Asian Art Week – Ben Janssens

Also exhibiting in Asian Art Week is Ben Janssens, who has a wonderful selection of Chinese boxes on display. These include enamel, ivory tortoiseshell and hardwood examples, although the real highlight of the exhibition is the group of carved lacquer boxes. Carved lacquer dates back as far as the Tang dynasty (618-907) although it reached a peak during the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1735-96), who was such a fan of the medium that he when he died he had his coffin decorated with it. Many of the pieces on show date from this period, including this exquisite example in double peach form.

Peaches are a symbol of longevity, also referred to here by the pine tree and the wan characters (swastikas) carved around the side of the box. Indeed, the piece is full of  symbolism, as the central motif of boys playing in a garden alludes to a desire for many sons. Chinese boxes are often decorated with such auspicious signs, suggesting that they were given as gifts, as they could be used to convey messages of harmony and goodwill. Here, this symbolism is coupled with a charming realism, as the boys to the right rush towards their playmate, one carrying his shoe, whilst their companion carries his peach branch in his mouth to make his climb easier. There is also a delightful play of texture across the surface of the box, as the craftsmen effectively contrasts areas of smooth, polished lacquer with extremely intricate carving.

Lacquer is a coloured varnish, and needs to be built up gradually with many thin layers. Each layer must be completely dry before the next can be applied, and it takes months to achieve a piece of lacquer thick enough to carve. This striking example extends this process, incorporating layers of green and ochre lacquer, which are revealed as the upper layer of red is cut away. The craftsmen have even included two layers of green, one beneath the top, red layer, and another beneath the ochre. This adds a dramatic sense of depth to the box, particularly where the red surface designs give way to the lower green layer, as can be seen in the central panel and in the lozenges displaying the attributes of the Eight Immortals. The depth of the cutting almost creates a sense that these red motifs are floating above the box, an apt effect for the banks of clouds and flying dragons.

Asian Art Week – Rossi & Rossi

It’s Asian Art Week this week and there are free talks and exhibitions on in museums, private galleries and auction houses across London. Many of the galleries are clustered around Mayfair, St James and Kensington Church Street, so that strolling down a single street you might come into contact with ancient Chinese ceramics, or a group of imagined Indian cityscapes. With European art still dominating so much of the art historical discourse in this country, it’s great to be able to explore many different areas of this eclectic field, as pieces old and new, and from across the continent are on display. ‘Asian art’ may be a broad term, but the exhibitions themselves are highly specialised, often focusing on a particular country or period, a certain set of objects, or perhaps the work of one artist. By looking in more depth at these individual artistic traditions, we can gain a better understanding of the richness and diversity of Asian art as a whole.

At Rossi & Rossi the exhibition Tibetan Spirit combines works by the contemporary artist Ang Tsherin Sherpa with traditional Thangka paintings. At first glance, Sherpa’s works appear very much grounded in the international milieu of the contemporary art scene; his flat, graphic style and use of pop culture images recalls the superflat movement, lead by Takeshi Murakami, whilst his inclusion of butterflies and polka dots is redolent of Damien Hirst.

However, Sherpa’s works are also steeped in the traditions of Tibetan art, as Sherpa himself trained as a Thangka painter. Thangkas are Tibetan scroll paintings, and they commonly depict Buddhist deities, often laid out in prescriptive geometric forms. Details such as hand movements are imbued with great spiritual significance, and must be replicated with precision by the Thangka artists. Works like Expression, 2012, betray Sherpa’s fluency with this symbolic language, as he highlights the communicative power of hands and feet, granting them their own autonomous power. The myriad of hand positions on display clearly have very potent meanings, and as an outsider their obscurity only contributes further to a sense of mysterious, magical power.

Thangka paintings continue to have great resonance for Tibetan Buddhists, and are still used for didactic and ritual purposes and, perhaps most importantly, as meditation aides. It is fascinating to see a contemporary artist drawing from a spiritual and artistic tradition that is both historical and ongoing, an idea highlighted by the older Thangka paintings included in the exhibition. Sherpa is not just drawing influence from Tibetan Buddhist art; as a trained Thangka painter, he is very much an active part of this institution. Such an idea is almost unimaginable in Western art, which broke from the church long ago. Contemporary artists may utilize the conventions of earlier Christian art (as Sherpa does with his gold leaf backgrounds, recalling the sacred space of gothic paintings) but there is no such sense of continuity. Sherpa imbues his work with the historical and religious weight of a visual culture that stretches back centuries, but he does so with a lightness and wit that is entirely his own.