Review: Beauty Without Beards

An edgy yet restrained exploration of Greek ideas of beauty

Beauty Without Beards is the second show put on by KWM Art Center, a gallery opened last October beneath the Beijing offices of international law firm King & Wood Mallesons. The gallery is an extension of the firm and is located, incongruously, inside a shiny CBD skyscraper. Still, it has mounted a successful early gambit with this pairing of photographer Ren Hang and painter Li Xinjian.

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The title and curatorial conceit of Beauty Without Beards revolve around the question of how ancient Greek concepts of beauty are expressed across eras and cultures. Here this translates to mostly male, and, especially in Ren Hang’s case, mostly nude subjects. Motifs of sexual freedom and repression are cleverly juxtaposed in the hanging of the works: Ren Hang’s photos show naked young men in surreal, unnatural but formally elegant poses.

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Ren Hang more obviously abstracts the human body into a subject of purely formal beauty, but both artists contort the human form into unlikely physical configurations. Li Xinjian’s subjects are often flanked by imagery suggesting phallic deflation, loaded symbols such as skyscrapers on fire or rockets in blast while the boys below shrink into the background.

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The curator of the show stated at its opening that KWM 'wants every exhibit to be a question', and Beauty Without Beards indeed leaves the viewer with some. Most glaringly: what does any of this have to do with Greek aesthetics? The exhibit seems to repudiate sexuality-as-theme while also treating it as a background subject, subtly informing the selection of works and their arrangement. Nevertheless, it is a strong arrangement, and an interesting pairing of two well-known contemporary artists whose dissimilar aesthetics reveal unlikely congruities in one another.
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