Shi Yong, Under the Rule-L, 2017, iron, stainless steel, poly-putty, epoxy primer, spray paint, silk-screen ink, 52 3/8 × 48 1/4 × 6 5/8".

Shi Yong, Under the Rule-L, 2017, iron, stainless steel, poly-putty, epoxy primer, spray paint, silk-screen ink, 52 3/8 × 48 1/4 × 6 5/8".

Shi Yong

ShanghART Gallery | 香格纳画廊

Shi Yong, Under the Rule-L, 2017, iron, stainless steel, poly-putty, epoxy primer, spray paint, silk-screen ink, 52 3/8 × 48 1/4 × 6 5/8".

Shi Yong’s solo exhibition “Under the Rule” continued a trend of cool-handed minimalism that seems to be de rigueur for Generation X artists working in China. A role model for millennials, Shi, who graduated art school in 1984, was among the first Chinese artists to critically approach issues about contemporary cultural identity, consumption, economics, and globalization. An early example of Shi’s apprehension or skepticism about the art system is Sorry, There Will Be No Documenta in 2007 (2006), a proposal for billboards to be placed throughout the city of Kassel, announcing a hiatus in the schedules of artists, curators, collectors, and gallerists—essentially giving art and the art world a rest.

Over the years, Shi’s output has been multidimensional, encompassing videos, photographs, performances, and installations. He has made language-based works such as the bright-red neon A Bunch of Happy Fantasies, 2009, and pared-down abstract geometric works such as those in his 2015 exhibition “Let All Potential Be Internally Resolved Using Beautiful Form,” the precursor to this exhibition. In both, Shi revealed what Sun Qidong of Shanghai’s Minsheng Art Museum, the guest curator of “Under the Rule,” refers to as a kind of oblique violence—in this case cutting, dismantling or dismembering, welding, reshaping, and otherwise radically altering a junkyard car (an old Volkswagen, I was told), transforming it into a series of abstract chop-shop objects, some freestanding and others wall-mounted, all bearing nondescript alphanumerical titles. Under the Rule-A-NR.01-18 (all works 2017), for instance, consists of eighteen parts presented in a long row: satin-white car doors, wheel hubs, and exterior siding pristinely painted and hanging on the wall like a run-on pictographic sentence or string of assembly-line hieroglyphs. Shi finishes the edges of these scrapyard remnants in a matte silver, lending them a soft high luster that belies the fact that he made these works not with refined materials but with substances such as epoxy primers, poly-putty, and spray paint—all common products you’d find in any auto-body shop. Other works incorporate immediately discernible internal car parts, such as a carburetor, mufflers, a fuel tank, a chassis, and anything else that’s under the hood or hidden below the trunk. Under the Rule-K, for example, a floor sculpture, is a gas tank severed in half and painted a glossy Pepto-Bismol pink, its rigid aluminum intake hose extending upward like an exotic flower about to bloom. Isomorphism was ubiquitous in this show—things appearing to have similar or corresponding formal relationships.

In order to enter the gallery, visitors had to crouch at an entrance passageway measuring less than four and a half feet in height. Nine of the ten works on view were installed at this same elevation, perhaps suggesting or asserting a childlike perspective, but in any case creating a controlled, unified experience for viewers in their perception of the objects and their installation.

Inconsistency, however, can sometimes be as risky as black ice on a dark road. Among the less successful pieces was Under the Rule-D, a coil of tangled plastic tubing pumping and pulsing with recirculating motor oil. It looked like a pit of writhing snakes wedged into a corner; the familiar gas station odor was perhaps the most interesting thing about it. Under the Rule-E, a mysterious black steel cube that could easily be mistaken as a gallery bench, released an intermittent crashing sound from within: The noise was that of a car’s axle and license plate crashing together, activated by an electromagnetic timer. The smug cockiness of such works hardly justified the inflated curatorial rhetoric about Shi’s unapologetic fatalism. “Under the Rule” might have been better served by simply foregrounding precision, the show’s cohesive transformations of a vehicle used for everyday transport. And yet the very idea of transport—as a larger ambition for art itself—seemed stalled, or, worse, left abandoned by the roadside.

Arthur Solway