There is only one word for “Flowers of Fire and Earth: Shimo’s Blue-and-White Porcelains” at the Crocker Art Museum: beautiful.
The renowned artist Shimo divides his time between Shanghai and Sacramento, where he has a studio and a gallery that features Sacramento artists as well as artists from China.
He settled in Sacramento, he said, because it has great artists like Wayne Thiebaud and Gregory Kondos and a strong art community. He is warm, engaging and eloquent, and he hopes, he said in an interview at the Crocker, to bring Sacramento artists to the attention of the Chinese people, a noble goal.
Blending traditional Chinese elements with Western ones, Shimo’s pottery is both ancient and modern. He takes traditional Chinese forms and gives them a modern, Western twist. For example, the gorgeous elongated vase with high hips titled “Lotus Series #15” encompasses the “breath” that distinguishes traditional pottery while elongating it and dispensing with the neck that would be there in a less-innovative form.
The painted decoration on the pot is the traditional cobalt blue and combines gestural passages reminiscent of American Abstract Expressionism and Chinese calligraphy. The result is a new form rooted in the past but reaching toward the future.
At 53, Shimo, who was born in Shanghai in 1962, is at the height of his powers. Best known for his lush paintings of lotuses, which take traditional Chinese brush-and-ink painting into modern Western territory, he turned to pottery eight years ago after visiting a Chinese village that is the center of porcelain production, where he had the opportunity to paint on a traditional pot.
“It was fun,” he said at the Crocker, surrounded by his exquisite vessels.
It took him, he said, four years to master the task of throwing pottery on the wheel, transforming traditional shapes into reductive, modernist ones.
Some of the pots are squat with long necks while others are long and cylindrical or blossoming with burgeoning shoulders into elegant vases. All are painted with motifs similar to those in his ink paintings – but with some new wrinkles.
The lotus, which Shimo said is a symbol of purity because it springs from muddy water and emerges as a pristine blossom, is the basis of much of his painting on pottery. East meets West in these lively and sensuous paintings as he brushes on the cobalt oxide with gestural brio and lovely lines.
In “Flower Series #1,” he turns to a new subject – wisteria branches that wend elegantly down, dripping blossoms. He adds a pair of birds symbolizing, he said, love. Next to the wisteria pot is a squat pot with paired carp, which may be a reference to the yin and yang symbol.
“Tibet Series #1” gives us a look at another of his passions. Every year when he returns to China from Sacramento, Shimo visits Tibet to be close to the heavens and to purify his soul. On this vessel, tall and mountain shaped, he has depicted a high mountain with a temple and a tower on top. The tower, he explained, is used to store herbal medicines for the people who live below. This is a powerful piece that is Shimo’s personal favorite.
Next to it is “Portrait Series #2” in which he introduces the figure to his pottery. Here are three Buddhist monks, one with his eyes closed, one with his eyes wide open, and the third with one eye open and one eye closed. The piece is a parable about the proper way to perceive the world. The one with his eyes closed misses too much. The one with his eyes wide open takes in too much. The third monk strikes a balance between attention to the world and attention to his inner spirit.
In “Portrait Series #1,” he depicts the Chinese coddess of mercy, Kwan Yin. She is a faceless, elegant figure identified by her hairdo, who represents love and concern for others.
Shimo said that he keeps only pots that “touch his heart.” Like the lotus, he strives for purity and love, always moving upward toward the light.
Flowers of Fire and Earth: Shimo’s Blue-and-White Porcelains
Where: Crocker Art Museum, 216 O St., Sacramento
When: Through Sept. 6; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-
Sunday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday
Cost: $5-$10, members and children 6 and under free. Every third Sunday of the month is “Pay What You Wish Sunday.”
Information: 916-808-7000, www.crockerartmuseum.org