Off-Ramp culture critic Marc Haefele reviews "Chinese Ceramics from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art," at the ELAC Vincent Price Art Museum through July 22.
They’re humble in purpose, yet timeless in appeal. They’re among the oldest of manufactured objects, and the signpost of all civilization. They’re just … pots. Simple, useful, and strikingly beautiful.
Pots go back 20,000 years: that’s the age of the world’s first known pottery, recently found in central China.
That earliest work is not present in the LA County Museum of Art’s fine new Chinese pottery show … which is happening at East Los Angeles College’s Vincent Price Museum. But, first, what is our mighty LACMA up to, putting on this perfect little display of its own treasures at far-flung ELAC? I’ll get back to that one in a moment.
Meanwhile, this show, with its 50 examples of China’s singular art dating from 2500 BC to the birth of Modern China in 1911, is a terrific sampling of the signature product of the world’s most enduring civilization.
The first thing you notice is how artistically developed the very earliest pot in the show is. Covered in dark spiral polychrome patterns somewhat reminiscent of the Mediterranean Minoan ware of a full thousand years later, it’s highly sophisticated, and suggests a long artistic tradition, but it dates to nearly 500 years before China’s legendary first civilization, the Xia Dynasty. It tells us that centuries before China even had national unity, it had great art.
The 2,500 BC pot - the museum says it is Neolithic, but some historians would put it at the dawn of China’s Bronze Age - is in the first of the show’s three galleries, where the stress is on materials and techniques. The second gallery emphasizes history and narratives, the third the 700 years of Chinese ceramic exports, first to Asian neighbor countries, then Europe, then the young US.
I wandered among the galleries, imagining clipper ships full of the dinner ware especially designed for western homes, replete with anomalous intercultural images like a European-looking hiker striding through a Chinese landscape, or the bowl with a very Asian-looking King Poseidon complete with trident and his Queen Amphitrite, backing a preposterously bogus-looking red and gold coat-of-arms. A Chinese artist who had probably never seen a westerner was doing his best to paint a scene that would delight said westerner. Well, it delighted this one.
So did so much else on hand—like a sky-blue pomegranate-shaped vase; a laughing, unglazed palomino horse from around 100 AD, intended as a funeral ornament; a sensuous taupe-glazed statue of the Buddhist bodhisattva Kwan Yin (a transgender deity who changed from woman to man on the way from India to China). A vividly colored vase illustrates the characters in the famous 22-hour classic 1598 Chinese opera “The Peony Pavilion”. Another depicts the philosophical fiction classic “The Eight Immortals of Huohiwan.”
And again, this is a show at East LA College’s Vincent Price Museum, put on by LACMA. It’s one of the first of LACMA’s “Neighborhood Partner” programs, mounted with the help of the James Irvine Foundation. Opening night was thronged with locals, not just the Chinese-Americans of Monterey Park, but Latino families from nearby East LA. Great Art knows no boundaries, right? I think shows like this, which carry LACMA’s riches out into the county’s 5,000 square miles of cosmic diversity, are worth far more to the community as a whole than the $600-million museum building project LACMA is proposing to drop on Wilshire Boulevard.