Like The Art Book and The Twentieth Century Art Book, Phaidons The Chinese Art Book is long on pictures and short on text. But its no mere coffee table ornament.
By ALICE THORSON
The Kansas City Star
Connoisseurs will enjoy it as a global tour of the greats, including a good handful of pieces from the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. For those who dont know much about the subject, The Chinese Art Book is a perfect place to start. Its packed with information but free of academic stuffiness.
Among contemporary artists, meet Bai Yiluo, whose Calligraphy Flies (2005) features dead flies laid out to suggest calligraphic marks, and Huang Yong Ping, who put two books, History of Chinese Painting and Modern Western Art, in the washing machine and then displayed the soggy remnants on a piece of broken glass mounted on a Chinese tea box.
One of the things that makes this book different from standard histories of Chinese art is the generous inclusion of 20th and 21st century work, from pop-inspired painters to conceptualists and performance artists like Zhang Huan, who once coated his body with fish oil and honey and sat naked and fly-covered in a public latrine.
Its a reaction to past books on Chinese art that fade away after the Qing Dynasty, which ended in 1911, said Colin Mackenzie, senior curator of Chinese art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, which is represented in the book by nine masterworks.
Mackenzie wrote the books introduction, a quick overview of Chinese art history ranging from neolithic ceramics to contemporary protest art. Three other authors contributed extended captions on the 300 featured artworks.
The captions are lively, laced with pertinent details and fun facts.
A Yuan dynasty Ge ware bowl with distinctive crazing is accompanied by an explanation of the origins of crackled glaze: In a jealous fit, a younger brother hurled a vat of vinegar into the kiln where his older brothers ceramics were baking, and the sudden shift in temperature caused the wares to crack.
The layout of The Chinese Art Book also departs from convention. The editors forgo the standard chronological organization in favor of thought-provoking juxtapositions, sometimes by theme and sometimes by formal affinities.
One of the most fascinating pairings contrasts a gilt bronze Buddha sculpture from the Northern Wei empire with a 1953 painting of Mao Zedong by Dong Xiwen.
Visually, theyre totally different, Mackenzie said, but they share the idea of faith being propagated on the one hand Buddhist, on the other the faith of the Communist Party.
Its easy to see why the editors paired a 1940 hand scroll by Xu Beihong, The Foolish Old Man Who Moved Mountains, with Liu Xiaodongs painting Eating (2000). Both depict groups of men in a state of partial undress.
Mackenzie discerns a lot of humor in the pairings. Many readers are likely to take the bait and visually transfer an early Chinese gilded bronze head into the neckholes of contemporary artist Sui Jianguos trio of 8-foot-tall Mao jackets made of cast aluminum.
But the logic of many of the pairings can be elusive, perhaps because, as Mackenzie notes, the captions were written before the pairings were chosen.
Its not clear, for instance, why a 17th-century hanging scroll, Magnolia, Peony and Pine, appears next to Wang Guangyis iconic image of Chinese political pop, depicting a trio of Maoist workers next to the Coca-Cola logo.
But working out a connection both artists broke ground in their respective eras is part of engaging with the work.
Mackenzies specialty is early China, but in the late 1990s, he immersed himself in contemporary Chinese art when he worked on the Inside Out: New Art From China exhibit at the Asia Society in New York, where he was associate director and curator of Asian Art.
His introduction includes a concise accounting of developments in the wake of Maos death in 1976, from the ups and downs in artistic freedom before and after Tiananmen Square, to Chinese artists explosion onto the global art stage in the past decade and a half.
One of his personal favorites among the books contemporary works is a series of photographs of Song Dongs Stamping the Water, a 1996 performance in which the artist stood in Tibets Lhasa River and stamped the water with a seal bearing the character for water.
For me its a very moving and intriguing work, Mackenzie said. Tibet exercises a strong fascination for Chinese artists, who view it as a sacred and exotic region, untouched by the corruption and compromise of urban China.
To go and stand in a freezing river and use a carved seal a tool used by the Chinese for millennia to permanently impress a painting or document with a mark of ownership to try to mark water, the most impermanent and ever-changing substance, thats so Zen.
Open this book at almost any page and youll find something to delight and surprise.
Of course there are masterworks, like the Nelsons Shen Zhou hand scroll, Poet on a Mountain Top (c. 1497) and the British Museums rare Song dynasty Ru ware vase, from a tradition the caption describes as arguably the most sublime ceramics ever fired in China.
Humor and critique lend punch to contemporary works like Yue Minjuns Freedom Leading the People (1996), in which he recasts Eugene Delacroixs Liberty Leading the People as a group of raucous young men in white T-shirts and blue shorts, and Zhao Bandis poster of himself and his trademark stuffed panda offering satirical commentary on Chinese social trends and problems.
The Chinese Art Book features a glossary at the back and also an illustrated time line that allows comparisons at a glance of works produced in different eras.
And, Mackenzie points out, the selections are not limited to the mainland.
In addition to artists from Taiwan, he noted, youve got the diaspora as well as Boston-born Sarah Sze.
Its interesting that shes co-opted here into The Chinese Art Book, he added. The editors see her as a Chinese artist, but she is representing the U.S. in the 2013 Venice Biennial. It raises the interesting question of who defines cultural identity.
Hear more from Mackenzie
Colin Mackenzie, senior curator of Chinese art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, will give a free talk, What Is Chinese Art? and sign copies of The Chinese Art Book at 2 p.m. Nov. 2 in Lens 2 of the museums Bloch Building. Order free tickets online at Nelson-Atkins.org or call 816-751-1278.
Copies of The Chinese Art Book (Phaidon; 350 pages, hardcover; $59.95) are available for purchase at the museum shop. Museum members receive a 10 percent discount.