Pan Gongkai: Withered Lotus Cast in Iron

October 4, 2014 – January 18, 2015

Frye Art Museum is proud to present the first museum exhibition in the United States dedicated to the work of distinguished artist and educator Pan Gongkai (b. 1947). A member of one of China’s most illustrious artistic families, Pan has played a decisive role in the intellectual life of his nation, serving as president of two esteemed fine arts academies, the China Academy of Art (CAA) in Hangzhou (1996-2001) and the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing (2001-14).

A fervent advocate of China’s indigenous artistic traditions, Pan brings the passion of a practitioner to discourse on the relationship between Chinese and Western art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. His own artistic practice and intellectual endeavors have been shaped by a belief in the presence of a distinct and modern consciousness in twentieth-century ink painting in China. The corollary is that modernity in Chinese art in the early twenty-first century must not of necessity be tied to Western theories, media, and practice.

Pan Gongkai is convinced that ink painting has prevailed and flourished to the present day due to its inherent ability to respond to, and reflect, periods of disjuncture and social turmoil such as that which has pervaded China over the past one hundred years.

Pan Gongkai: Withered Lotus Cast in Iron was conceived as a complement to recent Frye Art Museum exhibitions Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930 and Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai, which addressed artistic exchange between China and the West in the early twentieth century and demonstrated the powerful influence of Chinese brush painting on American painting and sculpture of the period.

For the present exhibition, Pan Gongkai created a large-scale ink painting, Withered Lotus Cast in Iron, a variation on the theme of the withered lotus, which he also chose as his subject when he represented China at the 2011 Venice Biennale. Blossoms in magnificent decay become mountains that fall away into mounds and valleys in the “unmannered splendor” that Pan admires and according to an aesthetic perspective of nature, as he terms it, that rejects ”affected constructions, flamboyance, superficially pretty forms.”

A subject celebrated by Literati masters of the past, the withered lotus can suggest bitter feelings and trauma, both personal and national. The autumn blossoms in Pan’s painting are, however, neither frail, nor weak; instead, they are forged with strength, “cast in iron.” Such a reference to iron in the context of ink painting is not unusual. Ancients would speak, for example, of using the brush as “iron, splashing the ink like waves,” and of forceful brushwork that resembles wrought iron.

“By casting withered lotuses in iron,” Frye Director Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker notes, “Pan Gongkai reminds us of the power of endurance of the lotus, which can live for over a thousand years and has the ability to revive after periods of stasis. It is an aesthetic expression of Pan’s conviction in the enduring significance of China’s three-thousand-year-old tradition of ink painting.”

Pan Gongkai: Withered Lotus Cast in Iron is organized by the Frye Art Museum and curated by Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker. The exhibition is funded by the Frye Foundation, Nitze-Stagen, BNY Mellon Wealth Management, Meriwether Advisors LLC, and Riddell Williams P.S., with the generous support of Frye Art Museum members and donors. Seasonal support is provided by 4Culture, Seattle Office of Arts & Culture, and ArtsFund Media sponsorship is provided by KUOW 94.9 FM.

Pan Gongkai. Withered Lotus Cast in Iron (detail). Ink on Paper. 70 7/8 x 590 9/16 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Pan Gongkai. Moon Fall, 2005. Ink on Paper. 70 7/8 x 242 15/16 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Pan Gongkai. New Blossom, 2007. Ink on Paper. 70 7/8 x 70 7/8 in. Courtesy of the artist.
Pan Gongkai. High Autumn, 2014. Ink on Paper. 70 7/8 x 38 3/16 in. Courtesy of the artist.

"Landscape-inspired geographies of the soul and mind…"

Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times