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"Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition" at the MFA

Like the spanking new Art of the Americas wing in which it’s situated, the inaugural exhibition at the MFA’s Gund Gallery is all about mixing the old and new. “Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition” contextualizes historical works from the MFA’s Chinese art collection by putting them beside recent ink pieces from contemporary Chinese and Chinese-American artists.

These newer works were produced in the last four years, each in direct response to an older artwork. Basically, “Fresh Ink” is designed to hold a mirror up to the MFA collection—but it’s difficult to see what’s new in that reflection. 

Many new pieces for “Fresh Ink” pale in comparison to the work these leading artists are known for and, more importantly, to the historical works to which they’re reacting. “What to Drive Out?” (2008), Liu Xiaodong’s response a to 15th-century masterpiece from the Ming dynasty, really falls flat—not only visually, but in its relationship to the original. An acrylic painting made on a mural-sized handscroll, Xiaodong’s piece depicts nine Boston high school students who posed for the artist in jeans and t-shirts, with brief writings from each on the idea of violence. The thematic parallel to the original is poorly implied, and the result isn’t up to snuff with Xiaodong’s own famous oil paintings.

That said, there are a few wow moments, like Yu Hong’s response to the 12th-century “Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk.” Hong, notably the only woman in the show, calls the painting the “Mona Lisa of Chinese art.” Then there’s Xu Bing, arguably the biggest star here and a longtime explorer of language and text in his work, who made his piece in response to a 1679 Chinese painting manual. The woodblock print he created is a smart approach for a work of art based on a book.

The most exciting pairing in the show is Arnold Chang’s response to Jackson Pollock’s “Number 10” (1949). Laid flat, it’s seen the way a Chinese handscroll is traditionally viewed, and also the way Pollock famously worked on his canvases. Chinese ink painting is highly gestural, and Chang’s brushwork mirrors the abstract forms in Pollock’s work. The only Chinese-American in the exhibition, the New York-bred Chang felt it was more appropriate to respond to an American in the MFA collection. It’s a smart move on the artist’s part and a timely one for the museum.

While some of these responses to historical works are interesting from an insider’s perspective, viewers unfamiliar with Chinese art-making traditions (and that’s most, we’re betting) will feel like this show isn’t new at all. That’s a risky move for a museum eager to start playing ball on the same field with other local contemporary institutions. The artists here do re-examine and re-contextualize the traditions of their culture. But by confining the scope to ink painting, the exhibition keeps a lot of the new work in “Fresh Ink” from feeling very fresh.