"Half-truth," the New York debut of Lu Zhengyuan at Eli Klein [through Oct. 21], features just seven works that encompass painting, sculpture and photography. Lu consistently resists adopting a signature style, but maintains that the works should be individually "good-looking"—that is, visually and conceptually intriguing, though "not necessarily esthetically pleasing"—so that viewers will be enticed to look beyond their surfaces.
Born in the northern coastal city of Dalian in 1982, Lu completed both his Bachelors and MFA in sculpture under the tutelage of artist Sui Jianguo at Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Art, and subsequently joined the school's faculty. In 2010, Lu took a challenge from his well-known mentor to create 84 works, one each day during the period of his solo exhibition at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. This marathon-like "controlled experiment" produced a wide range of unpredictable works, from enlarging the smallest bone in the human body, the sound-transmitting stapes in the ear, into a free-standing human-height foam sculpture (Laboring); to Seduction, a sculpture that entailed a peacock's tail feather tickling a cooking gas cylinder.
84 Days, 84 Works won the artist wide recognition, plus candidacy for that year's Golden Palms and Razzies-serious, albeit parodic, good-vs.-bad awards established by several Beijing-based art critics. One critic nominated him for both.
The Klein show opens with a neon sign high on the wall right of the entrance. The 2012 work spells out its own title, Red Green, but each word is written in the contrary color. This confounding arrangement wonderfully coincides with the Stroop test, a widely used neuropsychological metric developed in early 20th century. When asked to read a series of color names printed in shades they do not denote, test subjects take longer and become more mistake-prone. So the "Stroop effect" is often induced in various experiment designs to help gauge a person's mental capacity. Exhibition viewers, beware. In this instance, Lu activates both the neon sign's eye-catching iridescence and its crisp readability, pitting them against each other.
Direct experience is often key to Lu's work. An untitled 2012 work in the show, for example, consists of what look like black garbage bags mistakenly scattered on the floor. Viewers who attempt to kick or move them, however, quickly discover that they are solid lead. "Most of the time the sculpture is a ‘skin,'"comments Lu, "but I wanted to expand the visual experience into the tactile." Speaking with A.i.A., the artist explained that the work evolved from an old performance piece in which he sealed himself in a large black garbage bag at a gallery opening; he later made a sculpture evoking the form.
Lu's large-scale photograph Moon in the Room (2011) was inspired by the artist's own spontaneous solution to the frustrating experience of moon-viewing in heavily polluted Beijing. Culling an image of a crescent moon from Google, he enlarged it on the computer screen, then photographed his unlit room bathed in the warm glow of the moon image and two small, glittering power buttons that look like distant constellations. Who's to say this view doesn't possess the same potential for poetic evocation as the real thing?
Elsewhere in the gallery, Lie (2007) consists of two large photographs of seemingly identical floral bouquets: one features real flowers; the other, artificial ones so convincing that only one or two unnatural-looking small stems give the game away. The compositional style and color scheme recall 17th- and 18th-century Flemish flower paintings by artists like Jan Brueghel the Elder, while their ornate gilded frames and the crimson wall (painted by Lu) simulate an old master gallery at the Metropolitan Museum.
Three paintings on another wall are breathtakingly hyper-real: the infinitesimal details on a shoddy artificial flower, a memento mori trilogy of three apples in different stages of decay, and the artist's wide-open, blood-shot and neurotic-looking eye, each ensconced in a translucent, raggedly textured frame. Designed, sculpted and colored by Lu in heavyweight artificial resin, the frames are intended as containers of time—the time devoted to these meticulous paintings by the artist and viewers, as well as the time in which life cycles take place. The series initially began as a response to the crazed tempo and intense conceptual calculations of 84 Days, 84 Works. As the piercing stare in the painting of the artist's left eye suggests, everything is constantly called into question. His own practices are no exception.