Every blossom tells a story in “Chinese Flowers,” the latest in the Freer Gallery’s series of season-related exhibitions. Based on centuries of traditional symbolism, these paintings and drawings (all from the museum’s permanent holdings) can be read as parables of domestic life or spiritual aspiration. But they can also be appreciated simply for their craft and beauty.
One distinction is obvious. Some of the images are exact renderings, so precise that contemporary botanists can recognize the species. (These include the work of Wen Shu, a rare female artist in 17th-century China.) Others are looser, in the black-and-gray ink-painting style of Chinese “scholars” (a category that once included all educated Chinese, even those whose pursuits were far from academic). Within these two categories, however, are many variations.
Most of the pieces date from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but often are designed to appear older. In Chinese art of the period, there was no prestige in being new, so painters emulated (and even copied) earlier work. They also sometimes appropriated the blessing of history by adding verse from an earlier era. As in more sweeping Chinese classic landscapes, these pictures portray idealized and symbolic scenes, not reality. Even the most painstakingly rendered lotus, for example, would have been seen foremost as a symbol of purity and rebirth, not as a biological specimen.
Exhibition curator Stephen D. Allee, who has researched the artworks and translated their inscriptions and accompanying poems, says that many of the paintings are allegories of married life. A typical puzzle, or “rebus,” shows a couple — often depicted as a pair of mated birds — surrounded by emblems of long life and abundant (male) offspring. Lotus flowers, peach blossoms and spotted-neck doves all express longevity, while pairs of magpies embody happiness. (These meanings often rely on Chinese puns.)
Although apparently meant to flatter their recipients, the paintings may not all be so straightforward. Some of the poems, Allee notes, seem to offer ironic commentaries on the images. And one large piece, “Lotus and Ducks,” features two birds separated and perhaps glaring at each other. An inside joke, perhaps, or a candid representation of an uneasy union.
Many of the scholarly paintings are by Buddhist monks, notably Bada Shanren, a 17th-century prince who entered a monastery after a political reversal (and later returned to secular life). The exhibition includes his elegant paintings of a lotus, which is central to Buddhist iconography. Yet the artist puts something else in the center: nothing. This illustrates the belief that everything is emptiness, as taught by the Buddhist sect known to the Chinese as Chan (but better known in the West as Zen).
Religious austerity and domestic propriety aside, the most striking of these works are quite sensuous. That includes the most ornate piece, Gu Luo’s 1828 “Vegetables and Fruits,” which illustrates about 35 varieties of brightly hued edibles on gold-flecked paper. Xu Wei’s painting of a peony, from a 16th-century scroll titled “Twelve Flowers and Poems,” is no less delectable — even though it’s monochromatic. The brushwork is so fluid that the ink still seems liquid, frozen in mid-flow rather than allowed to dry. The peony symbolizes wealth and honor, but this particular image doesn’t need any back story. Its shimmering form is a poem in itself.
The first paintings seen by visitors to Preston Sampson’s “Common Threads” are in his “Workingman Series,” which depicts the same person in a variety of institutional shirts, including ones issued by the U.S. Postal Service and Fleet Fuel. The canvases, on exhibit at International Visions Gallery, display the local artist’s interest in portraying working-class African American life. But they also reveal his passion for color, texture and depth: parts of those shirts are real, their collars, pockets and sewed-on tags worked into the thick paint of the vivid portraits.
Sampson is a mature artist with a grounding in history, both American and artistic. His bold, non-naturalistic colors recall Matisse and Gauguin, while his street-level subject matter suggests the early-20th-century Ashcan School. A view of a couple at a nightclub table is located in time by labels from mid-’60s soul-music records, and a Civil War soldier can be glimpsed in a landscape rendered in encaustic (a technique for mixing pigment and wax).
In addition to acrylics, encaustic and collage, Sampson works with crayon on board and paints on pulpy paper whose undulating form becomes part of the effect. With their brash hues and emphasis on the human face, these paintings seem easy to read from a distance. Yet they always reveal more when approached closely. Bits of paper and fabric, sketchy figures in the background and other unexpected details suggest the traces of the past that underlie contemporary existence.
Amber Robles-Gordon’s show at Pleasant Plains Workshop is called “Wired,” but fabric is the principal ingredient. Working entirely with found objects, the Caribbean-rooted local artist arrays ribbons and scraps on (mostly) wire frameworks. The result is a riot of colors and patterns, evoking the tropics while playing on the contrast between the rigid frames and malleable fabric. In such pieces as “Dynasty,” the tightly clumped tatters suggest both thick vegetation and the rhythms and hues of island life.
Although Robles-Gordon does sometimes bend the found frameworks to achieve the basic contour she wants, a few of the pieces still seem a little haphazard. The most appealing works are the ones built on recognizable shapes, notably “And So It Is.” Here, the colorful remnants hang on a gold-painted bicycle wheel, giving form to the patchwork. The artist has compared this piece to a family crest, but even without the personal connotations, the abundance of tones and textures is pungent.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
on view through Jan. 8 at the Freer Gallery of Art. 1050 Independence Ave, SW, Washington, DC 20560. 202-633-1000. www.asia.si.edu.
on view through July 23 at International Visions Gallery. 2629 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC 20008. 202-234-5112. www.inter-visions.com.
on view through July 23 at the Pleasant Plains Workshop. 2608 Georgia Avenue NW, Washington, DC 20001. pleasantplainsworkshop.blogspot.com.