The new exhibit at the Contemporary Art Museum, Dragon Veins, presents works influenced by traditional East Asian art in a variety of ways. There are works from Asian artists brought up in the tradition in which they are painting. There are works that look at ancient Chinese subjects and methods through the lens of specific Western artists. There are also strikingly contemporary pieces, exploring modern ideas through the use and influence of Asian art. The exhibit is not an introduction to Asian art but rather an approachable way of viewing the Western world’s appreciation and assimilation to the styles of the Far East.
The long, scroll-like painting at the entrance of CAM is an adequate though overly monochromatic lead-in to Dragon Veins. The painting, a work by Yun-Fei Ji titled “The Empty City Ã¢€” Listen to the Wind,” is a somber introduction, but highly appropriate – its format and context are associated with the traditional Chinese landscape and are paired with a slightly modern look at the figures presented, featuring images of monsters, skeletons and decrepit men. Though pessimistic or melancholy in mood, like other of Ji’s works, it is juxtaposed by the rest of the exhibition immediately, with Susanne KÃ¼hn’s “Waterfall,” its evident Japonism surfacing through the Romantic overtones.
The titular dragon veins are elements in traditional Chinese art that tie a painting together. Here, they lie scattered but not disconnected as the general layout of the exhibition promotes dialogue between the pieces.
CAM’s Eastern room is a conversation between groups of colors – earthy and sandy, fluorescent and blazingly bright and almost pastel blue-greens and red-oranges.
Continued in the Eastern room, KÃ¼hn’s works are variations on shades or families of colors and its derivatives (and the contrast-imposing black, white and gray). The pieces by Frances Barth are similar in that they stick to few colors but have quite a different approach. Both artists use color in relationship to form, in large swatches or small patches, to bring out the meaning in their pieces.
Probably most interesting to a Western eye are three paintings by Zhang Hongtu, each combining a traditional Chinese landscape painter with a Western impressionist or postimpressionist artist. In “Wang Meng Ã¢€” van Gogh #2,” Hongtu presents a traditional-looking Chinese landscape through the eyes of the Dutch master. The Chinese theme is given in thick brushstrokes, with twinkling reflections of light in the water, in the most recognizable, “Starry Night” kind of way. Similar to “Wang Meng Ã¢€” van Gogh #2″is Elizabeth Condon’s “The Red Land.” It’s as curly and twisting as the brightest stars on the Dutchman’s canvas, but less thick in application. Condon’s art reaches toward the psychedelic ’60s more than the postimpressionists.Hongtu does a similar trick with Monet and Cezanne, picking aspects of their work to best accentuate the planar yet intricate details of Chinese art. Condon’s art responds to his works with more contemporary, almost LSD-influenced images.
Important to notice are the Chinese symbols on Hongtu’s paintings. They are reminiscent of old Asian traditions of telling a story or signing a painting or scroll by its owner. In this highly un-Western approach, the history of the piece of art was recorded directly on the work. As Hongtu explained, the writing makes the painting alive.
The Western room is a discussion of centers, concentric circles taking on the role of a primary theme. Emily Cheng’s four-piece series picturing the seasons, of which only two made its way to CAM, explores how paintings cohere to a center and is a study of the movement of a line, which in Asian art denotes energy and spirit. As centers to her painting she uses images of clouds, based on many differing sources: Chinese painters, medieval scripts, etc. In “Winter,” for instance, the design of a cloud is based on one found in a Byzantine manuscript, and the golden curls around it are the Celtic depiction of Christ’s hair. But in her arabesque works, the line is just as important as the centers. Weaving and creating a steady, unbroken flow, the lines create a chain of energy circling the central clouds.
Other works in the room reply to Cheng’s concern with centers and their powers. Takashi Murakami’s “Jellyfish Eyes” thrice reproduces a single circular image, creating a concave effect. Murakami’s work echoes the Japanese love for anime, with multiple eyes, sharp teeth and an overall serene but unsettling feeling of fake happiness and perturbed uneasiness.Dragon Veins brings the work of a dozen artists, all in some way influenced by Asian art, into the relatively small space of the gallery, but the effect is spectacular. The dialogue between the works is superbly set up, and each piece enhances those around it. By bringing out so many differing examples in which the Far East has infiltrated into contemporary art, many facets of the overall integration come out in the process.