Discovering CHINA Town

CHINA Town: Contemporary Ceramic Painting from Jingdezhen, the first exhibition resulting from a recent Memorandum of Understanding between Meridian International Center and the China International Culture Association, brings a collection of modern porcelain art from China’s historic ceramic center to the United States. Building on ancient techniques that gave the world blue-and-white china in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), the artists of Jingdezhen are now producing extraordinary paintings on clay ceramic plaques.

This display is the sixth in a series of exhibits Meridian has organized with Chinese partners over the last decade. Meridian has sent U.S. artworks to museums in China and brought Chinese art to cultural institutions in the United States. Together with our Chinese partners, we have arranged artist exchanges between our countries and developed programs to advance cultural understanding. Not only have the exhibits provided Americans and Chinese with opportunities to appreciate their respective cultures, they have resulted in lasting friendships. The Memorandum, signed in March 2011, creates an exciting new framework for expanding U.S.-China cultural programs and furthering our organization’s mission to promote international understanding.

The impetus for CHINA Town occurred when the Chinese Ministry of Culture told Meridian about the innovative approaches to porcelain painting taking place in Jingdezhen (Jiangxi Province). This city of 1.6 million inhabitants, located approximately 550 kilometers southwest of Shanghai, has been a major ceramic production center for more than a thousand years. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), China exported vessels, plates, and other objects from Jingdezhen elsewhere in Asia and to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe. Blue-and-white porcelain even reached North America when English privateer Sir Francis Drake seized goods from the Spanish fleet in the Pacific Ocean and brought them ashore in California. This precious cargo conceivably originated in the prolific kilns of Jingdezhen.

Chinese ceramics are still distributed worldwide and, as in the past, often feature classic blue-and-white decorative motifs that follow specific design canons. Today, some artists and producers in Jingdezhen are questioning whether such traditions should be maintained, reinterpreted, or set aside. They have begun to experiment with glazes, firing temperatures, subject matter, and even the shape of the porcelain itself. In a major innovation, artists are working with large clay panels – some measuring over two meters – and using them as “canvases.”

The Ren Jian Ci Hua Company, which is leading the effort to expand the breadth and scope of ceramic painting, together with Meridian International Center, developed this exhibition to show how modern Chinese artists are building upon historic traditions to create vibrant modern art. The 56 works in this exhibit represent a fascinating amalgamation of old and new and, as can be seen elsewhere in contemporary Chinese art, mirror profound social changes occurring throughout the country in the face of rapid urbanization and globalization.

Madame Luo Yinggui, owner of the Ren Jian Ci Hua Company and its galleries, is the scion of a family long invested in the porcelain industry. She has devoted years to identifying artists wishing to experiment with this medium. Meridian collaborated with Luo to select art from her Jingdezhen galleries and Beijing studio. Each object in the exhibit exemplifies a distinct approach to painting on a large, flat porcelain surface. Visual elements include abstract forms, geometric patterns, representational landscapes, and stylized portraits. Some recall classic Chinese painting, while others borrow visual vocabulary from European modern art. This melding of traditions underscores how many Chinese artists, working from a global perspective, look for inspiration from their own culture and beyond.

Luo has assembled a community dedicated to revitalizing the ceramic arts, thus creating a vibrant “academy without walls.” Unlike previous generations of Chinese craftsmen most of whom labored anonymously in collective ateliers, the thirteen men and women chosen for CHINA Town are individuals who often sign their works and are promoted for their unique talents. Many of the artists in the exhibition not only pay homage to historic painting, but also transcend age-old conventions by introducing innovative motifs to their creations.

Among these skilled painters, Luo Xuezheng combines knowledge of conventional Chinese art with his research on pigments and firing temperatures to create harmonious natural settings. Jiang Baolin employs his training in landscape painting and ink-wash drawing to bring new dimensions to ceramic art with geometric patterns and curvilinear brushstrokes. Xu Ying takes advantage of color effects created by the kiln’s high temperature to add depth to snow-covered ground, blue skies, and other elements in her highly detailed pastoral scenes. Liu Zheng depicts overlapping and intertwined human figures that suggest the sculptural possibilities of the clay medium, while Zhao Mengge draws her inspiration from the grace of Tang Dynasty women and renderings of female nudes in Western art – portraying figural outlines often in blue and white. Yet another approach can be seen in Zhang Ruiling’s excerpts from ancient Chinese texts that are transcribed onto porcelain plaques with precision and fluidity. Works by other talented artists, including an American, Jared Fitzgerald, will be a revelation to U.S. audiences unfamiliar with contemporary porcelain painting.

Despite differences in their backgrounds, ages, and styles, these artists are linked by a common appreciation of the place where they produce their art – Jingdezhen. Because it has long been a center of ceramic manufacturing, both Chinese and informed Westerners consider this community to be the “town of (fine) China.” Some scholars even claim that the name for the entire country may have evolved from foreigners’ pronunciation of Changnan, the original name of the city. Hence, the title CHINA Town encompasses all aspects of the exhibition and underscores the significance of Jingdezhen to the history of porcelain.

This is the first time an exhibit featuring Chinese painted porcelain from Jingdezhen has been presented in the United States. To create CHINA Town, Meridian curators traveled to China to work directly with the Ren Jian Ci Hua group and learn from them. Their trip included visits to a 100-year-old kiln in the mountains outside the city, demonstrations by craftsmen who fabricate clay plaques and vases, and opportunities to watch artists at work in their studios. The curators absorbed local history, explored historic sites and archaeological excavations, and toured a part of the city dedicated solely to porcelain production and commerce. Ceramics are ubiquitous in Jingdezhen: lamp posts encased in decorated porcelain; a colossal rabbit installation covered with blue-and-white plates; bronze sculptures that depict craftsmen transporting ceramics; and a seemingly endless variety of stores and sidewalk stalls that sell all kinds of plates, vases, and bowls.

Many people were involved in this project, both in China and the United States. Special thanks are owed to China’s Minister of Culture, Cai Wu, and to Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs, Ann Stock, for their invaluable contributions to this catalogue. We are grateful to the Chinese Ministry of Culture for introducing Meridian to Jingdezhen and to contemporary porcelain painting. They not only supported this initiative, but also created the foundation for interactions between Meridian curators and the Ren Jian Ci Hua galleries. Madame Luo Yinggui, Mr. Guan Yunke, and their employees generously shared the history of their city and helped the Americans to better understand ceramic production techniques. Terry Harvey, Meridian’s Director of Exhibitions, and Lindsay Amini, Meridian’s Exhibitions Coordinator, worked on all aspects of the exhibit – making certain that it conformed to our Art for Cultural Diplomacy program’s high standards. We are also thankful to Dr. Chen Yuqian, Vice President of the Jingdezhen Ceramic Institute, for his essay on the history of the city and its principal commodity.

Jingdezhen is an exciting, innovative laboratory where artists explore ways of transforming an ancient craft into art for the 21st century. Ceramic production is at a crossroads and American viewers can expect to see more exciting works emerge from this historic porcelain capital.

Welcome to the show!

Curtis N. Sandberg, Ph.D.
Senior Vice President for the Arts
Meridian International Center
Washington, D.C.