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Finding Harmony in 'Emerald Mountains'

Another sublime exhibit in MAM's 'Summer of China'

Aug. 15, 2011
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A quote by the Forbidden City's Emperor Qianlong adorns a wall in the Baker/Rowland Galleries at the Milwaukee Art Museum (MAM): “Delight is indeed born in the heart. It sometimes also depends on its surroundings.”

This thought guided the hands and minds of the artists in the Koss Gallery exhibition “Emerald Mountains: Modern Chinese Ink Paintings from the Chu-tsing Li Collection,” one of five exhibits in the MAM's “Summer of China.”

The “shanshui” (mountain and water) paintings in this gallery reflect the spiritual dimensions the topography embodies in Chinese culture, that of scholarly cultivation and enlightenment. The artworks appear courtesy of professor Chu-tsing Li, a contemporary scholar and pre-eminent expert in Asian art. Li taught America's first course in modern Chinese art, at the University of Kansas in 1975.

Li's extensive collection documents 150 years of this Far East art form, with each painting characterized by an image of mountains and water, calligraphic writing or a poem, and a red seal denoting the title of the art or the artist's name. Most of the works are drawn on paper and then mounted on a scroll to hang, although there also are examples of accordion books, decorated fans and smaller hand scrolls.

To highlight only one or two artworks becomes an impossible task. Moving from painting to painting mounted on soothing, gray-blue walls, the viewer participates in each artist's deep respect for the serenity portrayed by the shanshui. To encourage simplicity, a black-and-white palette traditionally dominates the ink brushwork, although artists do incorporate color.

One sublime example comes from Zhao Ziyong (1793-1846), who painted ink on golden silk in Crabs. He disguised the tiny sea creatures in patterns of fine black mist, with nuances in the shades and forms. One must see with the eye and heart to discern the crabs in the painting.

Also contemplate the work of Chen Tingshi (1916-2002), who created an abstract ink print on conjoined brown paper. The large-scale image depicts stylized crevices where water might flow on rough-shaped mountains that subtly variegate in colors from matte midnight blue to shiny ebony.

Li's collection is only on view for a brief time (“Emerald Mountains” continues through Aug. 28). Viewers would be wise to make the time to walk peacefully through these exquisite expressions. Exploring these shanshui paintings in such tranquil surroundings will draw one's mind toward harmony.


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