Chinese Art: A Seattle Perspective

“You don’t want your afterlife disturbed by an intruder,” explained Josh Yiu, the Foster Foundation assistant curator of Chinese art, to a crowd of patrons gathered on a recent weeknight at Seattle Asian Art Museum. We were on a group tour of the exhibit, Chinese Art: A Seattle Perspective, which opened at SAAM in late December, and we’d just entered a gallery that rightly belongs to a set of five elevated ceramic figures known as “Tomb Guardians.” The grotesque faces of these inanimate sentries, according to Yiu, were intended to scare away evil spirits. And one can imagine them doing exactly that, during their heyday from the seventh to the ninth centuries.

Of the five attendants, two are standouts. A female figure stands tall in boots that curve upwards at the toes; her eyes bulge out of their sockets, and her lips part defiantly, as if she’s got something tough to say to a would-be tomb raider. The finishing touch? Hands down, it’s the helmet she wears that comes with oversized flaps jutting outwards like baby elephant ears. The fiercest of her male counterparts exemplifies a “Lokapala,” one of the few Buddhist subjects incorporated into Chinese funerary iconography. Like her, he’s got one hand clamped on an outward thrust hip. Frozen in mid-motion, he appears to be doing a dance; from his frenzied facial expression, it’s a clearly a war dance, a point driven home (or to the next life) by the body of a deer that serves as his pedestal.

In this wide-ranging survey of the Museum’s Chinese holdings (a showcase for 165 pieces chosen from the permanent collection), the Lokapala isn’t alone in having an animal at his feet. A 17th or 18th-century Blanc-de-Chine representation of the goddess “Guanyin” situates her on top of a dragon’s head, which gazes upwards at her in a mix of helpless admiration and surrender, its own body coiled in masses of curlicues. One of the great things about the way Yiu curated this show lies in placing contrasting interpretations of the same figure side-by-side. Adjacent to the all-white dragon Guanyin stands a caramel-colored beauty, equally buttery smooth in texture, who resides on an ordinary pedestal, and whose serene face seems in keeping with a goddess noted for her compassion. The lady on the left may have a dragon, yet her mute expression suggests a deity more indifferent than loving.

Another religious figure represented in sculpture, the Damo (or Bodhidharma), also receives starkly dissimilar treatment from a pair of anonymous artisans. One of them conceived of this South Indian monk, who brought Buddhism to China in the early 6th-century, as a gaunt icon of richly hued brown wood. This Damo’s rib cage sticks out prominently, a testament to the nine years he spent meditating in a cave. Next to him, a smaller white Damo that dates from the Ming period has a rounder physique; he’s almost roly-poly by comparison, yet this ostensibly well-fed monk (he even has a robe, the other doesn’t) sports an angry scowl beneath knotted eyebrows.

Sometimes a huge disparity occurs within the same work. Chen Jiru’s Poem on Plum Blossom features calligraphy that upstages the painting it accompanies. There’s an unmistakable force and energy to the letters brushed in dark ink on the left half of this late 16th-century horizontal scroll, whereas the artist’s childlike, primitive depiction of watery branches shooting out in all directions exudes a deflating banality.

Several pieces caught my eye on our whirlwind tour, among them a 12th-century silk oval, Buffalo and Herder Boy in Landscape, an example of ox-herding genre painting. I was likewise moved by Wu Guxiang’s Scholar on a boat beneath willows, a seaside vertical well worth contemplating for the waves that are delicate little frissons undulating across the width of the scroll. My favorite? That would have to be a Cizhou porcelain vase decorated with a fertility motif. Eight drawings of a child nestled amidst petals and reeds lend a wistful sweetness to an impeccably elegant form. – N.P. THOMPSON

Originally published in Northwest Asian Weekly.