Indelible ‘Ink’

Contemporary artists riff on classic Chinese artworks in an inaugural show, ‘Fresh Ink’

By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / November 14, 2010

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Chinese scroll paintings and portraits of Boston high school students will be among works filling the new Ann and Graham Gund Gallery when its inaugural show, “Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition,’’ opens Nov. 20. The gallery, built for special exhibitions as part of the MFA’s expansion, is beneath the Ruth and Carl J. Shapiro Family Courtyard. It is smaller and more flexible than the former Gund Gallery, and a welcoming venue for a show that features many ambitiously scaled works.

“Fresh Ink’’ spotlights 10 contemporary artists, either Chinese or of Chinese descent, responding to objects from the MFA’s permanent collection. “Present and past, East and West, in this show these binaries are collapsed,’’ says Hao Sheng, the MFA’s curator of Chinese art.

For Sheng, “Fresh Ink’’ has been a four-year process of matching some of the world’s leading Chinese artists with objects from the MFA. The project fits into a centuries-old Chinese approach to art.

“In China, we have the traditional idea of cyclical renewal — of looking to classical art and regenerating,’’ says Sheng. “It’s a method for learning and creation.’’

Liu Xiaodong, a present-day Chinese oil painter, chose the Ming dynasty 15th-century piece “Erlang and His Soldiers Driving out Animal Spirits.’’ He zeroed in on the dramatic painting’s theme of violence. Liu came to Boston and painted local teens in his 25-foot-long “What to Drive Out?’’ and then asked them to write their own thoughts about violence on the work.

To create his installation, artist Liu Dan surrounded the MFA’s piece “Honorable Old Man Rock’’ — a 5 1/2-foot-tall Chinese scholar’s rock used for centuries as an object for sitting on and contemplating — with nine paintings of rocks, in turn wrapped in a 30-foot-long scroll depicting a landscape.

Not every artist stuck to the MFA’s legendarily deep Chinese collection. Chinese-American Arnold Chang, known for his ink landscapes informed by traditional Chinese technique, chose a Jackson Pollock drip painting, “Number 10.’’

“I’m classically trained, and very familiar with the Boston [Chinese] collection,’’ Chang says from his home in New York. “But for some reason, I thought of Jackson Pollock. I am American born, and for me, it’s most valid to choose an old master who is American.’’

He found “Number 10’’ challenging. “The one thing I didn’t want to do is an ink drip painting,’’ Chang says. “I didn’t want to make it a term paper on Jackson Pollock.’’

Instead, he integrated Pollock’s gestures and rhythms into his landscapes. “My hope is people will learn a little bit about Chinese painting, and also look at Pollock a little closer, too,’’ says Chang.

Like Chang, Li Huayi is known for his own take on tradition — specifically, the monumental landscapes of the Northern Song dynasty (960-1127). But Li looked beyond the MFA’s Northern Song paintings to find inspiration in the epic 13th-century “Nine Dragons’’ by Chen Rong, thought to be among the finest Chinese dragon paintings in the world. It shows the beasts in a fierce tussle, with light and shadow swirling around them.

“When you have a configuration for a big landscape, the mountain ridge — the main line — is like the back of a dragon,’’ Li explains, speaking from San Francisco. “The movement of the dragons is so strong, and the technique on paper — [Chen Rong] used a big brush, and he splashed on the ink. It’s very contemporary.’’

Li resonated with the technique; he, too, pours ink first, then moves it with a brush. His “Dragon Amidst Mountain Ridges’’ on six panels and one hanging scroll is an atmospheric symphony, thick and mysterious with clouds and shadows — except in the central scroll, where details of the mountain come into startling focus.

“Ink is more subtle than Western mediums, like oil,’’ he says. “Westerners like sunshine and excitement; Chinese painting is tranquilizing. It makes you come down. It’s meditative.’’

Cate McQuaid can be reached at

Special section

An interactive special section on the museum's expansion

An interactive guide to the Museum of Fine Arts' expansion.
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Boston Globe special MFA magazine A special-edition magazine about the Museum of Fine Arts' new wing arrives in this weekend's Boston Sunday Globe. In-depth coverage includes features on the expansion, a comprehensive map of the wing, must-see artworks, and more.

NOV. 20-FEB. 13.
617-267-9300, WWW.MFA.ORG


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