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Unfinished Business

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)

Shanghai was our last stop in China, and I was unable to post a blog about our experiences before we flew home. As the largest city in China, Shanghai (the city) is home to as many people as Florida (the state).  Not only do about 20 million people call the city home, but Shanghai is currently hosting World Expo 2010, which is averaging about 500,000 visitors A DAY. Needless-to-say, Shanghai was crowded, particularly in the places which tourists frequent. We made our pilgrimages to The Bund, gazing across the river at the high-rise extravaganza of Pudong; to Nanjing Road with its historic and contemporary department stores and shopping malls, neon lights, and throngs; and to People’s Park with its gardens and museums. Warning:  do not take the subway in Shanghai between 5:00 and 7:00 pm if you are claustrophobic.

But there are areas where we got away from the crowds and discovered a less frenetic side of Shanghai. In the early 20th century, Shanghai was controlled by European countries, each of which had their own “concession” or area under their governmental control.  The French Concession is still an historic district within the Shanghai master plan and retains a quieter pace, with few high rises and a European feel to the streets and shops. We took the metro to the French Concession one evening for dinner, and to another part the next morning to stroll the streets.

When we visited the Urban Planning Institute, we learned more about the parts of the city that the Chinese will preserve in the future.  The third floor of the Urban Planning Institute has an enormous scale model of the city, which really drives home the size of the urban landscape.  Without a preservation plan, it’s clear that Shanghai would likely lose most of its historic treasures in the mad march to modernize and provide for its millions of inhabitants.  Luckily they are working to protect the past as they create the future.

The Shanghai Museum is an amazing institution—one of the premier museums of Chinese art and culture. Like the Nanjing Museum, it has galleries devoted to ceramics, jade, bronzes, lacquerware, but it also has extensive galleries of Chinese painting and calligraphy. We knew we couldn’t see it all, so we concentrated on the paintings, ceramics and bronzes.  We had not had the chance to really look at an extensive collection of historic Chinese painting and we thoroughly enjoyed our time with the scrolls.  The collection is installed chronologically, which is typical in Chinese museums, so we could see stylistic evolutions.  The labels, however, were quite connoisseurial, relating each artist to his predecessors and noting the age of the artist at the time he created the scroll. The labels were not very helpful in pointing out stylistic details or information about the subject.

The huge bronze collection at the Shanghai Museum was a revelation. The pieces, again chronological, were beautifully presented in special cases with good labels.  We were amazed by the intricacy and workmanship of the bronze vessels, which were as much as 5,000 years old.  The galleries finished with a section showing, step by step, how bronzes were cast, which was very informative.

Across the park is MOCA Shanghai.  The curator, Victoria Lu, visited Grinnell a few years ago and I was interested to see her museum. The structure is contemporary and dramatic in design.  The day we visited an Italian motor scooter manufacturer was rolling out three new bikes and the entrance was taken up with promoters and fans of the product.  Inside was a most peculiar show called “Stay Real Forever,” which purported to be a view of the 21st-century generation’s sensibilities. It featured work by KEA, an appropriation artist, No2Good, a creator of popular culture figures (a sort of Chinese Hello Kitty), and Ashin, a rock musician who also fancies himself an artist. The work all tried to critique culture in fairly heavy handed and obvious ways.  The cartoony quality of the pieces had a nice commercial sheen and the “mousy” figures were wildly popular with the camera-wielding teens visiting MOCA. I was not convinced.  C

I may have been unfairly prejudiced against the exhibition since we went straight there from the MoGanShan art district, where we saw a lot of galleries and some really remarkable shows.  But I’ll save that story for another blog. 

Watching and Wanting

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)

Television is a funny medium. It brings us together through shared viewing experiences, and it isolates us in a pool of light in a darkened room.  We look to the ubiquitous box for information, forgetting that what we see is produced and edited to fit a format. What we receive is someone’s creation.

How fitting, then, for artists to create art from the created reality of television. The four summer exhibitions at the Faulconer Gallery (Grinnell College) delve into the least scripted moments of television as well as the manufactured realities received through the airwaves.  Two of the exhibitions are specifically based on TV as a medium.  The other two dig deeper into the desires that undergird American life. The 4 exhibitions were curated by Dan Strong, our curator of exhibitions and the Gallery’s associate director.

Like a bank of TV monitors, the exhibitions present a sea of familiar (and not so familiar) faces.  Viewers will challenge one another to identify this or that famous person.  Michael Van den Besselaar snags the images for his portraits from TV screens. Caught in a single frame, they lose all quality of animation and are oddly specific and anonymous at the same time. He further underscores the brutality of TV by including his Larger Than Life series—black and white images of the famous and unknown in death, or, as Dan says, their final close-up.  Backing onto these paintings is an actual bank of TV monitors showing Harry Shearer’s (yes, that Harry Shearer) The Silent Echo Chamber. We learn in these largely silent, endless minutes, that all those people we are used to seeing and hearing in animated discussion of the day’s events, first have to sit, and sit, and sit in front of the camera, waiting to be cued. How long must they wait, we wonder? What do they think about as they fidget, stare, or slump? What would we do for minutes on end, with our nothingness recorded on film for posterity?

Watching TV has a lot to do with desire. We want to know. We want to consume. We want to live vicariously. Desire in its most elemental form drives the virtuoso painting Feast by Brian Drury. Without giving too much away, Drury paints the base desires of our creature companions on this American continent, doing what they must to survive and thrive.

Mark Wagner makes desire explicit, in a sense, by literally creating his art out of money, dollar bills to be precise.  Cutting and collaging the myriad details found on the two surfaces of our most common piece of paper, he makes tour-de-force portraits and recreations of famous paintings. Familiar faces from Chuck Close to Mona Lisa, commodified by their monetary materials, underscore the connection between price and value. He pushes this connection further with titles like Employee of the Month, 2006 and Fortune’s Daughter, 2005, which depict people we are unlikely to know but who get their moment of fame (at a specific dollar value) at the hands of the artist.

The exhibition left me thinking about desire, and how it isn’t always pretty. These 4 glimpses of unlooked for longings underscore that what we want most may be more appropriate for the 10 o’clock news than for decent human conversation. As Dan Strong notes, we are witness to the “collision of hopeful ideals and unrelenting reality that is TV” and our larger American life.

A Little Background, Please

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)

Most days find me at my desk at the Faulconer Gallery at Grinnell College. Currently I am preparing to travel to China as part of a long-standing faculty exchange between Grinnell and Nanjing University. Faculty from Nanjing come to Grinnell to conduct research and to instruct our students in Chinese language. Faculty from Grinnell travel to Nanjing to conduct research and to teach in their areas of specialty. The exchange is over 20 years old and has forged strong ties between Grinnell and one of the great universities of China.

While in China, I have two specific goals along with my daily task of acting as a sponge to absorb as much as I can of Chinese art and culture. I will be teaching a course on museum studies in which I will try, in four short weeks, to outline the basic issues and ideas behind American art museums. I originally proposed the course because of the explosion of contemporary Chinese art and a desire to better understand the museum worlds of our two countries. I've since learned through a recent article by Barbara Pollack that the Chinese are building and developing over 1000 new museums, but don't have much infrastructure for staffing and running them. I hope my course can be a tiny contribution to the future of museums in China.

I will also be scouting artists and scholars who may be able to travel to Grinnell in 2011 as part of an exhibition in development. Because Grinnell has a long-standing relationship with China, we've wanted to present a Chinese art exhibition. Our first attempt will be an exhibition curated by Deborah Rudolph of the C.V. Starr East Asian Library at  U.C. Berkeley. Her show features the beginnings of commercial printmaking in Ming period China. The artists we hope to bring will enliven the exhibition with demonstrations of traditional paper making, woodblock carving, woodblock printing and book binding. Professor Andrew Hsieh of Grinnell College has done some preliminary work on this project, and I eagerly await my chance to carry it forward.

I will be traveling with my husband, Dr. Donald Doe, a lecturer in Art at Grinnell College.  He will be teaching a course on the history of American landscape painting--a tradition, at 200 years old, just a bit younger than the Chinese landscape tradition, which is over 1000 years old. He's excited to see what kind of dialogue ensues around landscape.

I'm delighted that I will have someone with whom I can compare notes every day and who can help puzzle out all the mysteries that abound in the course of travel. Our first stop will be Hong Kong for a few days, then on to Nanjing.  On to packing!

The ancient art of wood block printing

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)

In the past week, we've had the chance to visit two places where the focus is on preserving and maintaining the ancient tradition of Chinese woodblock printing.  Since at least the Tang dynasty (almost 2000 years ago), the Chinese have used woodblocks to print documents, books, posters and images--a much more efficient process than hand-drawn calligraphy for producing multiple copies.  While the creation of the woodblocks themselves is just as laborious, the block can then be preserved and used for centuries if properly stored.

The China Block Printing Museum in the city of Yangzhou (yong jo) was founded in the 1950s, but moved to a beautiful new purpose-built museum just a few years ago.  It shares the building with the Yangzhou Museum and is based to 300,000 woodblocks amassed by the Guangling Press of Yangzhou.  The displays include woodblocks, books produced from the blocks, information on the printing process, and an impressive open storage area housing the blocks themselves. 

Downstairs in an atrium, under a skylight, the Museum presents ongoing demonstrations of the woodblock process.  The entire process requires about 18 steps--we saw 5 steps.  On thin vertically lined paper, a man copied out the text to be printed, using extremely fine calligraphy.  Modern Chinese is written horizontally, left to right, just like Western text.  But traditional texts are still written top to bottom, right to left.  The paper is then pasted face down onto a woodblock.  Wild pear wood makes the best blocks.  They are very durable, but soft enough to take the ink.

The carver carves around each character until it is raised above the surrounding wood.  He carves out the vertical lines as well, so that they will print.  Watching him work was extraordinary (as was the calligraphy).  His hands were so deft as he did intricate work with a very sharp knife.  There is no room for error in this work, and takes years to master.

Once the block is completed, it is inked using a big stiff brush.  Ink is brushed liberally over the surface, then the printer lays a piece of paper on top of the block and rubs it several times with a wooden block padded by layers of large leaves.  The print is pulled off the block and set aside to dry.  Later the pages are collated, stacked, folded, trimmed, covered and hand-bound.

At the Jinling Buddhist Publishing House (aka Buddhist Canon Publishing House), an oasis in the middle of high-rise Nanjing, a small staff preserves this process at a living museum.  In a beautiful old compound, using blocks that are 150 years old, they continue to produce Buddhist texts using the traditional methods, which they feel are closer to the tenants of Buddhist practice.  The director gave us a wonderful tour, including a visit to the storage room where they keep 120,000 blocks, neatly organized by book.  We saw two women pulling pages off the woodblocks, taking less than 10 seconds to print each page.  A woodcarver was creating a new block to replace an old one damaged or lost.  And 9 women were collating, stacking, folding and binding the books, which are then sold to Buddhist sites around China (and the world).

Jinling is so important that the Japanese government paid to rebuild it after the Japanese occupation forces during WW II destroyed it.  And during the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party stopped the destruction of the wood blocks by the Red Guard.  They are too important to the heritage of China even for those difficult times.  Even so, 30,000 blocks were lost.  The director estimates it would take 10 carvers 100 years to replace them.

These visits help bring alive an exhibition we are planning on the rise of commercial printing in China from the Ming and Qing eras.  We will be working with the museum in Yangzhou to bring people to Grinnell to demonstrate this process, and I now know how exciting it will be to add their expertise to our exhibition.

Why a bill proposed to sell Pollock's "Mural" is a bad idea

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)

Posted by:  Lesley Wright

State Rep. Scott Raecker, a Grinnell alumnus, has introduced a bill in the Iowa Legislature to sell a painting, Jackson Pollock's "Mural," owned by the University of Iowa Museum of Art in order to create a fund to pay for scholarships for art students.

Here is the letter I sent to Representative Raecker explaining why I think this is a terrible idea.

Dear Representative Raecker,

I am writing in response to your bill introduced in the Iowa House seeking to sell the Jackson Pollock masterpiece owned by the University of Iowa Museum of Art.  I am the director of the Faulconer Gallery at Grinnell College, and on the Advocacy Committee for the Iowa Museum Association.

While I applaud your desire to increase scholarships for the arts, I must protest your proposed method of funding. Selling off a painting that has been on view to countless generations of University of Iowa students, school children, visitors, and Iowa residents ever since it was given by Peggy Guggenheim would cut the heart out of the University of Iowa collection.  Collections are given by passionate donors—alumni and friends alike—but they are also shaped by the dedicated professional staff at the museum, who develop a strong core collection to best communicate with their audiences. The Jackson Pollock painting you seek to sell is part of the core art collection in Iowa.

Selling this painting to fund arts scholarships is akin to selling off a theatre building to support theatre students, selling playing fields to support athletic scholarships, or selling off science equipment to fund the science students.  It makes no sense and in fact sends a very mixed message:  major in the arts but expect no security for your school’s arts initiatives.

The University of Iowa  Museum of Art has a new director. From my meetings with him, I am impressed with his dedication to education, his vision, and his desire to spread art across the campus. He is also committed to working broadly with arts organizations across the state of Iowa.  Fighting to save the Pollock is a distraction and keeps him from doing the job he was hired to do.

The real value of Jackson Pollock’s Mural lies in the inspiration it provides to nourish creativity and to educate anyone who sees it. When my daughter was 4 years old, she learned to recognize Pollock’s work with this painting.  Grinnell students travel to Iowa City (and now Davenport) to see this masterpiece. A noted art historian visiting Grinnell from Morocco asked to visit the Pollock. It is that important and world-renowned, bringing distinction to our state.

 When our children live 250-300 miles from the nearest major metropolitan area, it behooves all of us at the state’s colleges and universities (as well as private museums) to expose our audiences to the very best art we can—be that from our regional artists, from national figures like Jackson Pollock, or from international artists. Iowa is integrally tied to the wide world, a fact we celebrate every day. I commend the University of Iowa for finding a way to keep the Pollock and other key works in their collection on view at the Figge Museum as a means of serving all the people of Iowa and who visit Iowa until such time as they can rebuild in Iowa City.

Finally, on a more practical note, a painting the size of Mural is difficult and expensive to transport and it endangers the work of art every time it is moved. Expecting owner to send the piece to Iowa every few years from wherever in the world it winds up is risky at best and almost impossible to enforce. It’s a well-intentioned condition of sale, but not a good one.

I am sure there are excellent ways to raise scholarship funds for students at our State universities. Selling Pollock’s Mural will have negative repercussions that far outweigh the cash benefits.  The value of art lies in the power of visual expression, the emotional response to a work, and to the stimulus to our imagination. The dollar value is paltry compared with the value of Pollock’s work to the human spirit. If we sell off the Pollock, we impoverish Iowa forever.


Lesley Wright, Director

Faulconer Gallery, Grinnell College  

Eating Chinese Breakfast

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)


Today is day 4 in Nanjing and we are beginning to know our way around.  We are staying in the Nanyuan Conference Center of Nanjing University, which is essentially the hotel for the school.  (For those of you who are former Nanjing fellows from Grinnell, we are not in the foreign scholars house, as it was full.)  Since this is a hotel, the rooms are not designed for a long stay. They are well appointed and comfortable, but not very big, so they have given us two rooms.  We use one as our bedroom and Don's study, and the other as my study and dressing room.  It works out quite nicely if one of us is up late or up early. 

The conference center provides breakfast with the room, so each morning we walk to a dining room and have our Chinese breakfast:  various spicy things that we don't eat, buns (plain or filled with pork or a sweet vegetable filling), rice with scrambled egg (which we both really like), pieces of corn on the cob, braised bok choy and other greens (which Lesley really likes), watermelon, and various sesame and other small sweets.  The drink offered is warm, unsweetened soy milk.  We usually have had tea in our room beforehand.  It's not our usual breakfast, but it's satisfying and interesting.

We have a number of people available to help us.  Don is hosted by the Art Department and one of the PhD students, Mr. Qian Bozhong, serves as his guide and translator for class.  I am hosted by the History Department.  Professor Luo translates for me in class, Miss Zhao Feng is the very able office assistant and all-around problem solver, and Miss Wang Li (or Lily) makes sure I get to and from class, and is eager to assist in any way she can.  The Office of International Cooperation has a another graduate student, Miss Shi Jia (whom we call Cici) who has helped us in all sorts of ways already.  Yesterday at the bank, where we set up bank accounts, was particularly memorable as she helped maneuver the bureaucracy. And of course Cong Cong and her staff, Melissa and Sophie, make sure all is running smoothly.

Like our Chinese breakfast, nothing is quite what we are used to, but everything is working pretty well.  We are finding our way to restaurants good and so-so in the neighborhood. We now have a cell phone, and hope to have money in our bank account soon.  And we have both taught our first classes.  Don's went smoothly, though it's disconcerting to lecture with translation and figure out a good rhythm.  My class started with a real tussle with technology but we finally began class without the images, and added them in later once some issues were sorted out.  I was really pleased to find I had at least 8 students willing to ask questions!  And there is a museology program here, connected with the archaeology department.  Neither of us is quite sure yet if we are hitting the right tone and level with our students, but we'll see how we feel on Day 2.

Imbedded Art

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)


This week has been a flurry of activity at the Faulconer Gallery. Our summer exhibition came down on Monday, and the first of them shipped out Tuesday. By Friday, all four of the new exhibitions were on their way to completion. The walls had been repositioned and prepped. Artists were hard at work on creating site specific installations. Art was retrieved from storage and readied for hanging.

Meanwhile, Dan Strong, our associate director, alarmed by the news reports of potential qur’an (Koran) burnings and other hostile acts towards those who follow Islam, suggested that we debut a new acquisition we have as an act of compassion for our diverse community. In the week when Jews celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan, we wanted a way to use art to spark positive and hopeful dialogue. By Thursday midday, we had contacted all the necessary parties and made the arrangements to present American Qur’an by Sandow Birk in the Smith Gallery of the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center at Grinnell College. 

Birk’s American Qur’an(http://www.grinnell.edu/faulconergallery/collection/birkaq3637) is his transcription in English of the Muslim holy book.  We own suras (chapters) 36 and 37 from the complete work. Birk’s paintings include the text inset into scenes from American life--fields, picnics, floods—a wide range of images drawn from early 21st century American life. His qur’an reminds us that all faiths are imbedded in American culture. The exhibition opened Friday, September 10 and will be on view for about 10 days.

Friday also saw concentrated activity on three projects for the upcoming exhibition Culturing Community: Projects about Place.Members of The Moving Crew, an artist’s collective with local members Jeremy Chen and Lee Running, worked with Grinnell College students to screen print dozens of unfolded boxes which will be used in their gallery installation Ideal X. Artists Marguerite Perret and Bruce Scherting, assisted by Jeff Ashe and Milton Severe, installed 4 skylight inserts glowing with images drawn from collections at Grinnell College. Along with art already on view in the Drake Community Library and art yet to be installed at the Faulconer Gallery, these pieces constitute their project Collect(ive): The Grinnell People’s Museum. Jane Gilmor worked in Faulconer Gallery to begin the creation of her large-scale piece about the history of work in Grinnell:  (Un)Seen Work: Traditions and Transitions.

All three projects have engaged a wide variety of people in their creation. In a sense, they have left the gallery to imbed themselves in the community, taking art from its museum confines and meeting people where they live. Though we are now bringing it back into the gallery, we hope to draw our creative partners along as well. We hope they now see art as a piece of them, and not as something disconnected.  The shows open September 24.

Hong Kong Day 1

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)


It's early on Friday morning, May 14, as I write, though it's still Thursday in the US.  We arrived yesterday evening right on schedule after a 14+ hour flight, which United informs us is one of their longest. We flew the polar route, almost due north over Canada and the west side of Hudson Bay, along the northern edge of the North American continent, still snow covered, but the water at the shore has melted for the season, and back over land at Siberia. Siberia was amazing--track-less, snowy, tundra, very hilly, with a huge river we followed for some time.  We were at 40,000 feet and it looked huge! Alas, we flew north to south over China but saw nothing--all clouds.

The Hong Kong airport is beautiful and spotless. Although it was 5:30 pm there was little traffic and our taxi whisked us to our hotel. We are on the Kowloon side of Hong Kong, right near the waterfront and across the street from the Cultural Center. We wandered over to the waterfront after we unpacked, trying to stay up for awhile so we could get on schedule. Across the water was a classic view of all the high rise buildings in Hong Kong, with lighted ferries zipping back and forth. At 8:00, the nightly light and music show started. Neon lights line the buildings on both sides and more lights and lasers are posted on the tops of the skyscrapers. In coordination with music on both sides of the harbor, the lights flash and dance for about 15 minutes.  Since it was a foggy evening, the effect was somewhat dampened, but we got the idea.

We then wandered off in search of dinner and landed on a place advertising sea food. We were served elegantly and had delicious grouper and sauteed clam strips. The clam came with unidentifiable orange items, which tasted like a sort of fish. I liked them, Don did not. 

Today is dawning foggy.  We go in search of art.

Mu Fu Art Gems

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)


Nanjing is not one of the biggest cities in China. Despite a population of over 7 million, it has a modesty about it.  The traffic though congested, flows along in a civilized way, a sort of ballet between cars, bikes, scooters and pedestrians. There are flashy shopping areas, but they aren’t enormous. Most everything is on a reasonable level, a human scale. Anything edgy or provocative is kept under wraps.

Given our interest in art, we have been perplexed by the lack of a contemporary art scene. The art faculty and students with whom Don associated at the University are deeply academic in their approach, with students copying the work of western old masters and their own teachers’ works in a version of an ancient Asian tradition of learning. The professors, though very well connected and supported, make art that is more akin to work from the first half of the 20th century than to anything of the 21st.  And neither students nor faculty seemed to have much of a handle on contemporary trends. We asked around about art to little avail. There is an art museum, but it is closed for reinstallation. The modesty of the city appeared to keep a lid on any alternative spaces—at least we never found them.  We got a glimmer of an idea of another world one evening when, on our way to a dinner, we passed the Nanjing Institute of Fine Arts.  We wondered what might be happening there.

On our last day in Nanjing, Cathy Zhang—translator, Chinese instructor at Grinnell, English instructor at Nanjing, and friend—took us for a farewell lunch of delicious light dishes, then whisked us off to see the studios of some artist friends. The taxi drove east, and drove, and drove, and drove, and got lost, and tried again, wound around small, almost rural streets, turned into a drive lined with graffitied walls topped by found art sculpture, came around a bottled water plant and stopped among some quiet disused factory buildings.  A sign said Nanjing Qinghe Current Art Center and there was a wonderful big open space for art—no one around, no art in sight. Cathy makes a phone call and dashes off down a drive. Soon she is calling us over to an open door and we step into a terrific artist’s studio.

Her friend Huang Jun makes large paintings of babies and children, painted in differing scales and degrees of finish. They are relentlessly individual and expressive, but also assertive and disturbing. He told us that he paints children because he doesn’t want to grow up. To grow up is to succumb to what the government wants for him and he’d rather not accept their view of the world. Huang Jun became our host and guide for a great afternoon of studio visits. Scattered throughout empty factory buildings are over 30 artists’ studios. We visited 8 or 9 painters in spaces intimate and vast. The quality of work was uniformly high and the artists clearly have a community of peers in this place they call MuFu.

Above all, we were struck by the quality of the painting. While the artists are clearly looking at everyone from Francis Bacon to Morandi, David Salle to Wayne Thiebaud, the work is not derivative but tackles a range of subjects with fresh energy. None of them was making abstract work.  Figurative painting predominated, laced with sentient animals and hybrid creatures. There were also effective still lifes, object studies and some terrific cityscapes.  We learned that many of the painters had recently been part of a group show in Shanghai, curated by Chris Gill, and we were given a precious copy of the catalog. Happily, a portion of the show remains on view in a Shanghai gallery. We made plans to see it.

By the end of our visit, cut short only by a previous engagement, we felt deeply relieved to know that contemporary art flourishes, albeit quietly, in Nanjing. All these artists are associated in one way or another with the Nanjing Institute of Art so it clearly is the creative hub of the city. Had we more time, we would have explored it with more intent. Alas, the artists of MuFu will soon have to move to a new location as the government wants their secluded factory buildings for commercial ventures. Or perhaps they are attempting to discourage the free-thinking of these artists. As another artist noted, he paints pain and anxiety in direct opposition to the government’s desire for peace, happiness and achievement. He prefers not to become one of the “happy animals in the zoo,” caged by the official view of reality.

We have lunch with Wu

Fri, 2013-01-04 02:24 | By Anonymous (not verified)


After days of hearing of all the accomplishments and accolades accorded to the esteemed Professor Wu, seeing his studio and examples of his work at Nanjing University, and anticipating the moment, we were invited to a luncheon on Friday with the man himself.  He had just returned from Hong Kong, where he received an honorary degree from Hong Kong University. Professor Wu is officially Don's host at Nanjing University, but his assistants, Mr. Chen and Mr. Qian (pronounced "chon") have being taking on the day-to-day tasks of working with Don on his course.  In fact, Mr. Chen is sitting in on the course, and Mr. Qian provides Don's translations.  Both Mr. Chen and Mr. Qian hold Professor Wu in the highest regard and tell us often of his awards and honors.

We were escorted through the studio and upstairs to Prof. Wu's private office, a lavish space filled with books, historical works of Chinese art, and photos and paintings of Prof. Wu.  We greeted Professor Wu, and met several other guests, including Deputy Director Dai Zhehua, who directs the Office of International Cooperation and Exchanges at Nanjing University, a visiting artist friend of Prof Wu's named Yishing, and Cong Cong, there to greet us but unable to stay for lunch.  We were served tea and exchanged gifts with Professor Wu.  There was a round of picture taking then we were off to lunch.

We surmise that Professor Wu is in his late 40s.  He was dressed all in an elegant black suit with a black shirt.  His hair is long and swept back and he carries himself with confidence, very much an artist at the peak of his profession and a consummate careerist.  He understands English but speaks it very little.  Mr. Dai and Mr. Qian did most of the translating at lunch.  Mr. Chen made sure the meal ran smoothly.  Professor Wu is now primarily based out of Beijing where he has been elevated from a professor to the director of the Institute for Arts and also to the head of the national sculpture academy.  He still serves Nanjing University but, as Mr. Dai noted, he's paid by Beijing!  In his national roles, he has a great deal of power to determine which artists and which sculptures are placed in cities all over China. 

This was our second banquet luncheon. Held in a private dining room, the guests sit around an elegantly set round table.  The courses--at least 10--are served individually one after another.  A plate of beautifully arranged hors d'oeuvres begins the meal (sliced beef, duck, mango, a tiny hard-boiled egg, shredded radish), followed by:  a soup of greens and rice noodles, another plate of sliced meat, a salad course, another soup, a dumpling, a fish dish in a yellow creamy sauce, a cabbage roll in a spicy chili sauce with a small stick of chocolate, a steak, another soup, and a dessert of watermelon, tomato and cucumber slices.  All the portions are small, but we have learned not to eat everything.  It's bad manners and we wouldn't make it to the end! 

Aside from conversation, the other main activity at the luncheon is rounds of toasting.  We had a frothy orange drink plus small glasses of a tasty but potent white liquor made from 5 grains.  There are both general toasts and periodic individual toasts.  I've made sure to offer at least one general toast each lunch.  Don thinks the individual toasts are offered whenever anyone wants to take another sip--no sipping without toasting! 

Professor Wu had to rush off at the end to give a speech to the local military academy.  We headed home in the rain, in need of a rest after lunch with Wu!