Chinese artists have been painting the Yangtze River valley and its famous Three Gorges canyons for millennia, adhering to the tradition of painting not just what the valley looks like physically, but also aspiring to portray the spiritual essence of the rocks and gnarled trees. (Wow, it's good to see that we totally have not moved beyond our sophomore "Introduction to Chinese Painting" class in our level of art historical analysis.)

Contemporary Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong, currently showing at the Asian Art Museum, has gone back to the Yangtze River valley for inspiration, but sees something completely different there than the painters of the Song Dynasty -- because, of course, the Chinese government is damming up the Yangtze River and destroying the Three Gorges in the process. Like the works of the classical masters before him, Liu's huge Western-style canvases also seek to portray the complex nature of the relationship between man and nature in China, this time in the 21st century. Is nature destroying China or is China destroying nature?

Liu shows grandiose craggy mountains and swirls of waterfalls, but he also includes the scenes of squalor in the foreground-- despoiled lands, children carrying guns, people with ugly expressions on their faces. It'd be like if someone went back to Monet's Rouen cathedrals to paint scenes of petty crime and air pollution along with the beauty of the light hitting the stained glass. What responsibility does China bear to its people, its history, and its land?

The Three Gorges Project will be at the Asian Art Museum through July 16, 2006. The Asian Art Museum is open Tuesdays-Sundays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m (Thursdays open until 9). "Displaced Populations" (detail) by Liu Xiaodong.