Modern ceramic pieces put their counterparts in relief

Curving "psychedelic" forms, motifs of peace and war, thousands of glazed porcelain leaves, a 5-foot-tall sculpture traced with gold and shaped with eggshell delicacy:

Thought-provoking, beautiful, sometimes disturbing, and often unexpected, these objects and many more offer visual commentaries on societal change, politics, consumerism, personal story and aesthetic perspective in "Reshaping Tradition: Contemporary Ceramics from East Asia," a major survey exhibition opening at the USC Pacific Asia Museum on Sept. 11.


Spread over three galleries at the Pasadena-based museum, the exhibition consists of 21 contemporary works created by noted artists from China (Ai Weiwei, Liu Jianhua, Ah Xian), Korea (Ik-joong Kang, Yeesookyung), Japan (Harumi Nakashima), and Vietnam (Bui Cong Khanh); as well as 10 pre-modern ceramic pieces, primarily from the museum's permanent collection.

"It is the museum's first exhibition to "look at the multiple regions of contemporary Asian ceramics and take a deeper view of what is going on in contemporary ceramics today," said curator Yeonsoo Chee.


Because the museum has its own collection of pre-modern ceramic pieces, "we have a unique point of view in that we can connect contemporary artists with traditional materials," she said, for a more comprehensive perspective.

A "beautiful blue and white bowl" from the 15th century, for example," Chee said, makes a connection with the work of Vietnamese artist Khanh. At first glance, one of Khanh's tall, sleek, blue-and-white porcelain vases may appear to be a traditional piece. A closer look reveals classic motifs interspersed with haunting images of submarines and battleships.

Khanh was born in a coastal city with "very strong remnants" of the Vietnam War, Chee explained. "There's beautiful scenery there, but at the same time, the images on the vase" — of war machines, weapons, traditional landscapes, a Buddhist pagoda — speak to "the lingering effect of the war on Vietnamese society." On another vase, Khanh has superimposed over blue-and-white floral and ocean-wave motifs images in red of such everyday objects as a soda bottle, a bag of chips, and portable benches that are ubiquitous on Vietnamese streets today, Chee said.

Chinese activist Ai Weiwei — who, although barred from leaving China, recently orchestrated a series of political art installations throughout Alcatraz, the former infamous island prison — provides a commentary on contemporary consumer culture here with his 2011 "Colored Vases," earthenware pottery from the Neolithic period, dipped into, and dripping with, industrial paint.

"For Korea," Chee said, "we have a 19th-century moon jar, a very prominent Korean white ceramic during the Joseon Dynasty," although, unlike the other pre-modern pieces on display, it is on loan, she noted, because the museum didn't have a comparable piece that would create "a compelling dialogue" between the Joseon Dynasty tradition and Korean artist Ik-joong Kang's porcelain-and-mixed media work, "Things I Know/500 Moon Jars."

However, Chee said, "we're not doing a one-to-one comparison. I don't think that would serve the traditional materials or the contemporary works. There are just enough [traditional pieces] for the contemporary artists to be grounded in a way that their works can be better appreciated."

Human-scale busts created by Chinese artist Ah Xian using family members for his models are a surprise: Such sculptures are not in the Chinese tradition. Ah Xian, who sought asylum in Australia after the Tiananmen Square killing of pro-democracy protesters in 1989, is combining traditions of the East and West," Chee explained. These busts are among the most unusual works on display: Painted blue blossoms, birds and leaves flow over the white porcelain head and upper body of a woman; in contrast, a male bust is dominated by a dense landscape in carved relief, leaves and twisting trees spreading over face, neck, shoulders and chest like unsettling growths.

Rounded, free-form shapes by Nakashima sporting blue-and-white dots, and ranging in size from 2- to 3-feet tall (titles include "Forms that Enclose the Absurd," and "Forms That Reveal the Absurd"), were sculpted by hand, using a work-intensive pinch and coil technique. "Translated Vases," by Yeesookyung, look like fused egg shells, seams covered in 24-karat gold leaf. The delicacy of these pieces, "translated" from ceramic shards discarded by other contemporary Korean artists, is belied by their size: one is approximately 5 feet tall, the other stands over 3 feet.

And then there are the two large-scale installations, "Trace" and "Fallen Leaves," by Liu Jianhua, who will be on hand for the finished installation and opening of the latter, a work consisting of approximately 5,000 ceramic leaves. (The two works occupy their own gallery.)

Jianhua's artistic journey "is kind of a snapshot of how ceramics are perceived, not just in China but in Asia in general," Chee said. "Traditionally, ceramics were used for containers and decorative objects and not seen as a fine art." Jianhua began as an industrial designer in a ceramics factory, she explained, later pursuing ceramics as a sculptor and crossing "from the commercial world to fine art, from artisan to artist."

"People tend to think of ceramics as personal and intimate objects, rather than large sculpture and installation art," Chee said. She hopes that this exhibition will provide visitors with new perspectives on a dynamically changing art form.

(The museum's education department has created a family guide for younger audiences and related programming geared to adults includes a "Fusion Friday" event on Sept. 18 from 7 to 10 p.m., featuring music, food trucks, special tours of the exhibition and art-making with mosaic artist Leigh Adams; and a "Conversations@PAM" discussion on Nov. 21 at 7 p.m. with exhibiting artist Khanh and Karen Koblitz, USC's Associate Professor and Head of Ceramics.)

What: "Reshaping Tradition: Contemporary Ceramics from East Asia"

Where: USC Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena.

When: Opens Friday, Sept. 11; through Jan. 31, 2016; open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Tickets: $10 general admission; $7 for seniors and for students with valid ID. Children age 12 and under, free. (Admission free for all on the second Sunday of each month.)

More info: (626) 449-2742,


LYNNE HEFFLEY writes about theater and culture for Marquee.