- The Washington Times - Friday, March 5, 2004

China’s fabulous Silk Road mesmerized artists for more than 2,000 years — and still does, as Meridian International Center’s fascinating “Ancient Threads, Newly Woven: Recent Art From China’s Silk Road” richly attests.

It’s the first exhibit in the United States of contemporary paintings and works on paper from the legendary caravan and religious routes that once stretched from Xian, China’s ancient capital, to Rome in the west — and is long overdue. Most of the cities included in the exhibit — Kashgar, Urumqi, Dunhuang, Lanzhou and Xian — were once ancient oasis towns that bordered the Taklamakan Desert (ominously translated as, “Those who enter never return”).

Like most survey exhibitions of this kind, it’s uneven, but paintings such as Zhang Zhenxue’s enormous “After the Rain,” the most dynamic work here, are worth a trip to Meridian International. Made with mineral pigments and washes of ink, the work, once a vertical scroll, looks like gold-flecked rocks tumbling down a mountainside. Two rivers spawned from waterfalls descend with them.

Though created in the tradition of monumental Chinese landscape painting, in which viewers are made to feel they’re actually walking through the mountains, the work is contemporary. Mr. Zhang dabbed together hundreds of pink, green, black, white and gold dots of mineral colors to form a mountain throbbing with energy and mystery.

The show also emphasizes how different the arts of China’s distant west, especially of Xinjiang Province, are from the more familiar ones of Beijing or Shanghai.

Also well-known from ongoing news reports is that China’s central government continually pressures the province’s Uyghurs, a Muslim Turkic ethnic group, to accept modernization from Beijing. Fortunately, the exhibit demonstrates that the Uyghurs are preserving their native traditions.

There’s much to fascinate on the Silk Road, just as travel there in 1992 enchanted me. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Christians mingle to the music of their tongues. Food is more Central Asian than Chinese. Mosques and Chinese watchtowers from the early Han dynasty dot the countryside.

Organized by a seven-person Chinese-American Silk Road team, the display of 78 paintings, drawings and prints by contemporary Chinese artists shows both the amazing similarities and the differences of arts in these cities.

For example, the contemporary art of Kashgar, the westernmost city of those visited and a Central Asian-Chinese crossroads, is more colorful and exotic than art from Xian, the easternmost city surveyed, which adheres to traditional Chinese painting traditions.

Today’s art from Dunhuang, the famous Buddhist worship site, and its painted Mogao Grottoes, favors iconic, religious models. That of Langzhou on China’s important Yellow River depicts the dramatic gorges and rivers created by the often thundering water. Finally, the larger city of Urumqi sent paintings and woodcuts made in a large variety of styles.

Beginning their imaginary Silk Road “journey,” visitors are drawn first to Turdi Imin’s “Along the Silk Road” in Meridian’s enormous lobby. One of the most literal paintings here, the 6-foot-long horizontal painting charmingly re-creates traders traveling in the road’s heyday.

Donkeys and sheep happily jump between men and women carrying melons, baskets and breads. A fantasy landscape of what could be Buddhist worship caves looms behind. Snowcapped mountains complete the scene.

The exhibit’s first gallery features the art of Kashgar, noted for its conservative, realistic painting with oil pigments of familiar scenes, such as a young woman weaving the city’s signature, brilliantly colored silk. In “Local Woman Weaving Silk,” Kaisar Abdulla painted her from the back with waist-long black hair, a typical Uyghur cap and the shimmering plums, oranges, turquoises, whites and blacks of the silk.

Next, “Farmer Paintings” by untrained artists of the Kashgar region imaginatively show the people and produce of the area. Brightly colored and distinctively patterned, they’re reminiscent of the work of our own Grandma Moses.

More variety appears in the work of the 25 artists in the “Urumqi” room. Three of the most interesting are colorful woodcuts of yellow, blue and purple by Yu Wenya. A tiny painting by Li Anning, “Camel in the Desert,” employs Chinese ink-and-brush traditions but was painted with Chinese pigment on board. An enormous work in the Chinese realist style by Zhao Peizhi, mounted over the fireplace, shows the children and teacher of “Village of Hope.”

Of course, there’s much, much more here. Outstanding is Lanzhou artist Jiang Zhixi’s reddish “Yellow River Pouring Down From the Sky Like Molten Copper.” Another is the expressionistic, Edvard Munch-like woodcut by Dai Xinjun, “Yellow River Current.”

The show was organized with the official China International Exhibition Agency in Beijing, but the curators — Nancy Matthews, a curator of Meridian; Pamela Bailey, an independent curator; and Xu Hong, a curator of the National Museum of China — kept the selections mostly first-rate and balanced.

They are to be congratulated for succeeding in choosing the show from these mostly provincial, outlying cities. It was no easy task.

WHAT: “Ancient Threads, Newly Woven: Recent Art From China’s Silk Road”

WHERE: White-Meyer Galleries, Meridian International Center, 1630 Crescent Place NW

WHEN: 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, through June 27.

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/939-5558.

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