Beijing sculptor Zhan Wang steels the scene

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- A double-edged joke runs through Zhan Wang’s exhibition at the Asian Art Museum here. It’s about turning rocks into gold.

One of many Chinese contemporary artists who have found global fame and fortune in the post-Mao boom, the Beijing sculptor has struck it rich by making stainless-steel facsimiles of the oddly weathered stones known as scholars’ rocks. Unlike traditional scholars’ rocks, found in several provinces of China and displayed indoors as objects of contemplation or strategically placed in gardens, Zhan’s signature artworks are shiny, hollow forms that bring hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction and grace the collections of such prestigious institutions as Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art.

Made by wrapping thin sheets of stainless steel around real rocks, peeling off the sheets, welding them together and polishing the surfaces to a high gloss, the sculptures appear to wrap ancient China in the veneer of a modern economic giant. But the new body of work -- on view through May 25 in “On Gold Mountain: Sculptures From the Sierra by Zhan Wang” -- also taps into the Chinese dimension of California’s Gold Rush.

The exhibition pays homage to Chinese immigrant miners who dubbed San Francisco “Old Gold Mountain.” Instead of presenting stand-alone sculptures, as in the past, Zhan is showing about 30 Sierra Nevada rocks and their steel counterparts -- along with a San Francisco cityscape made of stainless-steel kitchenware.

“I wanted the contrast between the California rocks and the Chinese pots and pans,” says Jeff Kelley, a Bay Area critic and independent curator who organized the show as part of the museum’s series on Chinese contemporary art. The Sierra rocks “mined” by the artist “represent what the Chinese miners were after,” he says. “The pots and pans are what they had to settle for in the service industries.”

Working out a project

Kelley, who frequently travels to China with his wife, painter Hung Liu, met Zhan in Beijing several years ago.

“What excited me about the possibility of working with him was making a connection between his work and my own experience as a gold miner,” Kelley says, revealing a chapter of his youth. “I went to CalArts from 1970 to 1972 and then left school and worked in the California Sierra for 2 1/2 years. I worked in an underground operation, hoping to strike it rich and being naive.

“It seems like the antithesis of an art school but really not,” he says. “There were a number of artists from CalArts up there who had Duchamp and earthworks and performance art and happenings on their minds, so I’ve often seen it as an odd but substantial turn in my life. I got a lot of practical experience and saw everything around me as a potential happening or earthwork.

“When I saw Zhan Wang’s assistants banging stainless-steel sheets over scholars’ rocks,” Kelley says, “I liked the juxtaposition of elite historical literati rocks and the blue-collar work of fashioning sculpture with wooden mallets and acetylene torches and welders. The artist and his assistants, most of whom came from the countryside, seemed reminiscent of the Chinese who had come to California to mine gold.”

Zhan knew little of that history, but he understood Kelley’s jokes about turning rocks into gold. The artist and the curator worked out a project that brought Zhan to California to find suitable rocks. With the help of Cheryl Haines, who owns the Haines Gallery in San Francisco and runs the For-Site Foundation, an artist residency program that enables the production and exhibition of new work, Zhan made two trips to Gold Rush country.

He found the stones, mostly off-white and yellowish quartz, on the foundation’s property in Grass Valley and shipped them to China, where the sculptures were made, then sent the pairs to the San Francisco museum. A 6,000-pound boulder and its metal counterpart stand outside the entrance to the exhibition; smaller rocks and their shiny likenesses sit on white shelves attached to gallery walls and around the edge of the floor.

Futuristic fantasy

The cityscape, which fills much of the gallery’s floor, is composed of pots and pans, platters and bowls, teakettles and pitchers, cutlery, sieves and tongs -- objects that Zhan has used to build fanciful versions of other cities in previous shows. His interpretation of San Francisco is a shimmering topographic map rimmed by piers and hills -- a futuristic fantasy of Old Gold Mountain that will cease to exist when the exhibition ends.

Entertaining as it is for visitors to point out landmark buildings made of cookware, the installation was conceived as a metaphor of modern Chinese mass production. Like the stainless-steel rocks, the urban landscape radiates a glistening newness. But the rocks are hollow and the pots are cheap, shiny products churned out in factories.

Although the two elements of the show may appear to share little but their reflective surfaces, Kelley sees them as “part of the same equation: the drudgery of modern industry and the dream of release from its routines.” Perhaps by turning rocks into gold.