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Contemporary sculpture, ceramics, fashion, glass, furniture, and more offer a new twist to age-old imagery
Pair of woman's shoes, Rodarte, 2011. Museum purchase with funds donated by the Fashion Council, Muse. Reproduced with permission. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- Over the past millennium, blue-and-white ceramics have become an international phenomenon—familiar as Dutch Delftware, Ming vases, and Blue Willow china, among other forms. Today, the popular ceramic medium continues to offer inspiration, especially to the more than 40 international artists and designers whose works are presented in New Blue and White at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA). On view from February 20 through July 14 in the MFA’s Henry and Lois Foster Gallery, the exhibition highlights nearly 70 objects made over the course of the past 15 years across a wide array of media. Many of these works offer a contemporary twist to traditional blue-and-white imagery using abstraction, digital manipulation, contemporary subject matter, and even trompe l’oeil to surprise and delight. They range from small porcelains to room-size installations and include never-before-seen creations by artists such as Mark Cooper, Annabeth Rosen, Pouran Jinchi, and Kurt Weiser, and recent MFA acquisitions of work by fashion label Rodarte and ceramic sculptor Chris Antemann. Also on view are ceramics by Nakashima Harumi, Robert Dawson, and Steven Lee.

“The works in New Blue and White deftly show how one remarkable set of material traditions, which have had a profound international impact, can inspire new generations of artists. They make surprising, beautiful connections across time and cultures, helping us understand our history and our present,” said Malcolm Rogers, Ann and Graham Gund Director of the MFA.

At its simplest, blue and white refers to the application of cobalt pigment on white clay. It originated in 9th-century Mesopotamia and subsequently captured the imaginations of artists throughout Asia. Through a frenzy of trade networks and stylistic exchange, these coveted works made their way to Europe and eventually the New World. With them went multiple narratives focused on ideas as varied as wealth, power, beauty, family, exoticism, colonialism, and commerce. Inspired by this rich and varied global legacy, today’s artists create works that tell contemporary stories incorporating cultural, social, and historical references. To illustrate this, four themes will be presented to guide visitor engagement with the objects in the exhibition: Cultural Camouflage; Memory and Narrative; Abstract Interpretations; and Political Meaning.

Cultural Camouflage
Because of its global reach, blue and white is able to both transcend cultural boundaries and be highly culturally specific. Cultural identity informs works by American artist Steven Lee, who is inspired by the blue-and-white ceramics of his Korean heritage, especially the common asymmetry of Joseon Dynasty (1362–1897) vessels. Unconventional cracks and openings in works such as Vase with Landscape and Butterflies (2012) allow Lee to break from conventional ideas about aesthetics and functionality and, in turn, explore how blue and white might be reinterpreted as its aesthetic language changes across cultures and times. Such references are also evident in Transformation: Motherboard No.1 and 2 (2010) by Chinese artist Sin-Ying Ho. Her pair of hand-painted 6-foot vases—created using the same painting techniques employed since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644)—evoke the type of floral imagery found in traditional Asian porcelains. Classic examples of these are on view at the MFA, where two 6-foot-tall 19th-century Japanese vases appear in the John Singer Sargent masterpiece, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit (1882), and also flank the painting in the gallery. But in a nod to the contemporary, Ho’s vases have almost life-sized silhouettes of Adam and Eve, whose forms are filled in with a decal pattern based on computer circuitry. The desire, greed, and self-consciousness that mark the biblical story might be seen in light of contemporary quests for increasingly powerful technology.

In contrast, Min Jeong Song’s In-Betweenness II (2012), a series of glass sculptures decorated with ethereal, overlapping blue patterns, has no dominant cultural reference. It does, however, draw upon the Korean artist’s interest in the way Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain has been translated into glass, and how white opaque glass was used in 15th-century Venice to imitate porcelain.

Memory and Narrative
This section of the exhibition explores the emotional connection people have had to blue-and-white objects. Often, these works can elicit fond memories of home and family. Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind the Rodarte fashion label, known for creating provocative garments that use materials to explore narrative, designed a blue-and-white gown in 2011 recalling the Ming vases that filled their childhood home in San Francisco. The silk dress with printed chiffon and ribbon embroidery is complemented by a pair of Ming-patterned shoes with carved, wood-like heels.

A passion for blue and white porcelain prompted many affluent collectors, including European royalty, to assemble vast holdings of the decorative wares. American artist Chris Antemann illustrates this with The Collector (2011), an irreverent update of the 18th-century European figurine, which depicts a bewigged but naked collector surrounded by objects of his desire: a roomful of blue-and-white ceramics and a blue-and-white costumed lady on his lap. German artist Gésine Hackenberg creates her own narratives by repurposing pre-existing blue-and-white plates to create a new kind of still life. Her “Amazone” Kitchen Necklace (2012) features such a plate from which “beads” have been punched out, then strung together as a necklace. Blue and white now decorates both the body and the table, while the dish is both detritus and serves as a receptacle for the jewelry. American artist Ann Agee also references Dutch Delftware plates, but in her version, Gross Domestic Product (2010), the happy domesticity these plates usually convey is replaced by mundane, uninhabited interiors—is Agee showing life abandoned, or waiting to begin?

Abstract Interpretations
Contemporary artists and designers look to the aesthetics associated with blue and white—use of color and contrast, iconic patterns, traditional vessel forms, or modes of display—putting a new “spin” on them to create abstract works. Robert Dawson’s aptly titled work Spin (2010) examines how the familiar can be altered to create something new. The British artist starts with an image from the ubiquitous Blue Willow pattern created in England during the late 18th century for a public infatuated with Chinese blue-and-white ceramics. Through digital manipulation, he uses this image to create a design for each of his six plates, which progressively increase the sense of motion to the point where the final image is blurred. Time is both stretched and collapsed as the plates seem to rotate at different speeds. Blue-and-white abstraction also is evident in Harumi Nakashima’s Work 0808 (2008). His sinuous ceramic sculpture, with patterning suggesting the Ben-Day dots used in American comics and the paintings of Roy Lichtenstein, draws upon the traditional but looks crisp and contemporary with its deep cobalt set against bright white. British artist Felicity Aylieff also gives new meaning to traditional blue-and-white artistry in her works. Drawing upon her association with workshops in Jingdezhen, the ceramic capital of China since the Tang dynasty, the artist explores shifts in scale and shape, a greater range of tonal color, and surface abstraction for her monumental work, Five Storeys—Chinese Ladders II (2009). Also on view is Annabeth Rosen’s Wave (2012), in which she bundles blue-and-white objects together into a body in motion. Sumptuous patterning joins with organic form, reminding the viewer of clay’s malleable nature—its ability to move from raw to refined with relative ease.

Political Meaning
In its evolution as a form of artistic expression, blue and white has often been associated with power, political meaning, and the ruling class on one hand; on the other, its connection to innocuous or domestic images has allowed many artists to slide political messaging into unlikely places. Both aspects are incorporated into New Dutch Blue (2003) by Dutch artist Neils Van Eik and Miriam Van Der Lube. At first glance, their charming series of windmills resemble Delft souvenirs, but upon closer inspection, they allude to the changing landscape of Dutch society. The multicultural imagery in this work references the influx of immigrants from countries including Ethiopia, Japan, and Morocco in the past century and suggests that today’s Netherlands can adapt to the many different aesthetic and cultural traditions of those living within its borders.

The politics of world conflict inform Michelle Erickson’s Pickle Stand (2011). The American artist rethinks this domestic item, a serving dish for pickles, to give it a broader meaning. She replicates a blue-and-white pickle stand made in the 18th century by the Philadelphia-based American China Manufactory, using historically accurate techniques to cast seashells for the base of the stand. Erickson then adds other types of shells—from a shotgun and a grenade—to make a political statement that ties our natural resources to national conflicts. Another work that changes in meaning upon close observation is Caroline Cheng’s Prosperity (2010). From a distance, it resembles a luxurious kimono; up close, one can see its “fabric”—thousands of porcelain butterflies commissioned from skilled artisans in Jingdezhen, China. In Chinese, both “prosperity” (or “good fortune”) and “clothing” are pronounced the same way: “fu.” Cheng deliberately plays with this homonym to connect the abundance of her ceramic garment to the vitality of contemporary China.

“New Blue and White asks a big question: can we understand the present—and re-evaluate the past—through creative exploration into past decorative arts and material culture? By exploring contemporary expressions of these ideas across media, the exhibition takes a fresh, interdisciplinary look at historical appropriation,” said Emily Zilber, the MFA’s Ronald L. and Anita C. Wornick Curator of Contemporary Decorative Arts.

Visitors to New Blue and White can also explore other works in the Museum’s encyclopedic collection that reflect the thousand-year tradition of blue-and-white imagery. In addition to the Japanese vases on view in the gallery dedicated to the works of John Singer Sargent in Gallery 232, highlights include Bottle in the Chinese Style (Persian, Safavid, first half of 17th century) in Gallery 175 (Islamic Art); Plate (Dutch Delft, late 17th–early 18th century) in Gallery LG27 (Burton A. Cleaves Gallery—Early Baroque); Jar (Mexico, 1700–50) in Gallery 135 (William J. Fitzgerald Gallery—Latin America); and Vase with decoration of bamboo and bamboo shoots by Kondô Yûzô (Japanese, about 1965) in Gallery 280 (Japanese Arts).

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Contemporary sculpture, ceramics, fashion, glass, furniture, and more offer a new twist to age-old imagery

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