From Neolithic pottery to Tang Dynasty figurines to delicate Ming- and Qing-era porcelain, China’s 7,000-year-old ceramics tradition has produced some of the world’s most skillfully crafted and aesthetically refined works of art.
Yet only in recent years have Chinese ceramicists begun to adopt Western conceptions of the “studio artist,” whose works are individual, rather than collective or cultural, expressions.
Next month, the Washington University School of Art’s Des Lee Gallery will explore this “new age” of Chinese ceramics with Chinese Ceramics Today: Between Tradition and Contemporary Expression. The exhibition features more than 50 works by 23 of that nation’s finest contemporary practitioners.
Chinese Ceramics Today opens with a reception from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 5, and remains on view through Sept. 30. Both the exhibit and the reception — which will be attended by four of the artists, Ichi Hsu, Fiona Wong, Xiaoping Luo and Dingfangi Zhou — are free and open to the public. The Des Lee Gallery is located in the University Lofts building, 1627 Washington Ave. Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Fridays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturdays, 1 to 4 p.m. Sundays and by appointment. For more information, call (314) 935-4643.
“The making of Chinese traditional ceramics had always been a collective effort,” writes chief organizer Hsu I-Chi, Ph.D., founder of both Le Pottery HAP in Beijing and the Chinese Potters Newsletter, in the exhibition catalog. “This is true both in techniques and in artistic concepts [and] the reason why Chinese ceramic masterpieces rarely bear the artist’s name.”
For much of the 20th century, the Chinese Communist Party furthered discouraged any sense of artistic individualism, though Hsu notes that “the situation has changed in the last 20 years, due to China’s reform and opening-up.” The closing of state-run factories and the development of a more market-driven economy have at last provided “a suitable background for independent ceramic artists to grow.” In the last three years alone, Hsu estimates, more than 100 influential ceramics artists have established independent studios.
It is from these independent studios — 20 from the mainland, three from Hong Kong — that Hsu has selected the examples on view in Chinese Ceramics Today. Works range from subtly off-kilter applications of traditional techniques to more conceptually flamboyant, multi-part installations.
For example, Dove (2002), by Liu Zheng, vice-chairman of the Zhejiang Ceramics Artists Association, offers an expressive, sculptural interpretation of traditional ceramic figures. Garden Blues (2002), by Wang Haichen, founder of the Haichen Ceramics Salon in Shanghai, reprises the characteristic blue-and-white landscapes of Ming porcelain, yet ruptures those works’ seemingly implacable perfection with a large, central crack cleaving painted rocks and trees like a small earthquake. A similar elegiac spirit is at play in Li Bei’s Memory Dishes (2002), a series of nine earthenware bowls holding, like votive offerings, twisted ceramic ribbons that mimic the shape and imagery of film negatives.
“Traditionally, artists were not accustomed to expressing their individual viewpoint in the artwork, ” Hsu points out. Yet, by moving “beyond functionality toward an introspection of the self,” works such as Dove, Garden Blues, and Memory Dishes “represent an important step to Chinese artists and to the development of Chinese contemporary ceramic art.”
“We are yet to see a brighter future for these promising artists,” Hsu concludes.
Chinese Ceramics Today is organized by the Guangdong Art Museum in Canton, China, and the Ariana Museum in Geneva, Switzerland. The show also travels to the Danmark Keramik Museum, Denmark; The Clay Studio in Philadelphia; the Orange County Center of Contemporary Arts, Santa Ana; the University of Hawaii, Honolulu; and the Hong Kong Science & Technology University.
The St. Louis installment is made possible thanks to the sponsorship and contributions of Mr. & Mrs. Arnold Donald, Mr. David Farrell, Mr. David Mesker, Mr. & Mrs. William Tao, Craft Alliance, The Contemporary Art Museum, St. Louis, the Organization of Chinese Americans—St. Louis Chapter, The Saint Louis Art Museum, the St. Louis Chinese Association and Webster University.
For further information about artists’ lectures and demonstrations, call (314) 621-8375.