In Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, there was a small Vermeer painting, of a woman at the harpsichord, and another, standing, silently singing, and a man in the center, maybe a lutenist, with his back to us. The daylight filters in from the left. A table, draped with a rug, is in the foreground. Light and shadow, and shades of colors are modulated in infinite ways.
There were times, when I was studying painting at Boston Museum School, when I faced a problem, I would drift over to look at that painting. I would get lost in its complexities and stillness for long periods. When I left, I had feelings of owning it.
One night, in 1990, thieves broke into the Museum and took 13 works, including the Vermeer. It has not been seen since. It is said, stolen artwork as this is sometimes fenced to an avid collector, and is locked in an inner vault, and never to resurface for years. It is the ultimate in private possession.
When I was a child in China, my parents had an art collection. My mother was a painter and my father played with poetry, so they had a circle of artist friends, and made exchanges of work.
Chinese paintings of brush-and-ink on paper are mounted as scrolls. The prized ones are not displayed in rooms, but kept in a trunk, stored away. Occasionally, special friends or art connoisseurs would be invited to look over a few.
This viewing is like a ritual. First, the paintings are selected, and put in order on a large table. Each scroll has its moment: the silk tie is untied; the host holds one end, the guest steps back and unrolls with the rounded knobs. As the painting is revealed, there are pauses to examine the brushstroke or a wash, to decipher a couplet, and to study the seals. Then, the whole painting is perused. When done, the painting is re-rolled, re-tied, and return to the stash in the trunk.
This mindful moment of dissolving into a work is the essence of the art experience. Making a work that mediates the viewer to such a moment qualifies the artist.
As I became an artist, I queried: for what audience, with what aesthetics, by what means?
The production of art, in the modern society, is dominated by the idea of acquisition. Art market requires commodities that align with the taste of those who collect. It is a system that channels into a net, like a lobster-trap, of private collections those of hidden trunks and inner vaults.
As I have lived on, worked jobs, made friends, and traveled places, the people with whom I would like to commune are far from people of inner vaults. Yet, the art training I received did not offer any alternative aesthetics or ways of work except those of the system I rejected.
So, for years, I made art along parallel lines: one, making “quality” studio pieces, which, despite myself, had content that made them immune to being collectible; and, the other, of producing utilitarian art of the moment, such as organizing posters, educational pamphlets, comic strips and such, which applied art skills for social goals.
In 1986, growing out of community artworks, I was asked to collaborate with another artist to paint a four-story mural in Boston’s Chinatown that was to depict the history of Asian immigration in the Boston area. The process took about half a year, with interviews in the community, making communal presentations and organizing volunteer painting crews. The painting itself took about 3 summer months. The site was on a connecting street between a shopping and a residential area. As we painted on scaffoldings we could watch people go back and forth. It was quite satisfactory. The work was about as good as we could make it. In September, it was complete.
The scaffoldings were removed on the last day. That late afternoon, as I was cleaning up, alone, in the third-floor workroom, I happened to look out the window, into the parking lot facing the mural. There was a singular, older Chinese woman, carrying four big plastic bags of grocery, looking up at the painting. She must have passed it many times before, but was seeing it for the first time without the scaffoldings. I was not visible. She started at the top of the mural and followed the story down. After a bit, she set the bags on the ground, folded her arms on her chest, and settled into just looking. She stayed a long period.
It reminded me of the ways the connoisseurs viewed my parents’ collection, and the times I studied the Vermeer. I was happy to have provided that moment of connection for that woman. The sensibilities in play were the same.
–Wen-ti Tsen, Painter and artist of public installations