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ART REVIEW

Classic works, now and then

At the MFA, ‘Fresh Ink’ responds to centuries of traditional Chinese artwork

Liu Xiaodong’s “What to Drive Out?’’ plays off a 15th-century painting. Liu Xiaodong’s “What to Drive Out?’’ plays off a 15th-century painting. (Museum of Fine Arts)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / November 26, 2010

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The idea is as simple as a brushstroke. The Museum of Fine Arts asked 10 well-known contemporary Chinese artists to come up with an artistic response to a work of their choice from the MFA’s rich holdings in Chinese art. Five years in the making, “Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition’’ is the result. It runs through Feb. 13.

“Fresh Ink’’ is a study in polarities: past and present, figuration and abstraction, even East and West. One of the artists, Arnold Chang, chose Jackson Pollock’s painting “Number 10’’ for a work to respond to. His “Secluded Valley in the Cold Mountains,’’ an ink on paper, is a topographical reply, its contours more a memory of the Pollock than an echo of it. That said, Chang’s study for “Secluded Valley’’ is very Pollock: nervy, inky, blotchy. It’s as if, having shown how well he could subsume Pollock, Chang then transcends him.

Liu Xiaodong’s mural-like acrylic on paper, “What to Drive Out?,’’ shows nine Boston-area high school students. There’s a little dog, too, who’s the most irresistible thing in the show. Said canine is a far cry from the creatures on display in “Erlang and His Soldiers Driving Out Animal Spirits,’’ the 15th-century painting Liu is responding to. The Western affinity in Li Huayi’s “Dragon Amidst Mountain Ridges’’ involves style rather than subject. Much of its right-hand portion could be a Helen Frankenthaler wash or lithograph.

Li’s point of departure, Chen Rong’s 13th-century “Nine Dragons,’’ also inspires Zeng Xiaojun. His “Nine Trees’’ has tremendous energy. It’s an arboreal maelstrom. “Nine Trees’’ is further distinguished by the extremely handsome screen Zeng designed and had built for it.

One of the pleasures of “Fresh Ink’’ is how the freshness can extend to wood and other materials, too. The mute, blunt eloquence of the pair of wooden printing blocks accompanying Xu Bing’s “Mustard Seed Garden Landscape Scroll’’ wonderfully complements the delicacy of Xu’s painting. Its appearance is almost diagrammatic in its use of white space, characters, and drawings. That’s as it should be, perhaps, as Xu’s response is to a popular primer for painters, “Mustard Seed Garden Manual of Paintings,’’ first published in the 17th century.

Theatricality and restraint (another pair of polarities) define Qin Feng’s installation “Civilization Landscape.’’ It recalls both Anselm Kiefer and Richard Serra — without either artist’s tendency to bombast. Inspired by an 11th-century BC bronze vessel, Qin has created a set of tall, booklike objects facing a small stage with scrolls behind it. The effect is of a dressed set (the scrolls) facing an audience (the books).

Liu Dan’s ink on paper “Ten Differentiated Views of the Honorable Old Man’’ turns East and West inside out. His rendering is very much in the tradition of Chinese art, and it takes off from another Chinese tradition: the scholar’s rock, a treated piece of stone (geology as objet trouve) singled out for contemplation and appreciation. What’s Western about it is the stone’s appearance, which in its rusticated elongation looks uncannily like a Giacometti sculpture. It’s a resemblance underscored, whether purposely or not, by the contemplative space Liu has set up for it and his painting.

An important larger point about “Fresh Ink’’ also concerns space. The show is in the new Ann and Graham Gund Gallery, situated in the basement of the new Art of the Americas Wing. It’s a very big, essentially characterless room. A more positive interpretation of characterless would be “highly adaptable,’’ and curator Hao Sheng and designer Virginia Durruty have used the space extremely well. The objects in “Fresh Ink’’ vary considerably as regards type and scale. Yet Sheng and Durruty have managed to give each artist his or her own discrete setting without in any way interrupting the overall flow of the exhibition.

Yu Hong’s eight floor-to-ceiling panels of acrylic on silk show how varied elements of “Fresh Ink’’ can be even within the same portion of the show. The impressive verticality of her paintings of contemporary Chinese women plays off the no less intense horizontality of the 12th-century handscroll she’s responding to, “Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk.’’

Another example of figuration, Li Jin’s “A New Take on Scholars Collating Classic Texts,’’ may be the most direct response of new to old. Li updates the men and their task in the 11th-century “Northern Qi Scholars Collating Classic Texts,’’ making them larger and more individuated. He also gives them some female companions whose interests would seem not to extend to scholarship.

Qiu Ting’s “Visit to the Eight Great Sites’’ depicts a journey that’s visual as well as geographic. The scroll develops in clarity and differentiation, going from clouds and indeterminacy to trees, buildings, and specificity. That journey is, in a sense, circular. Of all the contemporary works, his most closely recalls the one being responded to, “Whiling Away the Summer by a Lakeside Retreat,’’ a scroll on silk from around 1100.

Hao Sheng, in his essay in the exhibition’s excellent catalog, notes the centrality to this art of “the triad of ink, brush, and paper.’’ He describes ink as “essentially smoke suspended in water.’’ That’s a marvelously concise and poetic description. “Fresh Ink’’ does something similar, presenting beauty and vigor suspended in time and space.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

FRESH INK: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition

Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Ave., through Feb. 13. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org