14 February 2011

Fresh Ink exhibit at Boston MFA

Detail, Nine Dragons scroll.
Artist Chen Rong, dated 1244.

On February 11, Jay and I visited Fresh Ink, an installation at the MFA on view from November 20, 2010, until February 13, 2011. Ten Chinese and Chinese-American artists created new works, each responding to a masterpiece in the museum's collection. Most of the works utilized traditional materials such as ink, silk and paper; imagery and applications were the variables.

Entrance to the exhibit.

Given that the masterworks eliciting the responses are in the artistic firmament, the newer work is almost guaranteed to suffer in any direct comparison. However, it was still interesting to see how a group blessed with, or saddled with, a very long tradition of entrenched cultural expectations grappled with this tradition. Reactions were varied, ranging from straight forward re-interpretation to gentle parody, from outright homage to personal responses that defied easy categorization. Engaging with one's heritage - always an interesting point of departure.

Nine Dragons scroll, left, 13th century.
Nine Trees, by artist Zeng Xiaojun, 2007-2010.

The Nine Dragons scroll, unfurled in a special case, is one of the most spectacular works owned by the MFA. Nine dragons cavort and gambole in a billowing background which is as animate as the living creatures. Here, ink, made from mere lampblack and water, reaches its apotheosis as a medium. "Drawing" is an inadequate verb with which to describe the action of brush and pigment, as ink is scumbled, spattered, pounced and layered, creating an atmosphere of clouds, fog and water as full of energy as are the dragons.

Zeng Xiaojun gamely chose this work as his launching pad, although he is a painter of landscape, not figures. However, with every kink and twist, the nine trees in his landscape come as close to mobility as possible for rooted objects.

Left, Secluded Valley in the Cold Mountains, Arnold Chang, 2008.
Right, Number 10, Jackson Pollock, 1949.

Arnold Chang, a New York native, chose a work by another American, Jackson Pollock, but this juxtaposition is not as strange as it might initially appear. In traditional Chinese ink painting, each brush stroke records every incremental decision made by the artist. Similarly, Pollock created a paint diary, every drip a scribbled record of his choices in color and sequence, and of his every movement over the canvas.

The link between the two artists is further emphasized as Mr. Chang exhibits Mr. Pollock's painting flat, in another one of those long horizontal cases, rather than hanging it vertically on the wall. The viewer sees it in the same orientation in which the painting was created, and this simple displacement was more affecting than the almost grandiose scale of some of the other works in the show.

Left, Fangyi-Shaped Ritual Vessel, 11th - 10th century, BC.
Right, Civilization Landscape Series, Qin Feng, 2010.

In an awkwardly sectioned off area of the exhibit an ancient bronze vessel, with traces of very early Chinese writing, was surrounded by large folding screens and hanging scrolls by artist Qin Feng. Although I found the bronze vessel fascinating, somehow this dialog between artifact and response just didn't jell for me. It might have been the cramped space, or the singularity of the folded items in a cohort of scrolls.

Li Jin, various works.

Contemporary artist Li Jin selected an early figurative painting, Northern Qi Scholars Collating Classic Texts, from the 7th century, as his point of departure. This work, which was impossible to photograph, shows a group of well-fed, bearded men organizing cumbersome scrolls.

This artist visited Boston briefly during the project, hence the Bosox cap in the image above. Behind the baseball fan it appears that two of the ancient scholars, as well as some court ladies, came along for the ride, a humorous touch.

Museum patron with Honorable Old Man Rock,
Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644.
Background, nine photographs of
Honorable Old Man Rock, Liu Dan, 2010.

Finally, a contemporary work that is a very direct homage to its inspiration. Liu Dan deploys nine photographs in a worshipful arc around their subject. The rock, the personification of self-possession, engaged in a silent dialog with the woman in the red shoes.

Note on photography: white spots in images are glare from overhead lights.