Archive for 'Japanese art'

Tradition on Fire

UntitledT-071, 2007, by Akiyama Yo(Japanese, b.1953).	Stoneware. Courtesy	 of the Paul and	Kathy Bissinger Collection.

Untitled T-071, 2007, by Akiyama Yo (Japanese, b. 1953). Stoneware. Courtesy of the Paul and Kathy Bissinger Collection.

We’ve transformed our Japanese painting gallery on the second floor into a contemporary ceramics gallery. This exhibition, titled Tradition on Fire, introduces works from the Paul and Kathy Bissinger Collection. It includes twenty two works by twenty artists. This is our first large Japanese contemporary ceramics exhibition at the Asian Art Museum.

The twenty artists included in this show carry on the long tradition of Japanese ceramics, but at the same time depart from the tradition in search of the new. They fired new and innovative ceramics—hence the title, Tradition on Fire. Moving beyond the role of artisans who repetitively produce traditional utilitarian vessels, these artists use clay as a medium of personal expression.

Cornucopia 03-III, 2003, by Tashima Etsuko (Japanese, b. 1959). Stoneware, pigments, glass. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, Promised gift of Paul and Kathy Bissinger.

Cornucopia 03-III, 2003, by Tashima Etsuko (Japanese, b. 1959). Stoneware, pigments, glass. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, Promised gift of Paul and Kathy Bissinger.

An exciting piece of news is that Paul and Kathy Bissinger have donated a major piece by Tashima Etsuko to the museum. It is one of my favorite pieces in the exhibition. I especially like the opposing qualities of opaque white ceramic and translucent blue glass with which she masterfully composed a unique and intriguing sculpture. We are grateful for this generous gift, which will enable us to better tell the story of contemporary Japanese art to our visitors.


All images © Asian Art Museum of San Francisco.

Newly on View: Shinohara “Boxing Painting”

Shinohara's boxing painting

Boxing Painting, Feb. 16th, 2009-A, 2009, by Ushio Shinohara (Japanese, b.1932). Acrylic on canvas. Gift of Collette and Peter Rothschild.

There’s something new in the Japanese art galleries. Take the escalator to the second floor, turn right, and then right again through the door—you’ll see a large abstract painting of irregular circles and drip-lines, created by punching a canvas with boxing gloves dipped in paint. Beside it is a big hanging scroll in ink on paper depicting Daruma, the first patriarch of Zen Buddhism.

Bodhidharma (Daruma), 1911, Nakahara Nantenbo (Japanese, 1839-1925). Ink on paper.

Bodhidharma (Daruma), 1911. By Nakahara Nantenbo (Toju Zenchu; Japanese, 1839-1925), Meiji Period (1868-1912), Hanging scroll; ink on paper. Museum purchase.

Why are these two side by side? What unites them is the forceful application of paint or ink—so forceful that in each case the medium splashes and splatters around the site of impact. Separated by 100 years, both works celebrate the uncontrolled, messy edges of art-making.

It might be interesting to know that both Ushio Shinohara, the New York-based artist whose “Boxing Painting” is on the right, and the Zen monk Nakahara Nantenbo, who painted our Daruma, often create (or created) their work in front of live audiences. The performative aspects of these works—the drama of the paint or ink hitting the surface, the spontaneous pattern that emerges in that moment, and the suspense of seeing the artists’ next moves—are as important here as the finished product.

View the video installed on a tablet next to Shinohara’s “Boxing Painting” to get a feel for the power, rhythm, and velocity of the artist’s attack on the canvas. You can also view this movie trailer that features Shinohara and his wife.


Changing Light

Visitor watching the effects of the changing light installation on a Japanese screen

On my first day as a Preparations Intern at the Asian Art Museum, I was assigned the task of touching up the walls and borders of the In the Moment exhibition. I went around the room with a brush and cup of paint and covered up spots and areas that were missed during the first pass of the painting process. During that moment of duty, I thought about the purpose of an exhibition presentation—to bring attention and focus to the works being displayed.

Normally, when I walk through an exhibition, my attention is focused solely on the artwork. My eyes do not wander to scuffs on the walls, dents on frames, and patches of misplaced colors, because in a presumptive sense, there should not be any scuffs, dents, or patches of misplaced colors. However, at times, these slight imperfections can diminish the effect of the exhibition as a whole. It’s much like the use of proper lighting. There are many ways that lights can distract a viewer from enjoying a piece of art. To preserve a light-sensitive piece, the lighting can be too dim to really see the piece. Or if there is a protective layer of glass covering the artwork, the glare from lights could obscure parts of the work.

In the Moment features some theatrical lighting that I believe is ingenious. Lee Gallery features a Japanese screen depicting waves and rocks in an environment of fluctuating lights to mimic the passing of time from morning to noon to dusk; we’ve called it Changing Light. It makes the viewer focus on the artwork as the lights complement and complete the work to represent the cyclical nature of a day. Interestingly, electricity is used to convey a time devoid of electricity, in attempt to emulate natural light. For as the pamphlet provided by the museum mentions, before the advent of electricity, people saw folding screens and hanging scrolls under changing natural light. Paintings, especially screens with gold leaf, look different under bright or dim lighting conditions, and artists in Japan painted with an awareness of variable lighting conditions and their effect of perception.

To provide more insight, I interviewed Evan Kierstead, Principal Preparator and Lighting Specialist at the Asian Art Museum.

Josh Lee: How did the idea for Changing Light come about?

Evan Kierstead: The idea first came up a few years ago by Melissa Rinne (Associate Curator of Japanese Art) for Tadeuchi, the second floor gallery. At one time there was supposed to be a show with the screen and she wanted to do that kind of passing in the daylight. So I kind of figured out at that time how to do it and got the cost information and all that but then it never happened. But then it happened for this exhibit. Actually, the teahouse upstairs has a similar thing. There isn’t a screen in there but there’s a window that’s supposed to be the east and there’s a window that’s supposed to be the west and there’s a light that travels across.

JL: What’s the process in setting up such a display?

EK: Well, we have to figure out how to do it. I already kind of figured it out through the original idea [in Tateuchi] and the teahouse. So basically it was finding all of the equipment and the equipment in the teahouse wasn’t quite right for what we were doing. I was dealing also with an electrician who did the wiring. He had some ideas because he does some residential stuff and he does nothing like what we’re doing. But he and I had some ideas to deal with the dimming system and timing system. So first of all then, we had to figure out how to do it and I had a program figure out how to design it. Then I had to figure out the zones, zone being each area of light and how long each zone is gonna happen. It went from being a little longer and ended up going to three minutes because the sound loop was going to be three minutes long.

JL: Were there any major difficulties along the way?

EK: The whole thing was difficult. Figuring out the technology was difficult. What exactly we were gonna use because there were different systems and it’s hard to deal with the main factors. We ended up actually rigging something, a couple of different things, together. So that took a while. We had to install it. We had to program it. We had to get a laptop and get two different programs that are doing different things. One’s controlling the time; one’s controlling the dimmer. So trying to sync it all up was the challenge.

In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection will be up until September 22, 2013.

Bathing Lions

Lions awaiting cleaning

Recently, this pair of monumental bronze Japanese lions was cleaned in preparation for display.  The lions are a recent gift to the museum.  This coming winter they will be repaired and pedestals constructed.  Look for them outside the museum in May 2013.

Lion being delivered by forklift

One bronze lion arriving at the bath-house.

One of the pair before being unpacked.

These guys are heavy. The bronze lions are also rarer than their stone cousins.

Lion being hosed

Looks like he enjoys a shower.

Close-up of lion head

Ready for your close-up, Mr Lion?


Staff Picks: Achala Vidyaraja

In this occasional series, museum staff introduce their favorite pieces from the collection. We rotate works in our galleries every six months, so we’ll have a fresh batch of picks when new objects go on display.

The Buddhist deity Achala Vidyaraja (Fudo Myoo), 1100-1185. Japan. Colors on wood. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S146+.

The Buddhist deity Achala Vidyaraja (Fudo Myoo), 1100-1185. Japan. Colors on wood. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S146+.

Anita DeLucio of Facilities tells a great story about this depiction of the Buddhist deity Achala Vidyaraja (Fudo Myoo in Japanese).


During an event at the museum, I saw a young man dressed all in black, his bare arms covered in tattoos, standing in front of this sculpture. He glanced at the deity and then at his arms, noticing similarities in design between a sculpture that was more than nine hundred years old and the ink that had been painfully etched onto his skin. His arms had flames similar to those behind the deity. This moment in which centuries, cultures, and design collided is one of my favorite memories since I’ve worked here at the Asian.

Fish, Food

Carp Shaped Hanging Basket,  Lloyd Cotsen Japanese Bamboo Basket Collection.

Dootsu Toshosai, Carp Shaped Hanging Basket, Lloyd Cotsen Japanese Bamboo Basket Collection

I have worked at the Asian Art Museum for over 20 years and there are several objects in the galleries that I never get tired of looking at. In the Japanese gallery—way at the end by the tea room —we always have a beautiful collection of bamboo baskets from the Cotsen Collection on display. The baskets get changed out every 6–8 months and I look forward to seeing the new selection each time. At the moment this area is especially interesting because  the tea room objects have been selected by artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, and one of the contemporary pieces from Phantoms of Asia has found its way in there.

Section of dried salmon. Transfer from the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Mr. Ney WolfskillIf you wander a ways down the Japanese gallery to the case full of diminutive netsuke (the sculptural toggles used to attach pouches to a kimono),  look for this fish with amazing details including actual fish skin.

White Miso Glazed Trout from Nojo, Hayes Valley.This usually makes me hungry for Japanese food, so at lunch time I walk over to Nojo on Franklin St in Hayes Valley for some White Miso Glazed Trout or their delicious noodles.



Hell of a Party

Last night we opened Phantoms of Asia with our first ever public preview party. While the shochu shots were surely popular, the hit of the night as far as art was concerned was undeniably Takayuki Yamamoto’s What Kind of Hell Will We Go. The work  features pieces created by local elementary school students alongside Yamamoto’s video of their presentations; fortunately the film is subtitled, because the rocking party atmosphere drowned out the sound! There was a crowd in front of the installation all night, and for a while Yamamoto himself was in the thick of it, adding to the excitement. Check out the video for more on Yamamoto’s process in creating this work, plus some charming children making art.

If you didn’t make the party we’re sorry you missed a great night. But the art is here until September 2, and tomorrow (Saturday, May 19), admission is free thanks to Target.


Takayuki Yamamoto with elementary school students in front of the installation, What Kind of Hell Will We Go

Takayuki Yamamoto with elementary school students in front of the installation in North Court.

Tattoo You

A tattoo by Marcus Kuhn depicting the Hindu goddess Kali.

A tattoo by Marcus Kuhn depicting the Hindu goddess Kali. Image courtesy of Marcus Kuhn.

We’re not new to tattoos. Back in 2008 we had tattoo artists work one of our Matcha evenings (you can see the video here). Taking the connection between Asian art and tattoo culture a step farther, we recently partnered with Marcus Kuhn’s online documentary project Gypsy Gentleman to film the third episode in the series.

Marcus plus tattoo artists Jason Kundell and George Campise spent nearly a full day at the museum. We see them pondering the beauty of the collection and seeking inspiration for tattoo designs, telling the viewer in one scene: “that is just dying to be tattooed.” The show explores their artistic process through to the execution of three original tattoos on eager volunteers, including one brave soul from our Marketing and Communications staff. Check out the episode, and tell us your Asian art related tattoo stories in the comments.

Top 5 for Kids at the Museum

We’ve had a mild winter in San Francisco this year, but this week will bring a colder, wetter spell. Time to find some indoor activities. We asked our museum family for kids’ favorites at the Asian; come in out of the rain and check out our top 5:

1. A perennial favorite is the glass elevator that takes you from the first floor up to the galleries. Nathaniel, aged 3, insists on riding in it every time he comes to the museum.

Vaishravana (Bishamonten), Guardian King of the North

Vaishravana (Bishamonten), Guardian King of the North and kid-pleasing demon-stomper.

2. Bobby, aged 6, is fascinated by the sculpture of Vaishravana stepping on the demon. He and his Dad walked the galleries looking for more images of people stepping on other people, and they found a lot. We’d love to hear about any you can find.

3. Recently a mom approached one of our staff at a conference to share the story of her 7-year-old son’s love of our samurai armor. Not only does he like to visit the armor on view in the galleries, he’s also completed many of our make-at-home art projects. They’re great for a rainy day when you can’t make it in to the museum.

4. Our librarian’s son, Peter, is all grown-up now and an artist himself. His favorite piece has always been the Ganesha that greets you at the top of the escalators. Young Peter was struck by the offerings people left; these made Ganesha seem not only wonderful, but all the more real. His Dad writes:

“He was especially impressed with the offerings of Hershey kisses. “Why kisses?” he once asked me. I said, “Those must be Ganesha’s favorite.” Peter replied: “I think he’s got good taste.”

5. Ishaan, aged 2, is very taken with Sanjay Patel’s depictions of Maharajas. You can enjoy them on the banners outside, but if you come in there’s more kid-friendly fare in Patel’s exhibition on the second floor. Ishaan also recommends the video ‘How to Dress an Elephant’, which can be viewed in the Maharaja exhibition.

This weekend is our monthly Target Free Sunday, so there’s no better time to get your kids out of the rain and into the museum. Maharaja: The Splendor of India’s Royal Courts closes in a little over a month, so Sunday is a great opportunity to see this colorful exhibition for only $5 before it goes away.

Is your child a fan of the museum? Share your favorite pieces in the comments.


See it now: Japanese Armor Rotation

This weekend is your last chance to see our Japanese armor for a while. But don’t despair – next week there will be a new one to enjoy. If you want to catch both, you’ll have to drop in twice.

XRay of a pre-Meiji set of samurai armor.

XRay of a pre-Meiji set of samurai armor.

So why are we taking this armor off view? Well, armor may look tough, but some of its components are surprisingly fragile. While steel, leather, and wood are used to create the protective plating, these are laced together with leather or silk cord. After several centuries, these materials may not be strong enough to hold the weight of the armor for extended periods. Materials can also be damaged by prolonged exposure to light, meaning that the armor needs to be rested periodically.

Our conservation center has written an article on how we look after our Japanese armor, and there are more images on Flickr.

Our conservation team has also been working to prepare the new set of armor, which is on loan from a private collection. In these pictures you can see Katherine Holbrow, our head of conservation, using a spectrometer to determine what metals are present in the samurai helmet.

Samurai helmet

Samurai helmet undergoing spectrometry. Helmet from Private Collection.

Head of conservation Katherine Holbrow adjusting the helmet.

Head of conservation Katherine Holbrow adjusting the equipment.

We rotate many of the pieces in this collection, not just armor. Over the next few months we will be doing several gallery rotations, many in preparation for Phantoms of Asia: Contemporary Awakens the Past. Keep an eye on the blog to hear about what’s coming down and what we’re replacing it with. We’ll try to make sure you don’t miss a thing.