Handmade in China II: Stay Handsome
Clay Street Gallery, 1312 Clay Street, Cincinnati, Ohio.
Open 6-9 pm Final Friday, April 24
Exhibition continues till May 9, 2015

Surprisingly, there are solid connections between Jingdezhen, China and Cincinnati, Ohio.  Taft Museum of Art, home of the Charles Phelps Taft family, now lists some 200 pieces of Kang Xi porcelain from this Chinese city, once boasting a million residents, all of whom were employed in some manner in the production of this most excellent form of pottery during the 17th and 18th century reigns of the Qing dynasty.

Several considerations were responsible for this immense production.  Profit in their export via the Silk Road was primary.  Next to that was the value of pictorially convincing the citizens of China that the Qing were historically entitled to the hereditary title of Emperors (when, in fact, they were usurpers) by reproducing the ancient symbols and legends of past dynasties in everything connected to the new rulers, and doing so with the finest materials at hand (the Qing Dynasty was one of two in China’s history established by Mongol invaders, and thus considered “alien dynasties”).  Jingdzezhen was situated in a region where a nearly unlimited supply of the porcelain kaolin, the clay needed for such specialized production, was available as well as petuntse, the feldspar used with it.  Everything used in the manufacture of exquisite forms was naturally located in the city, requiring no expensive import of materials.  Less taxing jobs were assigned the elderly and very young, such as extracting minerals for color.  Huge bee-hive kilns provided various temperatures for the firings, and the actual shaping, coloring and firing were produced in an assembly-line process.

The quality of the product became well known to royal European houses, prompting great sums of money to be spent trying to reproduce that level of production on home territory.  Even the court of Louis the XIV invested heavily in the hopes of imitating the pure white delicacy of kaolin and petuntse, only to finally concede the honor to Germany.

Jingdezhen is still making porcelain today, using the same raw materials, although in a more educational and tourist-y format.  In the last decade, it has received awards for its income from tourism, now an important revenue source in China.  The city also offers accommodations for potters and students from all over the world who wish to produce their own work and share in its famous reputation.

Terrence Hammonds, a student from a recent ceramics class at U.C./DAAP, discussed some interesting current aspects of travel to Jingdezhen, certainly very different from that of the Emperor Kang Xi era.  There is, as expected, some tourism included.  A stop at Shanghai, and excursions through the countryside around Jingdezhen were described as interesting, but none of the ancient bee-hive kilns were spotted.  A number of molds were available to the students, and Hammonds purchased some greenware to bring home and decorate at his leisure.  Perhaps the most personal experience for him was the obvious attention he attracted as an African-American in China.  He was, he noted, a celebrity.   The three-week trip whetted his appetite to return, as this class is offered through U.C. every year.  (Editor’s Note: Visiting Jingdezhen is discussed in this aeqai’s profile of Katie Parker and Guy Michael Davis, who teach the class at U.C.).

Work in the Clay Street exhibit are based on molds found at Jingdezhen, yet, there is an exotic flavor to each of the pieces and collections shown, noticeable in decoration and in creative interpretation.  A group of Mao Zedong molds bearing individual notations on each, illustrate the changes in that nation, as opposed to the strict regime of forty years ago.

The group of U.C. students and grads who took this adventure turned out a wide variety of expressions in porcelain, from ancient heads to universal fascination in the traditional eggshell indestructibility.  This particular attribute of the area’s porcelain was especially interesting to Hammonds who brought an eggshell porcelain cup home for his two year-old son, who tosses it on the floor regularly where it simply bounces with never a crack.

Greenware was used by Matthew Jones in several sculptures that moved porcelain into another realm.  Thin white rectangles of unfinished porcelain attached to wooden dowels with meticulously tied blue wire were true crowd stoppers.  Breaking space with such mundane shapes turned the pieces into something truly intriguing.  These, along with all the items shown, were deliberately small in consideration of the problems of shipping them home.  Once here, the exhibit items were assembled to showcase their intellectual intention.

Of course, the usual tourist incidents accompany a trip like this.  A young man on a bike, moving against the traffic who passed Hammonds and turned completely around to stare as he moved.  Then there were the residents who would make comments as they passed the obviously American group, knowing their comments would not be understood.  When the guide was asked what was said, her answer was always, ”They were saying how handsome you are.”  Later, when they were leaving, the class asked if she had lied about these interpretations.  She admitted she had.

Connections are forever art history USB.  Good or bad, they widen our worlds.

–Fran Watson

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