When The New York Times profiled “a growing group of rising curatorial stars” earlier this year, one of those spotlighted was Hao Sheng, curator of Chinese art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. This month, a major exhibition curated by Sheng — “Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition” — opened in the MFA’s new Ann and Graham Gund Gallery, the museum’s largest exhibition space for contemporary art.
The groundbreaking exhibition, for which 10 leading contemporary Chinese artists created new works that respond to masterpieces in the MFA’s world-renowned collection, was more than five years in the making.
“When I chose these artists — I joke about it — it’s almost like a film director casting for a film,” Sheng says. “Diversity is the key: diversity of biography, diversity of their own approach to art, and the diversity of their strategies in working with a classical work.”
All 10 artists came to Boston to look at the museum’s collection and select the works to which they would respond. Their choices span 3,000 years of art history, from an 11th century BC bronze vessel to Song Dynasty paintings on silk, to a 1949 Jackson Pollock canvas. About Arnold Chang, the artist who chose the Pollock, Sheng told Orientations magazine, “Maybe I have a high tolerance for ambiguity, but I was delighted by his choice. Artists look constantly, and they don’t limit where they look.”
The new works created in response are equally diverse, from conceptual and installation pieces to brush-and-ink landscape and figurative oil paintings.
“The artists, as they create their work, are not making the distinction between East and West,” Sheng says. “The artists are looking at Chinese art but at the same time they are referencing abstract expressionism or other earlier artistic traditions. They are not to be bound by just one tradition.”
In his own artistic and professional life, Sheng has been equally averse to artificial constraints.
Born in Shanghai, he came to Wooster intending to major in physics, but soon switched to art history, along with a healthy dose of studio art coursework, including ceramics, sculpture, print-making, drawing, and painting. In the art department Sheng found mentors like Professors Arn Lewis and Walter Zurko, who remain trusted advisers, and have become friends.
“Within the first hour of meeting Arn, he picked up the phone and got me an on-campus job as a ceramics studio assistant,” Sheng recalls fondly. “I held that job for four years and it really nurtured my interest in ceramics, and that led to my Watson Fellowship.”
The Watson allowed Sheng to travel to Japan after graduation, where he spent three years apprenticed to master potter Shimaoka Tatsuzo. Returning to the U.S., he earned a master’s degree in Chinese art history at Harvard in 2002, where he is currently completing his Ph.D., and began working for the Museum of Fine Arts as an assistant curator in 2004.
Sheng says that his experience as a working artist, as well as an art historian, enriches his work as a curator. “The fact that I make ceramics allows me to see ceramics more deeply and imagine how the potter once made them. That kind of dialogue that one can have with the maker through the artwork is something invaluable [to an art historian] and to a certain extent is only possible to the practitioner.”
Sheng believes that the dialogue between historical masters and contemporary artists embodied in the “Fresh Ink” exhibit will help museum goers “come to know China in a more thoughtful, intimate, personal way” by bridging the traditional, romantic China of the past with “the contemporary, fast developing China you come into contact with only when shopping in a Walmart.”
[“Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition” is on view through Feb. 13, 2011, at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. For more information, call 617-267-9300.]
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