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LONDON (Reuters) - Influential British art collector Charles Saatchi is back after three years out of the limelight, opening a major new gallery in central London showcasing some of China's hottest artists.
The man who introduced the world to Britart stalwarts like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin has been largely absent from the art scene since his gallery was forced out of its previous home on the River Thames in 2005.
Now he is back with a huge new exhibition space in upmarket Chelsea, where he hopes free entry to the imposing former headquarters of the Duke of York will attract passers by.
Critics have lauded the imposing three-storey building with its glass and white-walled interior, and welcomed back one of contemporary art's biggest players. But the inaugural show, opening on Thursday, has earned mixed reviews.
"The Revolution Continues: New Art from China" is dedicated to Chinese artists including established stars like Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Fanzhi, whose painting fetched $9.7 million in May, a record for Asian contemporary artwork.
Some critics have categorized the crazed, laughing men of Yue or the gray, stylized portraits of Zhang as repetitive, even "mass production" art.
Generally more popular were the sculptures, particularly an installation piece called "Old Persons Home" by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, involving 13 aging men on wheelchairs moving randomly around a large basement room.
Their striking resemblance to late world leaders turns the work into a commentary on the pitfalls of power and conflict. The gallery calls it "a grizzly parody of the U.N. dead."
But the gallery's head of development, Rebecca Wilson, said Saatchi's target audience was less the experts -- critics, collectors and curators -- and more the general public, most of whom are unfamiliar with contemporary Chinese art.
"There was a feeling that all of these artists were suddenly emerging from China, doing very well at auction, there were the Beijing Olympics coming up," she told Reuters.
"There was this kind of convergence of interest in China, so we felt it should be the exhibition that we open with."
Early next year the Saatchi Gallery will put on a show dedicated to contemporary Middle Eastern art, including from Iran and Iraq, by artists never seen in Britain before.
"None of those artists have been seen in this country before and will be very little known elsewhere in the world as well," said Wilson. "I think Charles has been searching for months to try to find interesting works."
Saatchi sells some art after an exhibition ends, partly to fund his enterprise. Auction house Phillips de Pury is supporting the gallery to ensure entry will be free.
Looming large over "The Revolution Continues" is the figure of Chairman Mao Zedong, still a towering presence for some of the older artists on display despite his death 32 years ago.
He turns up in Shi Xinning's ironic paintings which place the Chinese revolutionary leader in incongruous settings, including at the Yalta Conference in 1945 where he sits alongside Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin.
His portrait is also superimposed over Beijing's Tiananmen Square in Zeng's painting, a reference to the military crackdown of student-led demonstrations there in 1989.
Jiang Jiehong, director of the Center for Chinese Visual Arts at Birmingham City University said the use of Mao's image was less significant today than when artists in China first challenged the authorities.
"I think if we are talking about the contemporary, you really want to see how artists can push the boundaries and challenge the existing rules," he told Reuters.
"Those rules have been challenged already and it's not a boundary anymore, so it can be seen as less significant, say, in comparison with the work that appeared 30 years ago."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)
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