In Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, there was a
small Vermeer painting, of a woman at the harpsichord, and another, standing,
silently singing, and a man in the center, maybe a lutenist, with his back to
us. The daylight filters in from the left. A table, draped with a rug, is in the
foreground. Light and shadow, and
shades of colors are modulated in infinite ways.
were times, when I was studying painting at Boston Museum School, when I faced
a problem, I would drift over to look at that painting. I would get lost in its complexities and
stillness for long periods. When I
left, I had feelings of owning it.
night, in 1990, thieves broke into the Museum and took 13 works, including the
Vermeer. It has not been seen
since. It is said, stolen artwork as
this is sometimes fenced to an avid collector, and is locked in an inner vault,
and never to resurface for years. It is
the ultimate in private possession.
was a child in China, my parents had an art collection. My mother was a painter and my father played
with poetry, so they had a circle of artist friends, and made exchanges of
paintings of brush-and-ink on paper are mounted as scrolls. The prized ones are not displayed in rooms,
but kept in a trunk, stored away.
Occasionally, special friends or art connoisseurs would be invited to
look over a few.
viewing is like a ritual. First, the
paintings are selected, and put in order on a large table. Each scroll has its moment: the silk tie is
untied; the host holds one end, the guest steps back and unrolls with the
rounded knobs. As the painting is
revealed, there are pauses to examine the brushstroke or a wash, to decipher a
couplet, and to study the seals. Then,
the whole painting is perused. When
done, the painting is re-rolled, re-tied, and return to the stash in the trunk.
mindful moment of dissolving into a work is the essence of the art
experience. Making a work that mediates
the viewer to such a moment qualifies the artist.
became an artist, I queried: for what audience, with what aesthetics, by what
production of art, in the modern society, is dominated by the idea of
acquisition. Art market requires
commodities that align with the taste of those who collect. It is a system that channels into a net, like
a lobster-trap, of private collections those of hidden trunks and inner
As I have
lived on, worked jobs, made friends, and traveled places, the people with whom I
would like to commune are far from people of inner vaults. Yet, the art training I received did not
offer any alternative aesthetics or ways of work except those of the system I rejected.
years, I made art along parallel lines: one, making “quality” studio pieces,
which, despite myself, had content that made them immune to being
collectible; and, the other, of producing utilitarian art of the moment, such
as organizing posters, educational pamphlets, comic strips and such, which
applied art skills for social goals.
growing out of community artworks, I was asked to collaborate with another
artist to paint a four-story mural in Boston’s Chinatown that was to depict the
history of Asian immigration in the Boston area. The process took about half a year, with interviews in the
community, making communal presentations and organizing volunteer painting
crews. The painting itself took about 3
summer months. The site was on a
connecting street between a shopping and a residential area. As we painted on scaffoldings we could watch
people go back and forth. It was quite
satisfactory. The work was about as
good as we could make it. In
September, it was complete.
scaffoldings were removed on the last day.
That late afternoon, as I was cleaning up, alone, in the third-floor
workroom, I happened to look out the window, into the parking lot facing the
mural. There was a singular, older
Chinese woman, carrying four big plastic bags of grocery, looking up at the
painting. She must have passed it many
times before, but was seeing it for the first time without the
scaffoldings. I was not visible. She started at the top of the mural and
followed the story down. After a bit,
she set the bags on the ground, folded her arms on her chest, and settled into
just looking. She stayed a long period.
reminded me of the ways the connoisseurs viewed my parents’ collection, and the
times I studied the Vermeer. I was
happy to have provided that moment of connection for that woman. The sensibilities in play were the same.
Tsen, Painter and artist of public installations