Subversive Chinese Brush-Up at the Met

Yang Jiechang’s Crying Landscape (2003) shares the Gallery for Art of Ancient China with a sandstone stele from the Northern Wei dynasty (489-495) and the 1319 Buddha of Medicine.

Yang Jiechang’s Crying Landscape (2003) shares the Gallery for Art of Ancient China with a sandstone stele from the Northern Wei dynasty (489-495) and the 1319 Buddha of Medicine.

Normally, the galleries for Asian Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are pretty tranquil. But through April 6, you’ll find them buzzing with contemporary art lovers reveling in the hunt to find the most famous, subversive, subtle works by Chinese painters, sculptors, and digital artists residing amidst centuries-old treasures in the widely popular exhibition, Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China.

The Met gave the Chinese art curators free reign to pluck sly works from the in-house contemporary collections created by Chinese artists over the last 20 years, grab monumental works from private collectors, and mount a tribute to how post-Cultural Revolution innovators parse the traditions associated with centuries-old art making in their ancestral country.

How do the hottest artists on the planet turn calligraphy and inked woodblocks into biting social commentary? Take a stroll through the second floor Asian art wing.

Inspired by Cultural Revolution posters, the letters in Wu Shanzhuan’s Character Image of Black Character Font (1989) have no meaning.

Inspired by Cultural Revolution posters, the letters in Wu Shanzhuan’s Character Image of Black Character Font (1989) have no meaning. Courtesy: Private collector, the artist.

Just past the balcony-bar area, the monumental 1319 Buddha of Medicine mural from Shanxi Province, China, casts a benign presence over the Gallery for Art of Ancient China. But just stage right, two larger-than-life works on paper preview how Chinese artists twist the “then” into the “now”.

Yang Jiechang’s Crying Landscape panels are painted in the beautiful, colorful “old school” flat Asian style but depict decidedly unbeautiful industrial and political subjects. Similarly, Qiu Zhirie’s Nanjing Yangzi River Bridge ink triptych features masterful, large-scale ink-brush technique but uses art-world icons to relay a disturbing story. It’s an installation triumph that will haunt you every time you pass through that room again.

Large-scale calligraphy by many of the artists makes ink-pot-and-brush tradition echo with gestures as large as Rothko’s. In the galleries with meticulously crafted “landscape” drawings and images, you’ll ask how this modern crew managed to produce scrolls with such heft and detail. Take a walk-through of the show through our Flickr site.

In 1995, Ai Weiwei corporatized a Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 9 A.D.) earthenware jar.

In 1995, Ai Weiwei corporatized a Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 9 A.D.) earthenware jar. Courtesy: M + Sigg, the artist

Along the way to back of the wing, the curators play hide-and-seek, putting Ai Weiwei’s “enhanced” Han Dynasty jar right in the aisle with the “unmodernized” earthenware vessels, and mounting Hong Hoo’s subtly colored, hilarious historical “atlas” silkscreens in a case that practically dares unfocused visitors to pass them by as they drift toward the Astor Court.

Hopefully by the time they get to the rock garden they will notice Zhang Jianjun’s crazy pink silicone rubber “scholar rock” right next to the real ones. Zhan Wang’s stainless steel scholar rock and Shou Fan’s side chairs are beautifully arranged in the Ming Dynasty room just off the Court, along with more of Ai Weiwei’s furniture hijinx.

After you’re done getting a feel for how the galleries have been transformed, go back into the Met’s exhibition web site to study the brushwork and details and get to know some of the artists.

Zhang Jianjun’s 2008 silicone rubber Scholar Rock (The Mirage Garden) sits in a 17th-century pagoda in the Met’s Astor Court

Zhang Jianjun’s 2008 silicone rubber Scholar Rock (The Mirage Garden) sits under a 17th-century pagoda in the Met’s Astor Court. Courtesy: Sigg Collection, the atist

Although the web site appears to be more plain-vanilla than jazzy, you’ll be surprised to see that the digital back-end of the Met archives lets you zoom into each of the paintings to see the handsome handwork of each of these wunderkinds from each thematic section of the show. You can even peruse the gigantic scrolls up close, section by section.

The video room, where art lovers can relax and watch a rotating collection of work, is a nice touch. The modern digital sign to the side tells you exactly where you are in the rotation.

Here’s a link to one of the featured videos: Get to know the constantly transforming cityscape of Beijing through Chen Shaoxiong’s 2005  Ink City, and see what happens when a contemporary artist paints daily life in Beijing with traditional tools and ports his day-to-night experience to video.

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