FINE ART: The Scholarly Life

Las Vegas Art Museum shows implements and artifacts of Chinese artist-scholar tradition

Chuck Twardy

Imagine this: In order to be a government functionary, you need to be a connoisseur of art and poetry. As opposed to, say, an adept of soft-money and diversionary spin.

For centuries, though, it was a given of the Confucian tradition in China that literary scholarship, dexterity with ink-brushes and devotion to government service were closely related marks of character.

The Las Vegas Art Museum opens a narrow window on this ideal with Chinese Beauty and Elegance: Collecting and Connoisseurship in Scholarly Taste, which continues through September 23. Organized by guest curator Kristine Galassi, the show comprises a selection of artifacts on loan from the Pacific Asia Museum of Pasadena, California, as well as an assortment of jade carvings from a local collection.

The viewing is limited because the show is small, about 30 or 40 pieces mostly from the 18th- through the early-20th century: the Ming and Qing dynasties. Arguably, this is when the literati tradition had reached its apex, before the collapse of the Chinese monarchy. Several pieces, though, date back to the Han Dynasty, which straddled the beginning of the Christian era. All in all, it's the sort of show that cannot help but please visitors, though it leaves you wishing for something more comprehensive.

Still, it's full of joys little and large, starting with the mockup of a scholar's studio in the center of the gallery, giving you an idea of the setting in which those who wielded the implements shown elsewhere in the gallery worked. Often, this little office was in a garden pavilion, the better to contemplate nature, and reverence for nature was the heart of the scholar's work and experience.

This regard can be traced from two turtle-shaped implements, a bronze water-dropper and a tiny jade seal from the Han Dynasty to a huge stoneware teapot, shaped as a tree-trunk section, from the Qing Dynasty. Respect for nature also is evident in the few examples of painting. A hand scroll attributed to 13th-century painter Zhao Zi Ang is open to a section showing a figural group apparently moving through a flowing landscape with a cherry tree delicately spotted with blooms. Two large scroll paintings from the Lily and Wing Fong collection, painted by Hau Pei Jen in 1982, also are shown; the Fongs commissioned them for the Artemis Ham Concert Hall lobby at UNLV.

Selections from the Gerald D. Facciani Collection of jade sculptures neatly round out the show, offering evidence of the sometimes spectacular craftsmanship that went into such objects. These were made most likely in craftsman workshops, not by literati.

If you visit Chinese Beauty and Elegance, and it's well worth it, you might be surprised to find yourself reaching it via a display of contemporary art in the main center gallery. New Consulting Executive Director Libby Lumpkin explains that the exhibition of works by Cuban painter Carlos Alfonso that had been planned for the space had to be postponed. Lumpkin says she scrambled to borrow some works from local artists and from a local collection.

These range from a splendid 1961 silkscreen by Ad Reinhardt—a cross composed of blacks and grays of barely different values—to Ed Ruscha's 1988 lithograph, "Woman in Black," a Southern belle silhouetted in a shower of black spatters. My thanks to the volunteer on hand who pointed out that the form in Vernon Fisher's 1990 lithograph, "Scenes from the American West," resolves into a Mickey Mouse head the farther back from it you stand.

These works will remain on display until September 9, after which the exhibition of works by Laura Goodman, mother of Las Vegas' mayor, will be shown for two weeks.

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