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Houston

Remember that childhood canard about how if every citizen of China jumped out of an airplane at once, their impact would equal that of a nuclear bomb? It's an odd way to get your head around the gargantuan size of the world's largest country, but it worked for me. Like China, this show is huge. If this show was dropped out of an airplane onto the Henry Art Gallery, it would make a big dent, for sure, though the new galleries' bunker-like structure might just withstand such an assault. The effect on the viewer should be similar. This gargantuan show, spanning from the mid-'80s to the present, is much more than an introduction to contemporary Chinese art.

The art on view will be largely unrecognizable to fans of Chinese art as it's currently defined, which is as a historical form. Many of these contemporary artists have links to the traditional art forms of China, as seen at the Seattle Asian Art Museum, but just as many do not. As our local caretakers of Asian art deal exclusively in traditional forms, this kind of work has never been seen in Seattle.

The show is divided into four sections, befitting the divisions of China itself. Each section is further divided between the two local museums hosting the show; you can see parts of everything at either museum, but you'll need to visit both to get the whole picture. The sections are geographic: One each for the art of the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the vast diaspora of Chinese artists who've emigrated to Europe and the U.S.

Within these categories, broad themes emerge. Mainland China includes the new wave "'85 Movement," political pop art, and "Apartment Art," so named because its practitioners retreated from the country's restrictive art institutions to work in private. In rich Taiwan, one school challenges that island country's runaway materialism, while another explores what it means to be Chinese, either by working with folk forms or by exploring specific Taiwanese roots. The Hong Kong artwork included often relates to that city's uneasy transition from a British protectorate to a governance by Beijing. The overseas artists negotiate a space within the international art world while retaining certain native influences.

Broad, ambitious, rich -- and did I mention big? -- this show is the rare blockbuster touring show that doesn't need to prove itself. It's no repackaging of popular European impressionists, no corporate collection promoting itself: It's a breathtakingly wide view of an almost unknown art world, and it's a must-see.