A Great Mystery

Many of the artisans are anonymous, but the influence of "Treasures From Shanghai" is undeniable

A work of art needs a suitable frame, and with its exclusive new exhibition, "Treasures From Shanghai: 5,000 Years of Art and Culture" ensconced in its also-new 30,000-square foot addition, the Bowers Museum has both: a combination guaranteed to elevate this place forever beyond those hazy '60s paintings of its original building which once graced road maps of Orange County. If there were any doubt, it is now—and forever—a serious, capital-M Museum. With a stratospheric $19 adult admission (if you don't write for a newspaper). If you go, stay a really long time.

This is a gorgeous and important show—but not just because it opens a $15 million expansion or because it originates from the Shanghai Museum, which hasn't exported an exhibition in more than 20 years. "Treasures" matters for what it says about modern American life—and it says a mouthful. At least in the kites/gunpowder/spaghetti sort of way; there's no ancient Chinese cell phones here. There is, however, golf.

"A lot of people think golf comes from Scotland," says the museum's marketing director Diane Pinnick, who shows me around. "But here we are in this scroll, and they're playing a game that clearly looks like the predecessor of golf." Indeed: in this 15th century scroll, Ladies,a group of slender, handsomely-dressed Chinese ladies of the court is shown making music, playing something that looks like badminton's great-great-grandfather; and—as Bill Holden might have said—making with the golf-sticks. Yay! Take that, you guff-speaking Scottish work-slackers!

Elsewhere, "Treasures" shows golf—and painting—are far from the only art forms the Chinese mastered early. Their skill at pottery—one technical evolutionary step down from porcelain—is fantastically displayed here in a glazed earthenware camel statue roughly a foot and a half tall. It's a camel—so why should you care?—but this is no ordinary dromedary. It looks like the real article miniaturized, with a wooly mane and a scarily toothy leer (except a real camel might be launching a gob of spit at you). It packs a full load of baggage, too—which, in contrast to the body of the camel, is painted and glazed shiny. Someone, circa 600 A.D., spent a lot of time on this. If we only knew who.

Anonymity permeates "Treasures"; the majority of its stoneware incense burners, turquoise-encrusted jade knives, oracle bones and bronze wine vessels are by artists unknown. Only fragments of their history survive. In the case of Zun (wine vessel) with Dragon Handles, Bronze, we know only that this particular vessel—cast with what would be called speed lines were it made today—was separated from its handles and very nearly melted during China's Cultural Revolution.

There's no way of knowing why, for instance, its dragons look like adorable little sea horses—or how a Chinese artisan from the 7th or 8th century B.C. was maybe the first guy to invent what the Bauer Pottery Company of Los Angeles would later call Ringware. Or maybe also how some other guy's Jun Ware Incense Burner with Embossed Decoration, Glazed Stoneware jar—with its murkily beautiful blue-white glaze and beast head decorations—looks not unlike a California pottery vase of the 1930s or '40s.

It's a great mystery. Too bad it costs so much to see it.

TREASURES FROM SHANGHAI: 5000 YEARS OF ART AND CULTURE, AT BOWERS MUSEUM, 2002 N. MAIN ST., SANTA ANA, (714) 567-3600; WWW.BOWERS.ORG. TUES.-SUN. 10 A.M.-4 P.M.; CLOSED MON. THROUGH AUG. 19. $12-$19.

 
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