'Inky Tributaries' explores Chinese history

Chris Bergeron

During the Tang dynasty around 617, Chinese artisans invented printmaking to copy Buddhist images carved in stone onto paper or fabric.

Nearly 14 centuries later, contemporary Chinese artists are offering fresh glimpses of everyday life in striking prints now displayed at the Worcester Museum of Art.

Appropriately titled "Inky Tributaries," this engaging exhibit explores the changing currents of 20th century Chinese history that shaped printmakers' portrayal of rural life, modernization and artistic freedom.

Enjoying this exhibit requires no specialized knowledge of Chinese art but only a willingness to open yourself to another culture.

Organized by WAM curator of prints, drawings and photographs David Acton, it comprises about 50 prints of considerable craft and beauty.

Subtitled "Contemporary Chinese Prints," it is the largest of three ongoing exhibits at WAM that open windows of understanding into ancient and modern Chinese life. It runs through Aug. 3.

Instead of Yao Ming, pubescent gymnasts and Olympic gold, these three shows cumulatively reveal a little-seen side of China where ancient traditions contend with modern appetites with unpredictable results.

It might help to think of these printmakers as China's version of Norman Rockwell if Communist Party spies were always snooping around his Sturbridge studio. Like mirrors of varying clarity, these prints reflect common scenes through the lens of artists with one finger testing shifting political winds.

Just as a Chinese visitor might learn about American history by comparing Frederick Remington to Andy Warhol, these prints convey the era's politics in ways both subtle and obvious.

Born in 1948 a year before the founding of the Peoples Republic of China, Zhang Xingrong not surprisingly made strong evocative images of rural modernization like "Spring Irrigation" that fit comfortably within the then-prevailing tradition of Soviet Realism.

Living throughout the turbulent years of the communist revolution, Zhao Zhongzao employed 300-year-old techniques to make elegant, almost abstract prints of the fabled Yellow Mountains.

Born in 1959 at the apogee of Chairman Mao Zedong's authority, Zhang Minjie survived near death in an earthquake to mature into a courageous visionary artist. His daringly beautiful color woodcut of ant-like people and beetles swarming over a military helicopter could not have been published until reformer Deng Xiaoping opened China's doors to Western ideas.

During periods of political orthodoxy, artists made bold prints of farm equipment, power plants and happy peasants. Since Mao's death in 1976, artists have been bold in different ways by satirizing the collectivism that stifled individuality and personal expression.

If Rockwell had been born in China in 1936 while Mao was fermenting revolution in the countryside, he'd probably have made prints of village life like Dong Jiansheng. In "Basking in the Sun," Dong captures the earthy humanity of a gaggle of peasants in black quilt jackets, squatting and smoking in a rare leisure moment.

Born in 1958 in a small village in Hebei province, Li Yanpeng entered art school after the disastrous Cultural Revolution that cost so many artists their freedom or lives. Even as a professional artist, he never abandoned his love of China's raw, often inhospitable countryside. In stark yet gorgeous prints like "Gathering Brush for Winter," Li portrays peasants as poor yet enduring, bent by arduous labor yet dignified.

A rotating exhibit, "Heavenly and Earthly Delights" reveals the far-ranging impact of Chinese art through four magnificent Japanese folding screens.

Displayed in what will become WAM's permanent Japanese gallery, this small but stunning show comprises two pairs of complimentary six-section screens made by Japanese artists using techniques learned from their Chinese counterparts of an earlier age. Facing one another, a bright-eyed sinewy tiger coils on its front paws about to spring across the gallery at a fierce, frowning dragon with a long muscular torso. Both painted in the early 1600s, they show how Japanese artists added their own energetic interpretation to the subdued and idealized landscapes favored by earlier Chinese painters.

Organized by Louise E. Virgin, curator of Asian art, this exhibit runs through Oct. 26 when the screens with be replaced with four new ones that will remain on display through June 7, 2009.