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Quick Fire: 5 Questions with Adjunct Curator Daniel Chen

5 years ago

The Gardiner Museum’s Adjunct Curator of Chinese Ceramics, Daniel Chen, discusses the fascinating history of the Anne Romoff Gross Collection, how porcelain marks can be misleading, and why he would like to go back in time to visit Tang Ying’s imperial kilns.

Is there a particular ceramic object or artist that really speaks to or inspires you right now?

There are two ceramic objects that come to mind and have stuck with me for some time: Zhao Meng’s Scholar Stone series and Liu Jianhua’s Blank Paper, on display in London’s Tate Modern.

What I love about Zhao’s work is that it references nature while adopting a classical Chinese form. Onlookers are invited to reflect and meditate as the eye travels through and around the seemingly natural but very much manipulated form. As an artist, Zhao elegantly speaks to the past while pushing the limits of technique and remarking on our place in nature and the universal qi.

With Liu’s work, I am instantly drawn to the whiteness of this biscuit fired ‘canvas’. Colour is applied when I look at this work and think of its possibilities. Calm is invoked when the stillness of its tone grounds my swirling thoughts and emotions. When looking at the object in profile, one realizes that the piece is tapered so as to seem paper thin. On even closer inspection, Liu has added minute surface texture to resemble the fibrous quality of paper. The object to me is a looking glass that reflects and invites introspection.

Your relationship with the Gardiner began when you were invited to consult on the Anne Romoff Gross Collection of historic Chinese porcelain, recently gifted to the Museum by Janice Gross Stein and Susan Gross Solomon. Can you share with us a particularly interesting or surprising fact about the collection?

Anne Romoff Gross was a trained lawyer with a passion for art studying under Stephen Leacock at McGill University. In the early days of her collecting, she and her husband used their savings to purchase a picture from the illustrious Knoedler Gallery, so I was surprised to see a photograph of her dining room, where a bespoke display was made for her collection of Chinese blue and white porcelain. I love pictures and we see them often as a focal point in the dining room, but to display ceramics says volumes to me. I imagine dinners where family and friends were received and at some point, an inquisitive dinner guest might ask Mrs. Gross about her porcelain. Unlike paintings, you can hold and covet ceramics in your hands in a way that is not precious and can even be sensual. Mrs. Gross would indulge her guest the opportunity to intimately hold a piece of history and then put it away again for display, only to be rearranged in a new orchestration the way a thoughtful host will plan out an evening’s course and place setting.

 “Marks” are often the first step in identifying the history and significance of an antique or contemporary ceramic object. What is your favorite ceramic mark?

Marks are intuitively the first step to identifying an object but are often in practice the last. Chinese ceramics are often branded with apocryphal marks to hearken or pass off as pieces from former glory days, as is the case with many pieces that are marked 15th cent. Chenghua period (admired for their refined decoration and perfected technique), but are in fact late Ming, early Qing, or contemporary forgeries. Marks in the literal sense of Chinese ceramics are tricky to deal with but marks as a by-product of process give character. I love handling an object and sometimes seeing the slightest imperfection on an otherwise perfect form, where you can see how the glaze may not have fully covered the object because of the craftsman’s thumbnail.

You live in London. Do you have a favourite market or antique shop where you go to find ceramic pieces?

I shy away from London markets as I often feel overwhelmed and claustrophobic, reserving my energy for perhaps the Columbia flower market which offers affordable luxuries. When searching for or studying ceramics, I like to get off at Holborn Station and depending on the day, lunch at the underground Korean restaurant next door, stopping for a pastry at Le Cordon Bleu, then looking into the Contemporary Ceramics Centre, which features works by contemporary British ceramists, not unlike the Gardiner Shop. I then go to the British Museum to visit the Percival David Collection, which is conveniently next to the Korean gallery and below the Japanese galleries.

If you could go back in time and visit a famous pottery studio, which one would you visit?

I would visit the renowned imperial kilns supervised by Tang Ying, famous for developing colours and techniques such as antimony yellow and colloidal pink. It was a time when European Jesuits ran glass workshops among other ateliers and so it would be amazing to see how knowledge and camaraderie developed at this time and between cultures.

DANIEL CHEN will be at the Gardiner on Tuesday April 18 from 6:30 to 8 pm for a special talk entitled Origins and Traces of the Indian Subcontinent: The Anne Romoff Gross Collection, part of the Gardiner Signature Lecture Series. $15 general admission, $10 Gardiner Friends.

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