I am still way behind on posting about exhibits I saw on the East Coast over winter break. Trying to catch up… but I realize I’ve lost my notes that I took of my impressions and thoughts while visiting this exhibit, which is only going to make the whole process that much more difficult, as I try to reconstruct those impressions from the photographs, and from memory.
Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a major Chinese art event not to be missed. It features ten new works by major Chinese artists inspired by the great treasures of the MFA’s Chinese art collection.* So, this is not just an opportunity to see amazing works by some of the hottest contemporary artists in the world today, but also to see some exceptionally, unbelievably famous Chinese paintings, and to see the way these contemporary artists have reinterpreted or reimagined the themes or compositions of the masterpieces of the past.
I had made the mistake of assuming it would be in the Asian Art galleries, and went there first. It’s a testament to how big a deal this exhibit is that it is being shown not in the Asian galleries, but rather in the new Gund Gallery for special exhibitions, right below the heart of the new expansion, i.e. right outside the new Art of the Americas Wing.
It was absolutely incredible to see the “Five-Color Parakeet” by Emperor Huizong – easily one of the most famous Chinese paintings, ever. Open up any good, thorough survey textbook of the history of Chinese art, and I can practically guarantee it will be in there. I felt like no matter how long I stood in front of that piece, it would be too short a time to pay it proper respects. Unless I end up working at the MFA (dream job!), I imagine it unlikely I will be seeing that painting again for a long long time, if ever. And yet, standing before it, prevented from really getting close enough to appreciate it properly, on account of the sheet of plexiglass that stood vertically between me and the painting, laid out horizontally on a pedestal, I just could not help but feel like I ought to be getting more out of this interaction. Here it is. A super super famous painting, by an emperor no less – a really famous emperor.
Seeing that work was incredible. But, even as I felt the desire to stand there and stare at it until something more happened, until some switch clicked and the super special experience I was waiting for happened, I knew I had to keep moving. I skimmed the rest of this “Masters” exhibition, wondering where all the rest of the treasures of the collection, not to mention the new works, were…. Certainly, the other works up were ancient, and famous, and masterful as well, but they were not any works I remembered having heard of (which speaks more to my ignorance than to anything about these masterpieces), and so I finally made my way to the Info Desk to ask and find out where Fresh Ink was.
I was pointed to a giant banner hanging over the stairs, reading “Fresh Ink.”
Each artist was introduced with a label like this one, including her signature, photos of her and her studio or process, quotes on the wall about her approach or attitude, a brief biography and summary of analysis of her work. Really a fantastic model that I think could be applied positively, productively, to most exhibits.
As soon as I hit the bottom of the stairs, boom, I got my first glance of “Fresh Ink,” and could see that it was everything “Chinese Master Paintings from the Collection” was not. It is an exhibit with some real design to it, with gallery-labels and an overall exhibit design custom-designed for this exhibition, in a super sleek, post-museum** sort of style. Rather than each piece being simply labeled with title, date, media, etc. and a brief description, we saw multiple labels for each piece, including photos of the contemporary artist with his or her signature and a brief biography, along with a brief discussion of the artist’s and curators’ thoughts and interpretations and ideas regarding the work. Other labels discussed other aspects of the piece, such as the art historical significance of the traditional masterpiece displayed alongside the new work, which served as the inspiration.
I was truly blown away by this exhibit immediately upon stepping inside. The gallery opens up in front of you, immediately presenting you with a very clear view of at least two new and contemporary works that, if you know your Chinese art history, immediately remind you of particular treasures from the collection.
For some reason, I had expected to see very conservative monochrome ink landscapes, the sort of thing that only the most expert of experts would recognize as innovative. I guess it was the “Ink” in the exhibition title. Instead, we see energetic, innovative, colorful (in some cases), incredible works using Western media (in most cases) and techniques to refer to classic compositions – really, my favorite kind of contemporary art.
Yu Hong – Spring Romance
Yu Hong’s piece is in Western paints and Western styles, in a form that couldn’t be anything but modern/contemporary – a single composition spread out across a number of separate pieces of silk, hanging more like banners than like hanging scrolls. Yet, walking into the gallery, I immediately recognized it as a reworking of the composition of “Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk,” a rather famous 12th century handscroll painting attributed to Emperor Huizong, the last emperor of the Northern Song dynasty, who also painted the parakeet mentioned above. Before even delving into any other aspects of this, the idea of a work on silk inspired by (based on) a work about preparing silk, itself also painted on silk, inserting women in modern fashions, depicted in modern/Western paints (oils? acrylics? I need to learn to be able to tell) and in a style unlike that of traditional Chinese works, holding up the ancient work on silk – these aspects alone put a smile on my face and have me enjoying the work.
The referential aspect of the artwork does not end there. Each of these young women is, in fact, a figure from another of Yu Hong’s works, each of them a friend or acquaintance, and each with a story to tell. As the labels in the gallery explain, the woman playing the flute, seen here in a detail of “Spring Romance,” had commissioned Yu Hong to paint her in commemoration of her pregnancy. We see also a friend of Yu’s, a novelist who had fallen off a building, and who asked Yu to produce casts, that is, plaster molds, of her healed legs afterward – Yu Hong herself is thus present as well, her hands covered in white plaster.
Li Jin – Reminiscence to Antiquity. Ink and color on paper, 2009. Album leaves mounted as hanging scrolls.
Li Jin’s piece at first seemed naive, amateurish, somehow. Sloppy. Like I could look at it once, think “ah, okay. Yup. Got it. Nice.” and just move on. But lingering for one moment longer, I began to see an incredible (anyone want to keep count of how many times I fail to vary my adjectives?) realism and density of color and form, and some real humor and parody in the details.
Backing up again, I love that he has created album leaves on hanging scrolls – a traditional format for very untraditional subjects in untraditional media inspired by, based on, referring back to, a traditional work.
I wish I could share with you all the pictures I took in the exhibition – there’s really just so much to see here, and so much to talk about. But, my posts are more than long enough as is, plus I feel that would be pushing the boundaries of fair use and such even more so than I already am. In any case, the exhibition is still up for a while, and the catalog should be widely available, if you would like to see more. Though the works look really watercolory at first, and I just sort of automatically therefore assumed them not worth a second look, I am glad that I did take a second look at them. Many of these album leafs are actually majorly accomplished, dense with detail and life-likeness, telling vignettes and/or sharing a great sense of humor or parody.
Based on a handscroll painting entitled “Northern Qi Scholars Collating Texts” and attributed to the great Tang dynasty painter Yan Liben (c. 600-673), Li Jin created a pair of handscrolls, and then also these album leafs / hanging scrolls, speaking to the less than serious attitudes these great ancient scholars seem to be taking. Though today we look back at the ancients and “paint” them, so to speak, in our history books and in our minds, as being of immaculate moral uprightness, and their compilations of the ancient classics of poetry and literature to verge on sacred, mythological events, in fact, even in a painting such as this – Yan Liben likewise being extolled as a paragon of virtuous, masterful Tang dynasty painting – we can clearly see the ancient masters having a raucous, drunken good ol’ time. So, Li Jin, as others (such as Wang Qingsong) have as well, seek to engage with this idea by reimagining such drunken and debaucherous escapades in a more contemporary (modern) context, or at least combined somehow with elements of the modern.
The handscrolls (not pictured here; sorry) were completed in Boston in 2008; when the artist returned to China he realized he needed to create further works on the same themes, completing the project by engaging with the subject not only in Boston, but also after having come home, those thoughts and ideas and thematics in mind, engaging with them in the different context of now being back in China.
Chinese art history, even moreso than the art histories of most cultures, is all about engagement with the past; traditionally, the only proper way to innovate in painting or calligraphy in China was to first master not only the styles of the masters of the past, but to truly engage with the spirit of those masters, and to then innovate within that tradition. Having these ten artists work with the treasures of the museum’s collection, and create new works inspired by the masterpieces of the past, therefore, is a most wonderful continuation of the spirit of that tradition, a most excellent fusion of traditional methods of developing the tradition and modern/Western-inspired media, subjects, and style. I am highly amused and entertained, and indeed pleased, therefore, to see that at least one of the artists spoke to the idea that these efforts to reclaim the past, in order to better gain insights into the present, which is essentially the central theme and purpose of this exhibition, and a major theme throughout Chinese art history, could possibly be less than successful.
Li Jin writes:
“How can people of today possibly know the thoughts of the ancients?
Mistakenly, they replace the old times with the new.
Li Jin lived in Boston in the spring of 2008, in order to pursue
A sense of antiquity…
But it was in vain.”
Fresh Ink is open through February 13th. I sadly did not know about it, and so will be missing out, but more contemporary Chinese works in the same vein will be up at the Harvard Museums through May 14, in an exhibit entitled “Brush and Ink Reconsidered.”
I could go on to talk about all the works in this show – they are each of them quite fascinating and beautiful. But I think I shall leave it for now. I hope you have the chance to see the show in person, yourself.
At the rate I’ve been going it will be a long time before my photos of this Boston trip are up on Flickr, but trust me, they will be eventually. In the meantime, please feel free to go take a look at my photos from Kyoto from last summer.
Upcoming posts will feature Japan Society’s exhibit “The Sound of One Hand: Zen Paintings by Hakuin Ekaku,” as well as a post on the 33rd Annual University of Hawaii Graduate Students Art Exhibition, up now, featuring some breathtaking work by my close friends & “cohort”/colleagues/classmates. Thank you for reading!!
*To be accurate, one work is by a Chinese-American artist, inspired by a Jackson Pollock. The rest are by Chinese artists, inspired by Chinese artworks from the collection.
**Post-modern is, of course, a term super-laden with meaning. And as I am hardly an expert at modern art terminology, I’ll leave that one alone. Suffice it to say, I identified the design aesthetic of the exhibition as something which felt, or tasted, very forward-looking, very contemporary, very new and sleek, precisely the kind of thing I wish we saw more of.
All photos taken myself. No one is to blame for the poor quality but me (and perhaps Apple; they looked soooo clear and sharp on the iPhone screen, but then when I uploaded them…). The artworks themselves are of course copyright the respective artists; gallery labels etc are copyright Museum of Fine Arts, and no claims of creative property are made by me here. Purely using photography for “personal non-commercial purposes”, pseudo-journalism, fair use in so far as I can justifiably argue so.