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Liu Jianhua: The clay's the thing

Pace Gallery presents bold experiments using an ancient medium

For its first summer offering (on view until Aug. 4), Pace Gallery is presenting a solo exhibition of ceramic works by Liu Jianhua, one of China's best-known artists. If that sentence conjures up images of pots, vases and other functional ware, you are in for a surprise. Jianhua has taken this age-old material and done things that not only defy the physical limits of the medium but almost everything that one might expect from objects created from clay.

"Liu Jianhua is a master of porcelain," explained Pace director Elizabeth Sullivan. "He is deeply steeped in the Chinese tradition of making porcelain but adds a wonderful modern twist to his works. Each piece he produces is a poetic masterpiece."

Jianhua was born in Jiangxi Province in 1962 and learned the techniques of working in porcelain from an uncle, who was a renowned kaolin artisan in Jingdezhen. This area of China is known for its production of high-quality art pottery dating back centuries. Jianhua earned a degree from the Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute in 1989 and immediately began experimenting in porcelain and mixed-media art. His early work was figurative and reflected the social and economic changes occurring in his country. Since 2008, however, he has adopted a "no meaning, no content" approach that focuses more on abstraction.

Entering Pace Gallery, the viewer is met with an untitled work that consists of four large discs hung next to each other on the wall. The powder-blue color of the discs is the result of a glaze called ruyao, referred to as "the color of sky after a rain." Running through the center of each is a deep blue line, a symbolic linking of past to present. This piece is a fairly traditional use of the ceramic medium, but step into the main gallery and prepare yourself for something totally different.

The installation here consists of two series and is deliberately minimalist in order to call attention to Jianhua's work. A free-standing wall in the middle of the gallery is the site for a piece that looks like a large sheet of white paper. Look closely and notice that this is not paper but unglazed porcelain, carefully rolled to the thinnest of widths. Anyone who has ever attempted to throw a pot, or even make one out of coils, knows that clay is a difficult and unforgiving medium. One can only imagine the size of a kiln needed to fire such a large and fragile piece. Gallery staff explained that for every sheet that emerges intact, dozens end up as shards on the floor. This series, entitled Blank Paper is an impressive bit of trompe l'oeil (fool the eye), but the artist's intention is more ephemeral. In a 2015 interview at the Tate Gallery, Jianhua said, "When facing a work like this people may feel as if they were 'writing' all their feelings on the real world on it -- not with pens, but with their hearts."

The side walls of this gallery are punctuated with shiny black drips of varying sizes. They are made out of porcelain and, while appearing to be heavy, are actually hollow. The artist was inspired in this series, titled Trace, by the ancient art of Chinese calligraphy. In order to find the exact shapes, Jianhua observed what happened when he dripped ink onto paper. These pieces, which can be purchased separately, are very tactile and practically beg to be touched -- but don't.

In the third gallery, the eye is drawn from the walls to the floor, where a piece from a series entitled Square has been installed. Rectangular steel sheets on the floor provide the base for gold-glazed porcelain drops placed in groups of two or more. The drops are smooth, shiny and reflective. This series was shown as part of the 2017 Whitney Biennial and Jianhua explained, in a Youtube video interview, that he chose these materials because "they both relate to fire." A dichotomy is created in that steel is a "cold material that is the outcome of industrialization" but ceramic is "traditional but can be converted into a language of today, which is very important." The artist also stated that, "When I am making this work, I am looking at the two different materials for a contradiction, and the contradiction was highlighted when these materials are placed together."

When asked if exhibiting porcelain objects presents additional concerns for safety and security, Sullivan responded, "Liu Jianhua's works are extremely well-crafted. They give the illusion of fragility but are surprisingly easy to install, and make for a stunning installation."

As is often the case, the gallery has installed several other pieces in the rear office area that are accessible to viewers upon request. Be sure to go back to see Container, a display of two vases and three bowls, all glazed in a celadon green. While the shapes are traditional, the artist has filled them with a deep red interior that mimics liquid and is inspired by blood. Further back in this space is Flame, in which scarlet-hued porcelain shapes resemble tendrils of fire running horizontally across the wall.

More than 40 years ago, pioneering artists like Peter Voulkos and Robert Arneson fought to have ceramics recognized as more than just decorative handcraft. The work of Liu Jianhua reflects how far the medium has come, from the strictly functional to an art form that can convey complex ideas about life and cultural identity.

Freelance writer Sheryl Nonnenberg can be emailed at nonnenberg@aol.com.

What: Porcelain sculptures by Liu Jianhua.

Where: Pace Gallery, 229 Hamilton Ave., Palo Alto.

When: Through Aug. 4. Gallery is open Tuesday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cost: Free.

Info: Pace.

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