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Print Edition> Lifestyle
UPDATED: December 20, 2010 NO. 51 DECEMBER 23, 2010
Imperishable Ink
MFA's creative exhibition presents contemporary artists' response to classical works

Secluded Valley in the Cold Mountains by Arnold Chang (COURTESY OF MFA)

The idea is compelling—inviting contemporary Chinese artists to interpret classic masterpieces with brush and ink.

It embedded itself deeply in the mind of 37-year-old Hao Sheng, the Wu Tung Curator of Chinese Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), but it took five years for him to finally present the result of his brainchild to the general public. The exhibition Fresh Ink: 10 Takes on Chinese Tradition opened on November 20 in the MFA's new Ann and Graham Gund Gallery.

Fresh Ink features 10 leading contemporary Chinese and Chinese-American artists' creating works in direct response to world-famous objects from the MFA's permanent collection, ranging from an ancient Chinese bronze vessel from the 11th century B.C., the paintings on silk from the Song Dynasties (960-1268), to modern American painter Jackson Pollock (1912-1956)'s oil painting of 1949.

By juxtaposing the new works with the masterpieces to which the artists refer, Sheng said the exhibition would create a dynamic stage on which the classical works provide the historical context for what the new pieces came from, while the new ones open up our understanding and interpretation of the old. This will make MFA's collection of ancient masterpieces more accessible to today's general audience.

Focusing on contemporary Chinese ink painting, the exhibition also aims to present the rich diversity and creativity of Chinese art today and its profound connection to the long tradition of ink painting, says the MFA, a U.S. museum with one of the finest collections of Chinese art overseas. It contains approximately 8,000 objects in the Chinese collection, including painting, sculpture, textiles, ceramics, metalwork and decorative arts.

Sheng "belongs to a new generation of curators whose bi-cultural fluency is bringing a fresh approach to the interpretation of culture-specific collections for the museum-going public in the United States," the MFA said. Sheng joined the museum in 2004 as the Assistant Curator of Chinese Art and was named Wu Tung Curator of Chinese Art in 2007. He received his Master of Arts in Chinese art history from Harvard University, where he is a Ph.D. candidate.

As a curator, Sheng had long been pondering the question of how to introduce the MFA's vast collection to a broader audience. He referred to his personal experience with artists who came to the museum to examine specific works of art. "Artists are the most astute observers of art," Sheng said. "They see deeper into the artworks."

Viewing artworks together with artists offered Sheng background knowledge of the mechanisms of the ways artists paint, allowing him also to see more deeply and gain new insights.

So he started to think about sharing his experience of interaction with the artists and artwork with general gallery exhibition visitors. He then initiated the concept of an exhibition pairing classical and contemporary works one next to another.

He embarked on this project in 2005 seeking out the ideal artists for the exhibition. He said that it had been the careful choice of the artists that really shaped the exhibition, and it was also one of the most challenging parts of the whole process. "You have so many different requirements to consider," he said.

"I looked for artists whose existing works already demonstrated a deep insight into classical art," Sheng said. He was seeking artists who would come to the exhibition using different strategies to respond to the classical works, complementing each other.

In 2006, 10 artists from China and the United States were invited by the MFA to attend an artist-in-residency program at the museum. During the next three years, they traveled to Boston and studied masterpieces from the museum's collection. Each of them eventually selected a work to which they responded with their own work.

Arnold Chang, who has been studying classical ink painting for more than 20 years, is the only Chinese-American of the 10 artists. He chose Jackson Pollock's Number 10 oil painting and spent eight months on responding to it with a handscroll of a landscape named Secluded Valley in the Cold Mountains.

"In choosing this work, I think it's very obvious that I'm not making a copy of this painting. But I'm trying to take something from this work and transform it into my own style," Chang said. "That will give people the opportunity to try to re-understand or to understand better what it is," he said.

Chang grew up in New York. He said Chinese art had been the major force in drawing him back to his heritage. The show was groundbreaking "because it focuses on contemporary ink painting, an area which has been much ignored. Most Westerners interested in Chinese ink painting today probably tend to like the classical work of the early period," he said.

Yu Hong, famous for portraying contemporary women, picked the MFA's iconic masterpiece, Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk of the early 12th century, which is described by Sheng as the "Mona Lisa of Chinese art." Yu said that she was only 14 years old when she first saw this artwork in a book. "I have been yearning for a look at the masterpiece since then," she said. When she was finally able to see the work from a close distance at the MFA, she was thrilled and excited. In response to this highly-valued artwork, Yu created eight shimmering silk banners, on which she painted 12 life-sized contemporary female figures in thinly mixed acrylics.

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