The Allen’s newest exhibit, Conversations: Past and Present in Asia and America challenges the popular assumption that art embodies a strict chronological progression from past to present and influence to influenced. To Curator of Asian Art Kevin Greenwood, it is a much more active process of cultural exchange. The exhibit, comprised of Asian and Asian-style pieces, presents art as a global dialogue punctuated by temporal and geographical disjuncture. It is currently on display in the John N. Stern Gallery.
“I really wanted to emphasize that these artists were not passive receptors of … cultural traditions, but they were very actively engaged in picking and choosing things,” Greenwood said. “They have their own artistic visions, which include subjects, styles, techniques and modes from the Asian tradition.”
Artworks are arranged in groups that emphasize an often complicated web of influences and cultural entanglements.
The first wall a person sees upon entering the gallery features a hanging scroll and two folding screens. Both screens were created by Japanese artist Sugai Baikan as part of his series “Landscapes in the Styles of Chinese Masters.” One of the screens is in the style of Chinese artist Lán Yīng, who painted the accompanying scroll over two centuries earlier.
On another wall, four long hanging scrolls — the oldest from 1661 and the most recent from 2009 — depict dramatic, monochrome landscapes by different artists. Stylistically and thematically, these paintings exemplify a series of ideas bounced back and forth through time by their creators, as well as with other artists and styles mentioned in the titles of the pieces, indicating the much larger discourse from which these pieces have been plucked.
“[Baikan] was part of a movement in painting in Japan in the 18th and 19th century called the Nanga school — they were Japanese artists who had mastered Chinese literati painting styles,” Greenwood said. “So [these screens] are a Japanese artist doing landscape paintings in the style of earlier Chinese artists. … And the painting by Lán Yīng [depicts] an actual conversation of two historical figures that, in a sense, kind of parallels the relationship between the painter and a Buddhist master. So there are all these layers of conversation with the past that are going on just in that pairing right there.”
Two large glass cabinets stand in the center of the room. One of them contains a porcelain vase made in the mid-18th century in conscious imitation of earlier Ming dynasty-style decoration, framed by four paper and plaster sculptures positioned in each corner of the cabinet. These blue and white pieces were made in the 1950s by American contemporary artist Arlene Shechet, who took inspiration for both the color and shape of these pieces from classic Chinese designs. The other cabinet holds contemporary Japanese artist Fukami Sueharu’s abstract piece Soaring, a glazed porcelain sculpture.
“You can see a kind of back-and-forth with ceramic styles that, for example, come from China, go to Korea, go to Japan, and then come to America, and many contemporary artists in America, China, Japan and Korea are using these traditional ceramic types and continuing them but bringing a contemporary art sensibility to them,” Greenwood elaborated. “I think the best example of that is Soaring. … Fukami Sueharu has taken porcelain and this ancient glaze type and [has created] this amazing, very abstract sculptural piece that looks like a wave or a blade or something … floating in space. And he created it using an industrial process — high-pressure slip-mold casting, the same kind of process that’s used for making sinks and toilets. But he’s used that process for this really wonderful artistic vision.”
The third wall of the gallery displays two scrolls of calligraphy, each painted with a minimalist elegance. Each calligrapher is in conversation with a poet — the rightmost scroll, Waiting for the Moon at Six Bridges, was created by Chinese artist Mào Xiāng in the 17th century after a poem of the same name by Yuán Hóngdào. The scroll on the left is a contemporary piece by American artist Michael Cherney, after Nobel laureate Bob Dylan’s poem Last Thoughts on Woodie Guthrie.
Cherney, who gave a talk on Tuesday about this piece in particular and about his larger practice of landscape photography, elaborated on the unique quality Chinese calligraphy imparts upon its subject matter, a visual layer beyond meaning.
“Most of the most beautiful aspects of [the Chinese language] are in its writing,” Cherney said. “There are visual elements to Chinese characters and components of characters that ended up shaping poetry in a way that’s almost impossible to describe with Western poetry. If you just take the meaning of characters in a line of Chinese poetry and translate it into English, you’ll get one aspect of the poem, but … there are visual elements to the characters which, for really great poets, add another layer of meaning which [is] very difficult to translate.”
Cherney was inspired to set Dylan’s poem in calligraphy by his perception of a cultural shift within China.
“I felt that China was really changing,” he said. “People were getting very caught up in material culture, and that poem kind of resonated. [It was] just a nice message to spend time with, compared to what I was seeing around me.”
As an American who has devoted his life to studying and working with traditional Asian art forms both in his calligraphy practice and in his landscape photography, Cherney’s is a foreign perspective steeped in both affinity and acquired understanding.
“People should not be surprised when an aesthetic tradition, such as China’s, would appeal to anybody,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to change anything, because I have my own perspective from where I’m coming from — I get a lot of benefit from that too.”
Cherney also reflected on the implication of displaying his calligraphy, with its foreign perspective and content in concert with Mào Xiāng’s piece, adding another layer to the conversations between these works and the larger practice of calligraphy in the past and present.
“It’s a bit surreal and it’s an honor, but I don’t consider my calligraphy all that great,” Cherney said. “[There are] thousands of people who practice calligraphy in China, and in any given century, maybe there will be a handful of them whose calligraphy seems like it will go down in the canon — like putting a brick in that road that came out of history. … But if there are people who could have done this poem with much nicer calligraphy, they may not have chosen Bob Dylan. … This exhibition [is a place] where people can see that the assumed definition of the word ‘tradition’ being something old is not correct. It’s actually past, present and future.”
The delicate nature of the works on display requires that they not be exposed to the kind of prolonged light exposure permanent items typically receive. For this reason, they will be rotated out of the exhibit in the spring. Greenwood considers this an opportunity to present the community with more aspects of the AMAM’s extensive collection of Asian art.
“In the spring, all the paintings are going to change,” he said. “I’m going to continue with the theme of conversations, but I’m going to look at artists who have used historical photographs as the subject for really fascinating interpretations. We’re going to look at Asian and Asian-American artists who were inspired by the American pop-art movement. We’re going to see artists that were inspired by traditional Japanese wood-block prints, and I think it’s really going to be an interesting mix of things, very different from what’s on view now. …When we get to the spring, it’s a totally different world. It’s all going to be very dynamic, dramatic, colorful, very poignant in some cases, political, and there’s a lot of really fascinating stuff to look forward to.”