Brush, Clay, Wood (Review)

Taft Museum offers a rare glimpse into Rosenthals' private collection

Dec 10, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Ed and Nancy Rosenthal haven’t technically opened their home to the public, but the Brush, Clay, Wood, exhibition at downtown’s Taft Museum of Art allows us a peek into their life just the same.

The exhibition documents an art collection that began in 1980 with a 3-foot-tall Chinese vase. From there, the Rosenthals — not to be confused with Ed’s brother, Richard Rosenthal, and his wife Lois, the Contemporary Arts Center’s prominent benefactors — ventured on a “collecting odyssey,” as Taft Senior Curator Lynne Ambrosini calls it. The couple traveled throughout China and New York and chose pieces that struck them. As such, their collection runs the gamut of media, size, form, era and technique.

Brush, Clay, Wood opens with a contemporary oil painting that sets the tone for the entire show: Wei Rong’s “Gathering I” from 1997. Wei’s canvas calls to mind the photorealist artists of the American 1970s who made amazingly detailed and lifelike paintings that looked stunningly like, and were indeed based on, actual photographs.

Wei follows that contemporary practice but with a nod to her Chinese heritage. Rather than shooting her own pictures to gather visual information, she picked an aged black-and-white photograph of Chinese scholars and writers. The men (and one child) are in traditional Chinese garb, posed in a traditional portraiture setting: the Chinese landscape. She replicated that photograph carefully onto the canvas, like the photorealists, but then she went a step further — she superimposed two contemporary women in miniskirts and high heels into the painting.

As a collection, Brush, Clay, Wood investigates Chinese art through the lens of history. But the exhibition is not set up as a didactic space. Rather, walking into the gallery rooms seems more like walking into a home. Contemporary paintings hang above Ming coffers and centuries-old round-back chairs. Ancient earthenware pots sit among 18th- or 19thcentury enameled porcelain vases. The newest work in the collection is a realist/surrealist painting by Shi Lei, “Mirror,” dated just last year.

Ambrosini, who curated the show, has mixed everything up the way a collector might. As such, the layout of the exhibition is based more on aesthetics than era, with an understanding that the collection weaves throughout Chinese history without prejudice. In fact, according to museum spokeswoman Tricia Suit, “the Rosenthals were very involved in the exhibition and installation. During the installation, Ed and Nancy would stop by to visit the artworks. I think it’s been quite a sacrifice to live without the works in their home!”

Another work in the exhibition that illustrates the merging of past and present is Xue Song’s “Coca Cola in China” from 2002. The painting is relatively small with a red background. The red, of course, calls to mind the color of Communism and contemporary China. In the center of the canvas is a silhouette of a Coke bottle, and within the shape of the bottle is a delicate brown-and-black traditional Chinese landscape painting, complete with calligraphic elements. This one painting absorbs both the past and the current, which in a sense is what a lot of Chinese contemporary art is.

Globalization has long been an issue in art — really, since the postcolonial paintings of Cuba’s Wilfredo Lam in the early-20th century. Then, Lam’s Cuba was in a state of hybridism: Cuba was still Cuba, but “Western” influences, which first came with tourism, settled there and merged with Cuba’s culture.

The same thing is happening in China now, except that it is industry not tourism that is spreading “Western” culture and causing hybridism. As such, Xue’s use of a Coca Cola bottle is striking. It is only an outline, but it takes up the center of the painting. It seems that it is blurring but not erasing the Chinese past. Art, in this sense, is following and mirroring the globalization of the world economy.

Xue’s painting has ostensibly nothing to do with the ancient works in the exhibition, but by spending time in the gallery you will begin to understand what is happening — namely, history. Many of the contemporary paintings in the Rosenthal’s collection do not have Xue’s and Wei’s obvious connection to the traditional past. Some, like Shi Lei’s “Mirror,” deal less with globalization and more with other contemporary issues, like selfhood and storytelling.

On the opposite side, it is hard to imagine that the unknown master in the late 17th or early 18th century who made the pair of round-back armchairs had any notion that his/her work would be included in an American couple’s art collection. Nor would the ancient artisans who worked on the amazing 4-foot high “Pleasure Tower.”

Regardless of intention, history and its oblivious subjects come together here. In Brush, Clay, Wood, we are able to learn about Chinese art, culture and the sometimes haphazardly genius of collecting.

BRUSH, CLAY, WOOD continues at the Taft Museum of Art through Jan. 11. Get museum details and find nearby bars and restaurants here.