MAH’s most breathtaking work of the season delves into the art and history of China
Enter. Then clap. Now look around—quickly. Did you catch it? Stand by the eccentric greenhouse sculpture in the main lobby of the Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center in downtown Santa Cruz. Now clap again. If you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that a horde of fake flowers in cozy pots will dance when you clap your hands. It’s a rather adorable sight, surrounded by a rather not-so-adorable concept: global warming. The piece, “Green House Tent Dress,” is “a comment on how the U.S. and China need to work on our policies of conservation,” says museum spokesperson Theresa Myers. And the twirling flowers that dance? “I think it has to do with paying attention,” says Susan Hillhouse, curator for the museum. “We’re living things and we want to survive.”
The Green House Tent Dress installation is, according to Hillhouse and Myers, a convergence of China and the U.S., and serves as an idyllic entry point for the museum-wide exhibition, “Ying: Inspired by the Art and History of China,” which is on display at the museum until June 29. There’s no doubt that this show is exceptionally noteworthy.
Next turn left and begin your walk toward the first floor Lezin Family Gallery. But on your way, look up, and up, and up—all the way to the third floor. Hanging right smack in the middle of everything is an unbelievable three-story mobile constructed by local artist Mattie Leeds. It’s a remarkable piece made of driftwood, small paintings, calligraphy on paper, and so on.
“Mattie is a Santa Cruz artist who … studied with a Chinese master for 10 years,” Hillhouse says. Referencing the found objects from the beach in the mobile, Hillhouse adds, “They all come from the Pacific Ocean. You can either say we’re separated by the Pacific Ocean or connected by the Pacific Ocean.”
Leeds’ piece is called, “Flotsam and Jetsam Ascending the Staircase,” and it does just that. As visitors wind their way up the three floors of stairs, “Flotsam and Jetsam” is with them the entire time.
Not far from the “Flotsam and Jetsam” piece is the Lezin Family Gallery, which hosts the work of various artists from a town in China called Chengde. Here, Hillhouse points out two paintings by Huo Wenqing. The pieces are called “Girl #1” and “Girl #3.” The detached names of the pieces represent the detached nature of the subjects in the paintings—girls in China. As is commonly known, Chinese families are restricted to having one child per family. Beyond that, “you’re greatly penalized and your child can’t register, go to school or get medical assistance,” Hillhouse says. Your child has a non-life. … Many Chinese girls are adopted by Westerners … the girls (in China) are anonymous.” This is depicted with each girl being painted nearly identical. “It’s like they don’t get recognized as being individuals,” Hillhouse adds.
Moving from the first floor gallery, up the stairs to the spacious Solari Gallery, Hillhouse explains how the exhibit came to be: “It was many years in the planning,” she says. “I was invited almost 10 years ago to come to China to curate a show and do some lectures. It didn’t work out. So, in 2006 they invited me back and I went there and met the artists downstairs (those featured in the Lezin Family Gallery).” Combining the work of the nine artists that she met there, with numerous other Chinese artists (including a woman she met in an airport), alongside the work of Chinese-American artists, and American artists who are influenced by Chinese work, and borrowing pieces from collections, Hillhouse has created an eye-popping, educational, historical show.
On the second floor, in the Solari Gallery, the first thing you take in is a replica of a Chinese scholar’s room—a place where a scholar might do calligraphy, paint, write poetry or practice music.
In a far corner, the color of red teases your eyes. And up close, the piece is ethereal: Small disks of red thread run down two conjoined walls, falling onto the floor, scattered about with precision. Every disk is connected to another disk representing a Chinese story that says at birth your soul is connected to another soul by a red thread. The art piece, “Lure #2” was created by Beili Liu, a woman from China who currently lives in Michigan.
In the final gallery space in the Art Forum Gallery on the third floor, one piece in particular stands out—it’s an enormous painting by Chen Denqing, a Chinese painter who lived in New York for 20 years. The piece is an intriguing juxtaposition. On one side is a flamenco dancer with men surrounding her. The other half of the picture is a painting of people at Tiananmen Square. In one scene, celebration is happening, in another, the opposite.
The show is consuming and breathtaking. From soaking in paintings to wrapping your mind around Leeds’ mobile, it’s stunning to realize the history and art that is being unveiled in this museum.
“I think we’re trying to intersect art and the local Chinese history in Santa Cruz that was across the street from where Trader Joe’s (in downtown) is now—the area where Chinatown was established,” Myers says. “We’re trying to draw an international connection.”
Hillhouse adds that, “One of the goals is to offer a hand in friendship,” she says. “We’re at a precarious place in the world right now and I have long held the belief that if you know someone, it’s a lot harder to go to war with them or try to decimate their culture. … And so I feel this shows commonalities. In China, they’re looking at us, and we’re looking at them.”“Ying: Inspired by the Art and History of China” is on display until June 29 at the Museum of Art & History at the McPherson Center, 705 Front St., Santa Cruz. For more information, call 429-1964 or visit santacruzmah.org .