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VISUAL ARTS REVIEW

More confusion than fusion at PEM

Western takes on Chinese furniture are uneven

Two summers ago, curators at the Peabody Essex Museum orchestrated a harmonic convergence of East and West. They invited 22 fine furniture makers from the United States, Canada, and China to convene in Salem to trade ideas and study the museum's antique Chinese furniture collection. And they commissioned each craftsman to create a piece of furniture in response to the experience.

The result of that experiment in global cultural exchange is a tony but disappointingly muddled exhibition called "Inspired by China: Contemporary Furnituremakers Explore Chinese Traditions," now on view at the Peabody Essex. Organized by PEM curator of Chinese art Nancy Berliner and Edward S. Cooke Jr. , a Yale University professor of decorative arts, the exhibition presents 28 pieces of contemporary furniture and 29 historic Chinese beds, tables, and chairs that inspired them.

All the show's contemporary works are technically impressive, and many are at least mildly attractive in their formal and decorative aspects. But because few of the artists -- excepting the six Chinese craftsmen -- appear to have thought very deeply about Chinese traditions or about modern China, the show as a whole does not reveal as much about relations between East and West as one might expect.

The historic Chinese works are confusingly varied. Scattered throughout the show, they have no clear chronological or stylistic organization. Some are beautiful, some fancy, and some plain. But the focus is on the contemporary works that respond to them, and so the older works collectively recede into the background.

Many of the contemporary craftsmen practice some kind of Postmodernist pastiche. They mix and match familiar stylistic and decorative conventions, producing things that look like they belong in an upscale Chinese-American restaurant. Gary Knox Bennett 's Chinese-style chairs include sumptuous materials such as gold-plated copper, shell, and exotic woods, but they have a cartoonish, Pop Art quality that calls to mind designer Michael Graves. So does a small cabinet by J.M. Syron and Bonnie Bishoff with curvy decorative trim and panels filled in with colorful, stylized ocean waves and puffy clouds in golden skies.

These and many other Westerners appear mainly interested in showing off their considerable technical skills. Michael Hurwitz 's armoires with angular lattice-work doors are extraordinarily accomplished pieces of craftsmanship. So is an intricate cabinet on splayed legs that's a semi-abstract representation of a cicada by Brian Newell . But the Chinese connections remain superficial.

In this context, modesty is a virtue. Judy Kensley McKie 's drum-shaped stone stool with a comical dragon carved in relief on each of its four bulging sides is sweet, funny, and unpretentious. (See a review of McKie's show at Gallery NAGA, next page. ) And Clifton Monteith 's table covered by hundreds of pieces of thin willow branches surprisingly brings together Adirondack folk art and the tradition of the Chinese altar.

Some of the exhibition's best works offer finely measured blends of Western Modernism and Eastern traditionalism. Yeung Chan , who was born and raised in China but now lives in California, presents a lovely, unassuming pair of cherry wood chairs that combine mid-20th-century streamlining and the graceful restraint of 16th- and 17th-century Ming furniture. And the formal transparency of Michael Puryear 's version of a Chinese scholar's desk and chair in white sycamore evokes a Taoist spiritual lucidity.

A few artists work more like sculptors and conceptual artists than traditional craftsmen. Three of these, all Chinese, have created poetic meetings of old and new. With help from master woodworkers, Ai Weiwei produced a surrealistic conjunction of a heavy old ceiling beam and an antique table, merging them so the beam appears to be floating at an angle and magically passing through two of the table's legs.

Shi Jianmin 's works are space-age reflections of the traditional Chinese love of odd natural forms. His tree-stump stool made of gleaming stainless steel is like an apparition in a science-fiction movie. And Shao Fan 's version of an antique Ming altar table beautifully reproduces the old style but with a strange twist as the table is bent into a U-shape.

Two artists add a conceptual dimension that the exhibition could use more of. Gord Peteran re-created a 17th-century incense stand using only bright red electrical wire. It's like a scribbly drawing in space, and it comments on China's role as a producer and exporter of 21st-century commodities. And Wendy Maruyama crafted a sculpture about feminist issues and ethnic identity in the form of a vanity with a small video monitor where ordinarily there would be a mirror. The monitor plays a tape of a woman applying make up, alternately accentuating and diminishing the Asian slant of her eyes.

So there are enough thoughtful and intriguing works to make you feel the exhibition was worth a try. Where "Inspired by China" went wrong is in the idea that North American craftsmen necessarily would have anything interesting to say about China. It's a safer bet with Chinese artists, who are constantly contending with tensions between the traditions they grew up with, influences from the West, and their own desires to create new things. An all-Chinese contemporary furniture show could be truly revelatory.

Ken Johnson can be reached at kejohnson@globe.com.

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