Silk Road Art Gallery

Eastern Exposure

If you think New Haven is a world apart from Xi’an, China, Silk Road Art Gallery head and Xi’an native Liwen Ma begs to differ. “Xi’an culture can speak to New Haven culture,” she says, with Silk Road exhibit planner Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent translating. Like the Elm City, “My city is also an ancient city,” Ma says, noting that it served as China’s capital for 2,000 years.

That’s a fair bit more than New Haven’s 376 total, but you get the idea.

X’ian was also a major point on the actual Silk Road, a legendary web of trade routes spanning Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Silk Road the gallery provides a much more convenient means of journeying to new cultural spaces. On cool gray walls warmed by plentiful spotlighting, exotic hanging pieces have room to breathe, as do carefully placed pedestals made for 3-dimensional art. As you roam, time seems to slow down a little, allowing for more careful viewing. This is not a site to hurry through in a few minutes while rushing toward the next item on your to-do list; it’s a place for contemplating, and savoring.

Sharing Chinese art and culture is a passion for Ma, who’s studied and worked in the field for many years, and after getting to know the area through visits in 2011 and 2012, she permanently relocated to Woodbridge last year. She calls Connecticut “the heart of New England,” and sees New Haven as its cosmopolitan core. “I chose this place as a place where I felt people could learn about and appreciate Chinese culture.”

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During her initial exploration of the Elm City, Ma attended City-Wide Open Studios, meeting more than 100 artists and getting a crash course on the local art scene. “Here, art and life are really close,” Ma says. “They’re not separate things.” In addition to its historical and artistic pedigrees, Ma was attracted to New Haven by the presence of a certain academic institution; Yale and its global renown gave Ma confidence that she could share her international experience with the local community.

The gallery opened in March, harnessing springtime’s spirit of new beginnings. The current exhibit, the gallery’s fifth, got its beginning on November 13. Huang Qing’an: Studies from Life showcases one of Ma’s favorite artistic expressions: ink wash, with pieces depicting scenes from Nepal, Cambodia, Thailand and Tibet. The artist Qing’an, also from Xi’an, tends to paint in a traditional way but found his style changing a bit to suit each subject country. Ma explains that he’s working from life, but not drawing the scene just as it is. He adds his own imagination to the mix—for example, capturing a moment through an exaggerated fish-eye perspective.

A quirky aspect of traditional ink wash is that its most essential toolkit involves just “five colors,” it’s said. Even quirkier is that those “colors” look an awful lot like five graded treatments of the color black—with the darkest like charcoal, and the lightest like a fleeting shadow, or a very dry overcast sky. Some ink wash painters insist on working within those bounds; in Qing’an’s work, you can see the primacy of those five “colors,” but he draws from all other colors at will, sometimes muted and wispy like watercolor, sometimes strong and bright like acrylic.

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Though ink wash, like watercolor, lends itself to more expressive and less precise textures, Ma traces a crisp line from calligraphy—what she says is the original Chinese art form—to the ink wash art form: both rely on graceful, defined strokes to produce the bones of the works. When a newcomer first picks up a brush, their lines are unsteady and unsure, and they can resemble a limp noodle. But in the hand of an experienced artist, the soft brush produces firm and strong results in even the finest lines, resembling a steel wire, Ma says, adding, “I’ve always supported ink wash painters because I think it’s one of the most fundamental representations of Chinese culture. “And it’s now becoming very popular.”

There are currently several porcelain pieces on display as well, set to remain on view during a group exhibit opening December 8. The pieces were created by hand on a wheel, then fired three times at more than 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800+ Fahrenheit). The first application of heat sets the form, the second sets the paint and the third sets the finishing glaze. It’s not unusual for the potter and the painter to be two different people, in a departure from the West’s solitary, individualistic approach to the visual fine arts.

The Silk Road Gallery is a crossroads, after all, illuminating a path to Eastern culture, guided by an appreciation for the West.

Silk Road Art Gallery
83 Audubon Street, New Haven (map)
Mon-Sat 10am-6pm
(203) 772-8928

Written by Lauren Langford. Photographed by Dan Mims. Lead image depicts Liwen Ma and Ethan Rodriguez-Torrent.

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