New York

Liu Zheng

When Swiss émigré Robert Frank set out to document America for his laconic if pathos-laden photographic series “The Americans” in 1955, he encountered a society in the grip of postwar consumption, vitiated by racial inequalities and rampant class division. About as subtle as Tocqueville, Frank rendered ideological his documentation of an American odyssey through bus depots and Woolworth stores, presenting the sad reality of the everyday as a parade of typologies and archetypes. Stripped of pretense and drained of affect, his photographs offered the perfect antidote to Family of Man–style optimism. Yet for all his deadpan nihilism—his vision of an America democratic only in name—Frank’s title still nags.

Much to his credit, Frank’s project clearly informs Liu Zheng’s recent series “The Chinese” (1994–2002), without overwhelming it. Forty-six eighteen-inch square gelatin-silver prints of monks, convicts, villagers, actors, opera singers, businessmen, transvestites, and corpses were culled from the series for his first solo show in the US. Liu’s self-conscious images of mainland China relate to Frank’s (as well as to those of August Sander, Lewis W. Hine, Weegee, and Diane Arbus), but they are also decidedly about the present and his privileged position as a native son. Liu’s China is achingly modern, a nation wrestling with all the inconsistencies that such a designation implies. As a child of the Cultural Revolution, he witnessed the dispersion of his own ancestral artifacts, which made way for ubiquitous state-sanctioned representations. And as a longtime photojournalist for the widely disseminated Workers’ Daily, Liu was trained to read photography as propaganda. When he began “The Chinese,” legislated subjects gave way to subjective fascinations: money, sex, death, and salvation.

Many works, such as Rural Peasant, Yanan, Shaanxi Province, 2000, display a mordant humor stripped of irony, as its conspicuous subject steadily meets our gaze with a full, toothy grin; others, like Two Homeless Boys, Beijing, 1998, smack gratingly of rhetoric while still conveying an unembarrassed sympathy. Liu’s sitters are participants, perhaps as a result of his medium-format camera that, unlike Frank’s more compact Leica, is always noticed in advance of each shot. The resultant understanding runs deep. In images such as Two Miners, Datong, Shanxi Province, 1996, or Xinjiang Girl Working in a Textile Factory, Hetian, Xinjiang Province, 1996, labor is sordidly, hauntingly personified, while in Two Rich Men on New Year’s Eve, Beijing, 1999, and A Chinese Girl with a Foreign Friend, Beijing, 1996, its effects are likewise sharply drawn. Communism might exist as a nowhere horizon, but capitalism fares little better. In all cases, the details count. In Three Country Strippers, Huoshentai, Henan Province, 2000, ripped bedsheets form makeshift bras and sarongs that merely call attention to the young bodies they hardly cover.

Such is Liu’s darkly lapsarian view, which seems at once historically over- and underdetermined. The despondency is relieved only by the occasional equanimity of a monk or priest or a body stilled in death. However, A Girl Killed in a Traffic Accident, Wuhan, Hubei Province, 2000, offers its subject as a specimen wholly unredeemed. Even the statue in Buddha in Cage, Wutai Mountain, Shanxi Province, 1998, languishes in a state of disrepair, forlorn on a vacant hillside. Nonetheless, the artist insists that he has no intention of leaving China. He also cautions against reading his work as negative censure, despite the pessimism he equivocally maintains. “For me,” he says, “the operative word is ‘studying.’”

Suzanne Hudson