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After more than 48 months in an incubator, Brian Dursum's baby has finally hatched. Christened "Clay and Brush: The Ceramic Art of China," the Lowe Art Museum's new exhibit is a penetrating historical survey of the development of Chinese ceramics from the Neolithic period to the 21st Century, drawn entirely from its permanent collection.
"I've been researching this show for about four years," says Dursum, the Lowe's director and chief curator. "It has a few holes, but every dynasty and period is represented."
The sweeping exhibition includes more than 190 objects and is divided into three sections: pottery, stoneware, and porcelain. Dursum culled the display from the Lowe's Chinese ceramic collection -- 1115 pieces and growing. Many of the works are making their public debut.
In the show's catalogue, Dursum writes that his nursling has been in the planning stages since he arrived at the museum in 1975. At the time the Lowe had a small collection of Chinese ceramics, largely donated by Chicago collector Stephen Junkunc III, among them seminal examples from the Song (960-1279) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.
One of the collector's most unusual gifts includes a kidney-shape glazed stoneware pillow, created for use in a tomb, from the Southern Song dynasty. An inscription brushed onto the surface before firing reminds stiffs who mull revisiting the living to stay put.
For years Dursum has been actively courting donors to fill gaps in the collection. It shows. "During the past ten years, I have been really pushing to build the collection," he says, noting he and a donor recently visited New York with a wish list of four or five pieces, including one from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) -- the most highly prized.
Dursum's passion and keen eye for detail are evident in all aspects of the show. He has structured it to convey the evolution of the ceramic art form in China, effectively addressing the development of the clay body, stylistic differences, and decorative elements such as the use of paint, incising, carving, appliquĂ©, and glaze.
The exhibit is rife with informative wall text and includes a fifteen-minute video called "Porcelain for Emperors," which reveals the secrets of classical porcelain and the virtuosity of master throwers in Jingdezhen. Established in 1004 by Emperor Zhenzong of the Song, it became the world's most celebrated ceramic kiln, producing porcelain for Chinese imperial use until the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911.
The video shows the china stone and kaolin clay used to make porcelain, still being ground into paste today just as it was a thousand years ago, by water-powered hammer mills at the legendary Jingdezhen ceramic hub in China's Jiangxi Province.
On an adjacent wall, ten large photo panels based on paintings in London's Victoria and Albert Museum illustrate the porcelain production process in nineteenth-century China. The images include workers preparing the china stone, using a potter's wheel to turn the vessels, applying the underglaze decoration on the ware, stoking the kiln, packing the finished product, and transporting it to market for sale. The material has become so identified with the Chinese across time that regardless of its origin, we still call it "china."
The exhibit unfolds chronologically, beginning with many rare and stunning pieces from the Neolithic period that date between 7000 and 1500 B.C.
Two stem cups, from the Longshan culture in Shangdon Province circa 2400-2000 B.C., reflect an early tradition of producing thinly crafted ceramics and a refined kiln technology. The highly burnished blackware vessels might have been used to serve alcohol during religious ceremonies. They cut a surprisingly contemporary silhouette.
A second-century B.C. Western Han dynasty owl-shape jar, thought to have been used to store medicine, was created using molds and then painted black; its features are detailed in white, yellow, and blue hues. Preserved in a burial tomb, its painted surface remains in remarkable condition.
Situated next to each other, a dog and a seated musician playing the qin, a stringed musical instrument, are eye-catching examples of the pottery produced during the second-century Eastern Han dynasty. The dog's face bears wrinkled jowls and appears to be a portrait of the granddaddy of the Shar-Pei.
A distinctive arrangement from the fourteenth-century Yuan dynasty depicts the twelve Chinese zodiac animals -- rat, buffalo, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. The small figures are finely crafted and also symbolize different hours of the day.
One of the more striking pottery examples comes from the sixteenth-century Ming dynasty. It is a beautiful, richly glazed roof tile sculpture, possibly a depiction of Guandi, a military hero and protector who disdained war and was widely worshipped.
Upon entering the stoneware section, one is bowled back by the various shapes and startlingly contrasting hues of the jars, ewers, and spirit urns on display. A bizarre asparagus-green glazed vessel, called a huzi (tiger) because of its feline shape, was created during the Western Jin dynasty between the Third and Fourth centuries. It features a wide spout for a head and was likely used as a urinal.
Another nifty piece is an opaque ivory-color glazed hand-held spittoon from the Tang dynasty, circa Seventh to early Eighth Century. It was designed to make expectorating simple and for dumping water and tea leaves during a tea ceremony.