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Jackson Lee: reinterpreting tradition.

CERAMICS IS NOT JUST A FORM OF ART FOR JACKSON Lee; it is a way of life. There is both tenacity and serenity in the way Lee works; he pursues precision with relentless fervor while enjoying beauty with a sense of deep joy. The same passion, dedication, diligence and esteem for quality that Lee applies to his artwork also hold true in his general approach to life. At the end of the day, he can often be found savoring his creation and brewing new ideas over a few cups of tea.

Based in Jingdezhen, inarguably the porcelain capital of China if not the world, Lee lives and works out of Sanbao Ceramic Art Institute. Sanbao (Chinese for Three Treasures) is a tranquil and eco-friendly artist village that Lee cofounded with American ceramist Wayne Higby in 2000, nestled among the rolling hills of Jiangxi province. Lee personally oversaw the purchase and renovation of a group of old farm houses that form Sanbao, making a point to preserve original architecture from the wooden beams to the shingled roofs. Artists from around the world set up residencies at Sanbao and tours and lectures are frequently held to facilitate an international dialogue on Chinese ceramics. Sanbao itself is symbolic of Lee's unique stance between the past and the present, between the East and the West.


For the past few years, Lee, also known by his Chinese name Li Jianshen, has been exploring the juxtaposition of tradition and contemporary ceramics in his series of Neo-Imperial porcelain ware. Embodying the elegance and refinement of guanyao, the official ware of Chinas royal dynasties, Lees Neo-Imperial porcelain is not imitation but rather reinterpretation of this classic ceramic art. "Tradition is like a big tree, rooted so deeply, you cant imagine escaping the shade of this tree," says Lee.

Lee's vessels are delicate, characterized by their regal forms and exquisite simplicity. Fired at high temperatures, the porcelain possesses paper-thin translucency and the surfaces are painted with images reminiscent of traditional scrolls. But the objects, once reserved for use within the walls of the Imperial Palace, are now accessible to all. Lee has diminished the distance and made them intimate.

Lee's Neo-Imperial series was first exhibited at the Palace Museum in Beijing in 2006 and attracted much international attention for his new take on classical porcelain ware. "We are still cooking rice, really, but I changed the method. It's making something different; the ingredients are the same but I changed the order," says Lee about his series.

The Neo-Imperial works were exhibited again in October 2008 at Twocities Gallery in Shanghai. The Twocities Gallery is one of the few galleries in China specializing in contemporary handcrafted art, working primarily with Chinese glass, ceramic and lacquer artists. This exhibition, The Spirit of Porcelain, looks to be the first of potentially many exhibitions to come featuring Lee's works at Twocities. Over 60 pieces were displayed, including vases, cups, bowls and traditional narrow-mouthed bottles.


"I don't change the essence," explains Lee. "Keeping tradition as a strong reference, I reduce the noise, narrations and symbols that have no meaning today. The result is different."

In Lee's square cup sets, we see the combination of refinement and versatility. The cups are painted with images extracted from The Spring Festival Along the River, a long hand scroll famous for its detailed depiction of lively urban life and attributed to Zhang Zeduan of the North Song dynasty. The figures and buildings are hand painted onto the dark monochromatic surface and the close-up glimpses allow us to be voyeurs into a time gone by. The cups can be arranged and stacked in any combination and the traditional form of the scroll is transformed into something adaptable and open to interpretation--nostalgic yet new.

Lee also finds inspiration in nature and he frequently employs insects and animals in his paintings. They are not mere aesthetics, though, as animals depicted in Chinese art serve symbolic purposes as well. In Lee's crane vase series, he selects the recognizable features of the Manchurian crane, a symbol of longevity and paints them on a Qing dynasty style vase. Neck curved and head bent as if in silent meditation or prayer, the crane rests on one delicate leg in a shroud of white. With the wing as the only other body part depicted, the crane is at once ethereal and substantial as the very curves and mass of the vase serve as its body. "By taking sections, I do not need the whole," says Lee. "The audience becomes part of completing the work in their imagination."


In Lees studio, dead dragonflies are often found lying in porcelain bowls, their wings iridescent against the smooth white, posing idyllically for future designs. Lee takes a zoomed-in approach with insects depicted in his designs. By focusing on the details, Lee elevates the seemingly insignificant and highlights the tiny creatures as the central subjects. Suspended solo against the ecru and gray ceramic surfaces, the insects appear to float effortlessly, as if caught alighting on the vessel. Lees insects are at once familiar and sophisticated.

An-yi Pan, artist and professor at Cornell University, compares Lees work to that of contemporary painter Qi Baishi, known for his whimsical watercolor works. "Qi Baishi earned the moniker' people s painter' for his effort in focusing on insignificant animals and bringing them to the paper medium," states Pan. "Likewise, Jackson brought these tiny lives to the surfaces of elegant guan ware, bridging the gap between the imperial and the masses."

Lee incorporates patterns in his Neo-Imperial wares, both to demonstrate his finesse in painting and to refer to the long standing tradition of patterns used in Chinese art. Lees peony design draws from the Tang gold and silver ware design and the peony itself is a popular and traditional Chinese flower. The design is simple: an up-close and blown-up view of the peony, the petals outlined in silver.

"By simplifying the background color to monochrome and by using silver, Lee not only retains the elegance of guan ware, but also reduces the overly sensuous colorful peony painted by his Qing dynasty predecessor to attain the spare aesthetic of the baimiao (plain outline drawing) tradition of the literati class," explains Pan.


For Lee, creating contemporary ceramics is not about shrugging off tradition but rather embracing and absorbing it. "A vessel is not just a form as a container. It contains history, culture and heritage," says Lee. "I am one drop of rain from the cloud of scholars and artists." Modern developments in ceramic techniques and technology encourage Jackson Lee to forge forward in a way that honors the past. "We have the ability to see how far we can go, how much we can do in the 21st century, growing from this massive tradition."

Jackson Lee received an MFA from Jingdezhen Ceramic Art Institute in Jingdezhen, China and an MFA from Alfred University in N.Y. USA. He exhibits and lectures internationally and is also an award-winning filmmaker known for his documentaries on ceramic traditions in China. All photos by Henry Sha.

Eva Ting is the Director of the Twocities Gallery in Shanghai. (www.twocitiesgallerycom)
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Author:Ting, Eva
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Jun 1, 2009
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