Chinese-born artist Yun-Fei Ji's ambitious mission is this: To portray the environmental and social perils of his native land's Three Gorges Dam, one of the world's largest ongoing construction projects. When completed in 2009, Chinese government officials expect the dam, located in the Hubei province in east-central China, to produce the energy of 18 nuclear plants. In the process, opponents such as Ji contend, more than 1 million people will have been displaced and entire towns -- 100 of them by some estimates -- will have been drowned.
Such devastation is the subject of Ji's painting cycle, "The Empty City," now making the rounds of a small cadre of museums and on view through mid-August at Provisions Library. Six scroll-like works are on view, spanning long walls or hanging in vertical swaths.
Ji starts with old-fashioned techniques. Sung Dynasty works on paper made around the year 1000 serve as a template. Back then, scroll makers used mineral inks on paper to depict scenic vistas of mountains, rivers and trees. If humans appeared in the pictures at all, they were portrayed as insignificant little things. At Provisions Library, the sepia and charcoal pigmented scrolls filled with mountainous landscapes could pass, at first glance, as historic works. Even the paper Ji uses is worked and yellowed, as if by age.
Up close, though, the works' contemporary content becomes immediately apparent. Inserted into the gorgeous landscape is Ji's hand-picked cast of characters: Chairman Mao and assorted Cultural Revolution figures, men in hard hats working on construction sites, folks in hazmat suits, junked cars and peasant families fleeing on foot with belongings strapped to their backs. The figures represent two parts of the dam's story: its antecedents (the dam idea had been bandied about for the better part of a century before ground was broken; Mao was a particularly vociferous proponent) and its present-day realities.
Though Ji works with compelling subject matter and technique, his paintings aren't all that interesting to look at. The tiny figures are oftentimes difficult to discern from the landscape surrounding them. And though some are identifiable, a great many will have no resonance for Westerners. But the real trouble comes down to Ji's fluency with figure drawing. His details lack graphic punch. Though Ji has mastered the gestalt of scroll painting, he has not mastered its particulars. His tiny figures lack a compelling line and expression, so it's hard to want to keep looking.
That said, one picture, the satirical "Bon Voyage" that opens the show, proves a welcome exception. At the scroll's very bottom, a cruise ship approaches along the Yangtze River. On board, pudgy tourists crowd the deck or float in a swimming pool amid gaudy balloons. Up ahead on the water, men clean up toxic waters. Yet farther upstream, dead animals, junked cars and fleeing peasants occupy the riverfront. Out with old traditions, in with new commercial horrors, Ji seems to say. His cautionary point is well taken. But his visual kick isn't.
Maranzana at the Italian Cultural Institute
From the look of things, young Italian designer Riccardo Maranzana seems to have taken a tip from Wolfgang Laib or local sculptor Mary Early, both of whom favor using fragrant beeswax in their artworks. Maranzana's wall sculptures, which accompany a show of his furniture at the Italian Cultural Institute, are made from small wood cylinders and blocks pressed together and doused in a translucent gold coating with a flat, waxy cast.
Yet Maranzana's works fail the sniff test. Turns out, in fact, that they're coated in a decidedly manufactured ingredient -- glue. The resulting pieces are a somber lot of natural elements embalmed, as if in amber.
You won't find such dour sentiments in Maranzana's furniture, though. In strong contrast to his artworks, his chairs and tables exude an emphatic liveliness. Likely his studies at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design and the Southern California Institute of Architecture honed his design skills. Now in his early thirties, Maranzana's forte is the domestic objects on view here, many shaped into arthropod-like forms. It's as if a troupe of oversize insects found their way inside the gallery. At nighttime, one suspects, they must wander the building's halls.
Both Maranzana's artworks and his furniture engage repetitive shapes. The art references honeycombs and hives by tethering small stumpy cylinders or blocks of wood one to the next. Many of his chairs, too, incorporate repeated elements of shaped plywood held together by metal brackets and pins. A few pieces are made from solid walnut. The base structure of his "Radial Bed" incorporates 16 leg-like arms issuing from a central disc, as if forming a particularly leggy spider. The metal legs of his "Moveable Legs Table" emerge from a pod-like torso. Each has a skeletal quality and an arch to the limbs that feel genuinely buggy.
Just metal and wood slats. But the furniture lives. Maranzana suggests that the objects we live with should be as animated as we are. And the artworks on our walls? Those he'd best leave for others to make.
The Empty City: Works by Yun-Fei Ji at Provisions Library, 1611 Connecticut Ave., NW, Tuesday-Friday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., 202-299-0460, to Aug. 15.
Riccardo Maranzana: Art & Design at the Italian Cultural Institute, 2025 M St., NW, Suite 610, Monday-Friday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., 202-223-9800, to Sept. 17.