New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 4 January 23 to 29, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

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The New York Photo Review

Chinese Affinities
Lois Connor
Chinese Gardens, Pavllions, Studios, and Retreats
Susanna Sloat
Xi Hu, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China by Lois Connor. Source: metmuseum.org
Lois Connor, "Xi Hu, Hangzhou, Zhejiang, China" 1998
Lois Conner is an American artist who began working in China in the mid-1980s and her large format black and white prints of lotus plants are currently on view in an unusual location –– the Asian Galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They are the only photographs in Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats, the latest rotation of work from the Met’s rich Chinese painting collection. Placed in a gallery featuring images that depict plants or plants and birds without setting them in the context of a landscape, her photographs are presented as the final images in the show, and although the wall labels make connections between the paintings and the photographs, the photographs stand out as something very different.

Landscapes and gardens that refer to landscapes are at the heart of Chinese painting, and this beautiful show recapitulates a great deal of the history of the art, particularly from the crucial Song, Yuan, and Ming dynasties. Most of the works are from the 11th to 16th centuries, landscapes and garden-scapes, in vertical and horizontal scrolls, as well as in album form.

Connor’s work echoes both the form and the content of the earlier works. Two of her large horizontal triptychs are set next to four Ming album paintings of flowers, branches, and leaves. Two smaller vertical photographs are set next to a Yuan diptych of pink-flowered lotus blossoms and gray green leaves, each with two ducks at the bottom. Further away in the same room are paintings of bamboo in the calligraphy-influenced style of the Yuan and Ming. One of Conner’s triptychs has a calligraphic affinity, and is in fact called Xi Hu (Calligraphic Lotus Triptych), Hangzhou, China.

This 1998 triptych of wintry, dried and bent lotus stems — dense, bent in different angles, tangled in places — makes a complex, accidental calligraphy. The shadows are dark, the leaves are often sunlit, and the water is a light gray. The curators suggest an alliance with Chinese horizontal scrolls, although unlike the scrolls, the white-bordered photographs do not depict a traditional journey of any sort. They instead form a handsome and intriguing overall pattern. This piece is particularly striking because it is predominantly light whereas a companion triptych, Yuanming Yuan, Beijing, China (Water Drops Lotus Triptych), is quite dark. Though most of the leaves are dark with some brighter highlights and lie flat against the dark grays of the water, some are on stems and cast deep black shadows, important for the patterning. But it’s the glistening pale water drops that stand out as the most prominent motif.

Shao Yuan, Peking University, Beijing, China by Lois Connor. Source: metmuseum.org
Shao Yuan, Peking University, Beijing, China
Together the pale triptych with the calligraphic spiking stems and the dark one with the glinting drops dominate their side of the room, making a strong impact. Both are close ups, emphasizing natural patterns, neither giving any hint of the context of these lotus plants in their water gardens. But one of the smaller vertical panels on the other side of the room, Wind in the Lotus, 2004, has a dense array of lotus leaves that retreat back to a high horizon with an arched bridge and trees. The lotus leaves, many rising on stems, with a few blossoms evident and one bare seed pod, are so closely packed that they obscure the water.

The second vertical picture from 1991 depicts lotus leaves from the Shao Yuan garden at Peking University in Beijing. No horizon line here, just lotus leaves flat on the water or rising up on stems, denser toward the top (which we do read as the rear), and less so at the bottom where more water is visible and only a few leaves are lifted on stems. So, here, once again, is a handsome patterning of lotus plants without context, next to a photograph of particularly dense lotuses forming a complementary pattern –– one with a distant horizon that suggests, not an infinity of lotuses like the context-less pictures, but a landscape with a very, very large array.

In the same room there is a beautiful 19th century ceramic plate in blue and white with red lotus flowers, in which lotus leaves, blossoms, and egrets make an all over pattern, a decorative style quite different from the one Connor has picked out with her sharp and shaping photographer’s eye. A label makes a connection with Chinese strategies: “By pointing her camera downward so that the flowers in the foreground completely fill the picture frame—eliminating the horizon line—Conner’s image resembles Chinese examples that omit any view in the distance.”

The two vertical photographs are only a small part of their side of the room. They conclude the exhibit like a colophon, a commentary in photography on one of the many motifs in Chinese gardens and Chinese painting, and one that has clearly been important to Lois Connor for many years.

Lois Connor
Chinese Gardens, Pavllions, Studios, and Retreats


Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Saturday, August 18 to
Sunday, January 6, 2013
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