Critic's Choice

East Asian sculptors reshape tradition

If any single work could sum up the dense, nutrient-rich appeal of the USC Pacific Asia Museum's exhibition "Reshaping Tradition: Contemporary Ceramics From East Asia," it would be one of Yeesookyung's "Translated Vases."

Each is a globular ebullience of broken porcelain vessels, the shards joined with epoxy and the seams traced in gold leaf.

Yeesookyung adopts as building blocks, or puzzle pieces, the rejected efforts of Korean ceramic artists working today in traditional styles. She makes their discarded fragments whole -- not again, by restoring them, but anew, granting them a freshness born of the friction between reverence and irreverence.

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For one of the pieces, a Peter Shelton-like para-functional organism, she grafts parts of jade vases ornamented with trees and cranes onto pristine white curves. She plants dragon-headed spouts among sections of stoneware lightly stroked with blue calligraphy. These are exuberant mash-ups, deep-rooted follies. Idiosyncrasy and illogic abound, but with no loss of formal integrity.

Throughout the PAM show, prescribed methods of the past serve as raw matter for the insistently new. Broad in scope but modest in scale, "Reshaping Tradition," thoughtfully organized by the museum's Yeonsoo Chee, contains just 21 works by seven artists -- three from China, two from Korea and one each from Japan and Vietnam.

Resonant, older works from the museum's collection appear throughout as well, providing grace notes of context. Every one of the selections, new and old, carries its weight and merits close attention.

The busts of Ah Xian are especially fascinating. Each head-and-shoulders portrait represents a distinct individual, man or woman, young or old, whose skin bears the patterns and textures of an equally distinct Chinese ceramic tradition.

One surface is embellished with a lotus-scroll design in cobalt blue and iron-red. Another is the vehicle for a gorgeous landscape modeled in low relief and given the sepia tones of an old graphic. Craggy cliffs rise alongside the subject's ear and the back of his skull. Tree branches trail sinuously from shoulder to neck. Leaves overcome half of his face.

It might be a common axiom to say that living bodies are the vessels of tradition, but Ah Xian's sculptures give that truth extraordinary visual credence.

Most of the artists are in their fifties and fairly well-established. All are men but one, Yeesookyung. The single household name in the group is Ai Weiwei, who is no timid diplomat when it comes to negotiating between the past and the present.

He is represented by a group of Neolithic earthenware pots that he has double-dunked in bright, brash housepaint. Glimpses of the ancient clay show through beneath dripping coats of mint and emerald, gold and purple. The precious relics have been rendered banal, and history is all but smothered by the crude, irrepressible now.

USC Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Robles Ave., Pasadena, (626) 449-2742, through Jan. 31, 2016. Closed Monday and Tuesday. www.pacificasiamuseum.usc.edu

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