Contemporary Furnituremakers from the U.S., Canada, and China Come Together to Create Works for Peabody Essex Museum Exhibition
Released August 01, 2006
Salem, Mass.—Inspired by China: Contemporary Furnituremakers Explore Chinese Traditions brings together 29 stellar examples of historic Chinese furniture, with 28 works created specifically for the exhibition. The 22 artists––from the United States, Canada, and China, are each recognized for innovations in studio furniture, one of the hottest fields in contemporary design. During the three-day workshop at the Peabody Essex Museum in June 2005, they viewed more than 40 pieces representing China's rich and varied furniture traditions. The artists subsequently produced new works that are fascinating for their range of creative response and materials, including stainless steel, electrical wire, twigs, and ceramics. The museum will show all 57 works from Oct. 28, 2006 through March 4, 2007. Inspired by China: Contemporary Furnituremakers Explore Chinese Traditions is co-curated by Nancy Berliner, PEM curator of Chinese art, and guest curator Edward S. Cooke, Jr., Charles F. Montgomery professor of American decorative arts at Yale University. The exhibitio
n is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue (Sept. 2006) with foreword by Executive Director and CEO, Dan Monroe, and Chief Curator, Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, and essays by Berliner and Cooke. Inspired by China will open at the Museum of Art, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Nov. 30, 2007 and run through Mar. 31, 2008.
The aesthetics of Chinese decorative art have been an important source for new directions in European and American furniture. The geometric detailing of the Chippendale style of the mid-18th century, the use of oriental figures and Chinese architectural forms in the Aesthetic style of the late 19th century, and the unadorned profile of modernist design in the 1930s and 1940s are some examples. In the early fifties, noted American designer and writer T.H. Robsjohns-Gibbings extolled the beauty of Chinese furniture––its “self-contained” quality and “tranquil earthbound grace”––and compared it to ancient Greek forms. Since the reopening of China to the West in the early 1970s, there’s been a growth in interest in historic Chinese furniture. Despite this renewed interest, the Western perspective on Chinese furniture has been fairly limited, focusing primarily on the elegant simplicity and legendary workmanship of the Ming styles, and on the elaborately ornamented surfaces of the Qing. For this exhibition, the PEM selected Chinese furniture representing distinct styles of vernacular furniture, more elaborate Ming furniture, and a range of types and materials. Drawn from private collections and the museum’s own holdings, Inspired by China offers a rich picture of China’s furniture traditions.
Studio furniture, a vibrant field in North America since the fifties, has also enjoyed a surge in popularity. Free from the demands of mass market furniture production, studio artists produce one-of-a-kind pieces that can often take hundreds of hours to create. Not surprisingly, their creations are increasingly sought after by collectors and museums. The artists draw from multiple traditions, yet few have had the chance to explore the complexity of Chinese forms, materials, and techniques.
In China, artists trained in sculpture, design, and traditional furnituremaking are now also creating one-of-a-kind pieces of contemporary furniture. The Chinese artists selected for the exhibition work outside of traditional apprenticeships, and share a common interest with their North American counterparts in connecting concept, materials, and technique. They also share an interest in working with historic materials. The exhibition curators considered it important to bring them together––to offer an opportunity for creative and professional interaction.
In choosing an international group of furnituremakers, curators Nancy Berliner and Ned Cooke opted for mature artists with track records for producing consistently strong works. In considering materials, they looked to Clifton Monteith’s sophisticated use of willow and lacquer, Bonnie Bishoff’s and Mark Syron’s original development of polymer clay veneers, and Richard Prisco’s postindustrial use of wood and steel as a way of offering rich commentary on Chinese materials. To shed light on the exquisitely refined art of hidden joinery found in historical pieces, they invited such furnituremakers as Michael Puryear, whose simplicity in design belies an underlying complexity. Another group they wanted to engage were artists who develop objects with an eye toward cultural meaning. They believed that John Dunnigan’s deep knowledge of furniture history and the changing meanings of objects would offer instructive insights, and that Ai Weiwei’s and Shao Fan’s interest in deconstructing furniture and reusing historically charged timbers would express a reverence for the ancient traditions of China.
For the American participants, Inspired by China was an opportunity to experience firsthand the precise workmanship of Chinese furniture, prized and revered among artists, and to study a wide diversity of furniture from China. Conversely, the Chinese furnituremakers traveled half-way around the globe to reencounter their own culture’s history as represented in the museum’s collections, and to experience the perspectives, ideas, techniques, and works of their American counterparts, whom they had never met. Joining these studio furnituremakers were two traditional Chinese furnituremakers from rural Anhui Province.
The artists’ workshop and the resulting Inspired by China exhibition are an important step in a new cross-cultural exchange between America and China. “We trust that this endeavor is only the first of a sustained period of interaction, one that will not homogenize the furniture of the world but highlight regional traditions and inspire new design possibilities,” according to Nancy Berliner and Ned Cooke, co-curators of Inspired by China: Contemporary Furnituremakers Explore Chinese Traditions.
“Nancy Berliner and Ned Cooke have organized a complex project through a true partnership as well as in collaboration with many people,” add Director Dan Monroe and Chief Curator Lynda Hartigan. “Several private collectors have generously shared their magnificent holdings in Chinese furniture, a resource without which this project would not have been possible. The 22 contemporary studio furnituremakers deserve our appreciation for their enthusiastic commitment to the project’s concept, while we celebrate them individually for the exceptional furniture each has made.”
The Inspired by China exhibition is an opportunity for visitors to view some of the exciting work being created in the field of studio furniture, in the context of extraordinary historic Chinese furniture.
Please note: Members of the press are invited to preview the exhibition on Tuesday Oct. 24, 2006, from noon to 2 p.m.). Please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 978-745-9500 x3228.
Ai Weiwei, Beijing, CHINA
Garry Knox Bennett, Oakland, CA
Bonnie Bishoff, Rockport, MA
Yeung Chan, Millbrae, CA
Michael Cullen, Petaluma, CA
John Dunnigan, West Kingston, RI
Hank Gilpin, Lincoln, RI
Tom Hucker, Jersey City, NJ
Michael Hurwitz, Philadelphia, PA
Silas Kopf, Northampton, MA
Wendy Maruyama, San Diego, CA
Judy McKie, Cambridge, MA
Clifton Monteith, Lake Ann, MI
Brian Newell, Atsugi, JAPAN
Gordon Peteran, Toronto, CANADA
Richard Prisco, Savannah, GA
Michael Puryear, Shokan, NY
Shao Fan, Beijing, CHINA
Shi Jianmin, Beijing, CHINA
Tian Jiaqing, Beijing, CHINA
J.M. Syron, Rockport, MA
Joe Tracy, Mt. Desert, ME
Visitors to Inspired by China, Contemporary Furnituremakers Explore Chinese Traditions, will also enjoy The Emperor Looks West, the American museum debut of an exquisite 18th–century imperial Chinese scroll painting. The scroll depicts a Forbidden City ceremony honoring the Qianlong emperor, known for his keen interest in Western style design and techniques. The exhibition opens Sept. 23, 2006 and runs through April 30, 2007. Yin Yu Tang, a more than 200 year old house originally located in southeast China and transported to the Peabody Essex Museum in 2003, and the museum’s extraordinary Asian Export collection, offer additional context for exploring the works in Inspired by China.