Drawn together: The MFA's 'Fresh Ink'

Plus Neal Rantoul and 'Boston Does Boston'
By GREG COOK  |  December 15, 2010

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A NEW TAKE ON SCHOLARS COLLATING CLASSIC TEXTS (DETAIL): Li Jin’s cartoony style teases the old masters without needing to compete with them.

The Museum of Fine Arts' "Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition" exhibit sounds like a cool idea. Curator Hao Sheng invited 10 artists from China and the Chinese diaspora to do a residency in Boston where they'd create new works inspired by the MFA's renowned collection of old-master Chinese art. But when you think about it, it's a hell of a challenge. Imagine asking artists to draw inspiration from Rembrandts and then comparing their work to the originals. Most of the attempts here come off as uninspired, especially when you view them side by side with the masterpieces. Which was probably inevitable.

Perhaps the most distinguished new effort is New York artist Xu Bing's Mustard Seed Garden Scroll. He pasted together a landscape from illustrations and instructions photocopied from a 17th-century Chinese painting manual. Then he and assistants carved copies into woodblocks and printed his new panorama. The resulting image is a large, crisp print of rolling mountains and rivers. And his play on the tradition of copying and the MFA's concept for the show is thoughtful and witty — though perhaps too pat a Postmodern ploy.

Qin Feng, who splits his time between Chelsea (New York) and Beijing, creates an amphitheater of giant scrolls and accordion-fold books splashed with big, dashing, black-ink strokes. Inspired by an 11th-century bronze vessel, his installation is show-offy superficial, like graffiti, and it has graffiti's kinetic energy.

But most of the works feel uptight, and the thinking feels shallow. Constrained by the project's rules, away from home, and perhaps with insufficient time, the artists seem off their game. And those who painted traditional ink landscapes are simply unable to match the fluid vitality of the old masters.

Particularly disappointing is the result of a visit by Liu Xiaodong (who is, according to the MFA, "celebrated as the most talented oil painter of his generation") from Beijing to paint portraits of local students in a loose Rolling Stone–illustration style. He then had the teens write on his painting about violence, because he'd heard about the horrors of American schools. It's a well-intentioned outsider's simplistic, stereotyped view. From an American artist, it would read as patronizing.

A spot in my heart is reserved for Li Jin's colorful ink drawings, which were inspired by his visit here from Tianjin. His cartoony style teases the old masters without needing to compete with them. He portrays himself as a chubby, bearded glutton running around like some traditional-Chinese-scholar-turned-rock-star having a deliciously debauched time with naked ladies, Red Sox fans, and full-figured dudes in nothing but thongs. More, please.

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UNTITLED #1: Neal Rantoul forgoes his usual head-on objectivity in the haunted romance of this shot from Peddocks Island in Boston Harbor.

Neal Rantoul of Cambridge is one of the eminences of local photography (in part because he's headed Northeastern University's photo program since 1981), yet he occasionally falls off the radar screen. So until one of our museums gets around to an official retrospective, we'll have to make do with Panopticon Gallery's sharp survey of the 64-year-old's landscapes and cityscapes from 1980 to 2005.

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