The momentous changes in Chinese life since the liberalization of the 80s are reflected in its art, much of which seeks a new balance between Eastern and Western approaches. This turbulent history is reflected in “Shanghai 2000,” an exhibit opening Friday at Walsh Gallery that owners Ralph and Julie Walsh are billing as the largest-ever show of painting from the Shanghai school in the U.S. With it, they hope to draw attention to a style of painting that’s less well-known in the West than the more dominant Beijing school.

While Beijing painters were often political in their work, says Qu Gu Jiang, a Chicago artist who emigrated from Shanghai in 1987 and now teaches at the School of the Art Institute, Shanghai painters were “more concerned with technique.” In the mid-19th century, at the same time the British were developing the city as a port, founders of the Shanghai school began to incorporate Western influences into their work. The West’s influence remained strong in the early 20th century, causing some difficulties, as when artist Lu Hai Shu introduced drawing from nude models in the 1920s and “was banned by the warlord who had the power in Shanghai,” says Jiang. “Lu was one of my teachers, in the late 70s,” when he could only accept private students, his art school having been wrested from him by the communists decades earlier.

“Other regions had some Western influence but went in a more realistic direction, especially in the north”–where Russian-influenced socialist realism was dominant, says Jiang. “The second-generation Shanghai school mixed Western and Chinese influences not only technically but also artistically and philosophically.” The tradition of openness and experimentation established by the first and second generations of the Shanghai school continues today. “Shanghai is the leader in abstract painting,” Jiang says.

The lives of the artists in the show reflect this openness as well as China’s history. Zhang Hai Tian grew up copying sketches from books in Shanghai, where his father was an art collector. But in 1969, during the Cultural Revolution, the 17-year-old Zhang was sent to labor on a remote northern farm, where there was a complete lack of “any art for me to study for inspiration.” He did a lot of Mao portraits, but back in Shanghai, where he was permitted to return for a month each year, he found a teacher who “trained me in the Western way.” He believes that his 11 years in the countryside “have a big influence on my creation today. Spiritually I’m much stronger. I experienced hard-ships and know life better.”

Trained in oils, Zhang later began using traditional Chinese materials, ink and watercolor and rice paper. In some works, he “tries to describe the changes in Shanghai right now, and also changes in myself.” Woman in the Park is an eerie, semiabstract portrait with an almost disembodied, Modigliani-like head floating in front of an urban park; there’s an awkward angularity and sense of dislocation quite unlike anything found in traditional Chinese painting.

Xue Song’s series of nine collages, Coca-Cola, includes torn paper with edges browned with a candle flame. He started using such materials in 1991, when his neighbor’s studio burned down, destroying much of his own work. “I was so shocked, I couldn’t think or move much,” he says. He found the fragments left by the fire “sadly beautiful,” and thought, “Why can’t I put these materials into my paintings?” He began using these pieces in collages. Fire seems to be a theme in Xue’s life; he had two more studio fires, one caused by sparks from papers he had singed with a candle.

Each panel of Coca-Cola centers on a reproduction of a traditional Chinese landscape painting cut in the shape of a Coke bottle; around it are fragments of calligraphy torn from books. Xue says these works express ambivalence about the “big impact” Western culture is having on China: “I used traditional Chinese materials to reveal the Coca-Cola bottle shape; the two can be in harmony but also go against each other.”

Another artist in the show, Le Jian, had “moved to the outskirts of Shanghai” when Julie Walsh met him in 1995, she says, “because he wanted to paint contemporary images of Buddhism to expose the public to alternate ways of thinking. In traditional Buddhist thought, women were never enlightened, and his were nude; this was extremely daring.” Now Le Jian paints headless and armless nudes in boxes. The figure in Space 23 shares her tiny area with a potted plant, and in the back of the box cloud-shaped openings to the sky are visible. “I think the nudes in boxes are also symbolic of life in Shanghai at this moment,” Walsh says. “His women are trying to bypass hopelessness and helplessness. In these boxes there’s always a way out. He’s also saying there’s nothing wrong with desire, with sexuality–you can accept this part of nature, you don’t have to suppress it.”

“Shanghai 2000” opens Friday, November 10, with a reception from 5 to 8 PM. Eight of the 11 artists have come from Shanghai to attend. The show will be at the gallery’s new space, 118 N. Peoria, fourth floor, until January 20. Gallery hours are Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 6 PM. Call 312-360-9171 for more.

–Fred Camper