation in Boston and New York.

The close connection between Chen and the institutions and individuals involved show in this exhibition, which is not a comprehensive survey but rather a well-selected and installed sampling of works, with rooms fitted to pieces the way the artist might have fitted pieces to rooms.

The products of a mind that by all accounts was bent on understanding the customs, idioms and intricacies of cultures around the globe, Chen’s works reflect his penchant for finding universal communicative forms and gestures, often involving the body. His works also show a talent for making seemingly generic objects ring with both global, timeless breadth and timely specificity, as well as combining culturally specific images and objects in a manner that maintains and transcends their local associations.

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The central piece in the exhibition, and the one for which Chen is best known, is “Jue Chang -- Fifty Strokes to Each,” which borrows its title from a Buddhist method of resolving disputes between parties. Although the work has been exhibited elsewhere in a smaller version, P.S.1 affords the breathing room needed to spatially navigate and visually and aurally take in its entirety.

A gargantuan, U-shaped wood and iron structure, it is a mutant cousin to the sorts of racks that for centuries have held drums aloft for players. Hanging from its beams are bed frames and chairs, all stretched with hides to convert them into crude but effective drums.

You’re encouraged to play, but even if you were discouraged, no forbidding sign or sense of art etiquette could hold your id back in this room. Tapping and pounding your way around the piece, you discover that this monster wraps itself around a pit filled with rocks and bullets, and it becomes clear just how evocative this piece must have been when it debuted at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1998. But it seems plenty powerful in Queens in 2003. Like an epic communal drum set for the masses, it resonates with the possibility of unity across boundaries, and also echoes the rally thunder of tribes and cliques, classes and parties.

Most works in this exhibition are literally and figuratively quieter. Although it would be overpowering if built to scale, “Zen Garden,” a model for a public space, is a modest, luminous shrine to human fragility. The last work Chen completed, the model consists of a cluster of hollow organic forms suggesting internal organs. Carved from alabaster with walls thin enough to become translucent, they hover, suspended by enlarged medical instruments that pierce their shells, above a raked field of sand. A similar play of hard, soft, fragile, vulnerable, visceral and elegant confronts you in the transparent yet mysterious “Crystal Landscape of the Inner Body,” a group of organ-like blown crystal forms on a glass table.

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Tables and chairs are important in Chen’s vocabulary. At P.S.1, the artist softens colored candles and shapes them into trussed structures resembling organs, each on its own custom-shaped table. Elsewhere, he uses a similar method to build small houses on the seats of children’s chairs.

Meanwhile, a piece Chen produced while living with the eight remaining residents of the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community in Maine in 1996 consists of a Shaker rocking chair suspended above the floor, surrounded by Chinese geometric wood screens and flanked by a stairway cobbled from pieces of Chinese furniture and basketry. This piece is surrounded by portraits the artist drew of the last Shakers.

Chen rarely exhibited his drawings, which are a treat. Unlike many drawings by sculptors, which often are unimpressive sketches or working drawings elevated by association, Chen’s invite study of their Leonardo-esque inventiveness and stylistic hybridity, revealing an idiosyncratic blend of his Eastern and Western academic training, and adding a rewarding layer to this amazing show.

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‘Chen Zhen: a Tribute’

Where: P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 22-25 Jackson Ave. at 46th Avenue, Long Island City, N.Y.

When: Thursdays-Mondays, noon to 6 p.m. Ends Aug. 31.

Price: $5 suggested donation; $2, students and seniors; members, free.

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Info: (718) 784-2084


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