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Art review: Gao Brothers at Duncan Miller

October 14, 2010 |  8:00 pm

400.Utopia_of_20_min_embrac In “The Utopia of the 20 Minute Embrace No. 6,” a large color photograph, men and women scattered throughout a cavernous, unfinished building pair off for sustained hugs. They could pass for couples on the last leg of a dance marathon, but they’re actually participants in an event staged by the Gao Brothers, Beijing-based artists whose work in sculpture, photography and performance sometimes subtly and sometimes sensationalistically challenges the Chinese status quo. Their first L.A. show, at Duncan Miller, containing 14 photographs, a multipanel work and a single sculpture, spans the agitational spectrum.

The image of strangers embracing functions as a tender irritant, a rejection of top-down governmental dictates enforcing unity in favor of unofficial expressions of togetherness as a primal human need. With “Miss Mao,” the Gaos get more comically, outrageously defiant, pinning an elongated, Pinocchio-style nose on a bright red fiberglass sculpture of the former Communist leader and endowing him with gargantuan breasts.

The artists largely trade in recognizable symbols (Mao, the color red, the five-pointed star) and themes (indoctrination, social isolation, urban density), but inevitably, many of the nuances of their work are lost in translation. Among the most graphically powerful and immediately legible pieces in the show are two sets of highly manipulated images in which the artists conjure the tension between individual needs and communal law so central to Chinese society today. In one series, tiny figures appear within separate, shallow concrete compartments of an endless grid. In another, the same small characters populate the cells of a beehive floating in darkness. The Gao Brothers insert images of themselves within these uniform containers, but by virtue of having made the pictures, they proclaim themselves — artistically, at least — beyond control.

-- Leah Ollman

Duncan Miller Gallery, 10959 Venice Blvd., (310) 838-2440, through Nov. 6. Closed Sunday through Wednesday.

Images: The Utopia of the 20 Minute Embrace No. 6, (2000) (top) and The Utopia of Construction No. 2, (2008) . Courtesy of Duncan Miller.