New museum exhibit shines with Royal Taste

The USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena opened Royal Taste on Friday, a new touring exhibition focusing on the court artwork and material culture of 15th- and 16th- century China. The exhibit makes an enjoyable visit for students interested in Ming dynasty art and the aesthetic fashions that emerged and traveled throughout Asia prior to Western intervention.

Royal Taste includes diverse types of artwork, ranging from jewelry and paintings to functional items like ceramics and clothing. Many of the pieces displayed are on loan from the Hubei Provincial Museum, with this marking their first showing in the United States. The majority of these are recent excavations from the tomb of Prince Zhuang and Empress Wei of Liang, which was discovered in 2001.

The first room, a jewelry gallery, humanizes the royal figures by showcasing fashion trends that intersect their personal taste with religious and cultural trends. Auspicious “lotus-carrying bulky boys” — plump, rambunctious babies that celebrate fertility — constituted an enduring theme in the adornments of Chinese officials. Several are to be found in Royal Taste. After the jewelry room stands a small passageway with royal symbols of authority, including an iron sword and helmet, rare adornments for a prince during a period where it was politically hazardous for civilian officials to don military attire.

A gallery of paintings follows, which captures well the competing artistic philosophies during the Ming era, the zhe style of conservative academic painting and the wu style, more expressive and interpretive. Especially striking are two large scroll paintings that take up the entire wall, similar in content: “Fishing Boat on the River in Spring” and “Fishing on a Snowy River,” both depictions of fishermen in what appears to be the wu style, capture the scholar-artists’ wistful affection for the simplicity of a fisherman’s life. Viewers are invited to identity with the painters’ yearning for mundanity and escape.

Several pieces on loan from the Wudang Mountain Museum, named for the mountain in Daoism and the birthplace of international martial arts, suggest a more functional role for art in this period. These statues of intimidating martial figures represent characters from the Daoist “divine bureaucracy.” Supplications were traditionally made to each one for the suppression of demons or alleviation of drought. These pieces contrast with the many Buddha and bodhisattva statues found throughout the exhibit, whose posture is visibly more introspective. Strolling among these statues offers visitors a glimpse of the multiplicity of religious traditions active during the Ming period, an experience akin to walking through modern Los Angeles.

Viewers will be impressed by the cosmopolitan nature of the exhibit. Rather than presenting disparate artworks of compartmentalized Pacific-Asian cultures, the Royal Taste exhibit, as well as the USC Pacific Asia Museum as a whole, presents a portrait of a premodern Asia that was richly interconnected, in constant dialogue about artistic fashions and techniques. The jewelry in his collection shows a fascination with foreign cultures, including hairpieces reminiscent of paisley teardrops.

The abundance of Pacific-Asian cultures is also on display in the opening gallery, a smattering of rotating works from the museum’s collections. Beautiful depictions of Shinto deities from Japan that recall Eastern Orthodox icons, currently on display, are explained as a response to the arrival of Buddhism — and its concordant iconography — in Japan in the late-16th century. Prior to that, direct depictions of Shinto deities were considered taboo, and Japanese artists instead used abstract, symbolic gestures.

Also a must-see in the general exhibit is Korean modernist Park Soo-Keun’s “Homeward Bound,” a richly textured painting that suggests both the irretrievable losses of the Korean War and the imperative of optimism in the wake of national tragedy. The museum acquired the painting last fall.

For USC students, staff, and faculty, Royal Taste is $8; general admission to the permanent galleries is free. The museum is a short walk from the Memorial Park station of the Metro Gold Line.