2005-02-25 / Columnists

From The Artists Studio

Rockaway Artists Alliance
by Susan Hartenstein

A fascinating new exhibition is on view at the main branch of the Queens Borough Public Library in Jamaica through April 8, 2005. A ncient Threads, Newly Woven: Recent Art from China’s Silk Road presents 86 works of contemporary artists who live along an ancient and historic route over which there was a thriving exchange of ideas, as well as goods, from a myriad of cultures. The exhibition explores the ways in which the artwork reflects the influence of these cultures. In the past there have been exhibitions of ancient artifacts from these regions, but this is the first time little known contemporary art produced in these distant areas of China is finding exposure. The participating artists include art researchers and teachers, professional artists, herdsmen and farmers. The result is a wide range of images and sensibilities from a variety of sources, created in a variety of mediums.

The 2000 year-old Silk Road, as it is called, began and ended in the heart of ancient China in Chang An (today called Xian), which has served as a capital at various times in history. The east-west road, actually two main routes, then crossed the rough terrain of mountains and deserts, leading to the western borders of China and continued on to Iran, Rome, India, Russia and ultimately to Africa. The exchange of ideas among the regions along the route changed those cultures forever. For historians and archeologists, the areas along the Silk Road have been a great attraction. But they have taken on a new significance due to world events, and the Chinese Central Government is planning to develop the remote western provinces, which have been geographically and culturally distant from the rest of China. The contemporary work in this exhibit is considered of very high quality and, not surprisingly in light of the multi-ethnic influences, differs greatly from what most think of as Chinese painting. The work has been described as “beautiful, fresh and unique – and full of brilliant color.” The regions from which the work in Ancient Threads Newly Woven come are Kashgar, Urumqi, Dunhuang, Lanzhou and Xian.

Xinjiang is the westernmost of the Chinese provinces. Its people, because of religious reasons, hadn’t a history of painting until the 20th century when some young art lovers left the area to study art. Later, art colleges were established in this region.

The art of the province has its own unique ethnic features, reflecting the daily life and interests of its people who love horse riding, singing and dancing, as opposed to the culture of the inland agricultural regions. Central Asian cultures have had the most influence on the farthest western provinces.

This influence diminishes as one travels east and the greater is the influence of the traditional Chinese approach to art. The mixture of the two distinguishes the art of this area.

Many of the colorful works from the province’s city of Kashgar are naïve and charming paintings done by local farmers and herdsmen depicting their daily life and traditions and the mountains, deserts and pastures that surround them. Some artists from the provincial capital of Urumqi employ very non-traditional techniques that include the use of thick, bright colors and a decorative style that create a sense of excitement.

Others take the more traditional approach. Their colors and brushwork have been described as “graceful and serene.”

Gansu Province bridges the midland and western areas. Painters and sculptors from a variety of places came to the city of Dunhuang, beginning in the 4th century, and left their mark.

Ancient grottoes, rediscovered within the last 100 years, have attracted scholars and Chinese artists to the area.

These pilgrims not only protect this legacy, but are inspired by it in the creation of their own work, and by the rich ethnic mix in which they find themselves. Their art is modern, yet influenced by the traditional.

Interestingly, research of the grottoes has yielded information about special pigments used then, to be used today by these contemporary artists.

The city of Xian has had a great history, especially between the 7th and 10th centuries. This was the height of travel and trade on the Silk Road. The city was the center of art in China. Chinese traditional figure painting, landscape painting and sculpture began here. The art of this midland region was a major influence on the art of the Silk Road. This influence and that ancient approach to life and art can still be seen today in the work of the artists from this area that are in the exhibition – in its simplicity and ease of pace.

This column is indebted to the article “Recent Art from the Silk Road” by Madame Xu Hong. Ancient Threads Newly Woven: Recent Art from China’s Silk Road is a touring exhibition organized and circulated by Meridian International Center, Washington, D.C. in cooperation with the Chinese International Exhibition Agency in Beijing.

A Silk Road Paved With Art Comes To Queens

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