Thoughts after visiting Small Wonders Exhibition —- when a museum trip brought antique trips in mind

I went inside the visible storage rooms last week for the Small Wonders exhibition in Brooklyn Museum. It took the place of the Japanese woodblock prints and the American artworks they influenced. It is an interesting idea that inside the Luce Center part of the visible storage will be devoted to temporary exhibitions.

Among these small wonders, there are objects in textiles, porcelains, flatware and ceramic tiles. Nudged by Eric, I noticed two objects came from the Ohio Valley where Eric and I had visited extensively in the past. One tile is from Zanesville, Ohio. Another tile was made in Beaver Falls, Penna. I immediately recalled vividly our visits to these two small places.

The trip to Zanesville was to fulfill the mission of finding a bird bath in the yard. Zanesville’s historical fame and association with glass and ceramics could be seen through the antique malls lined along route 22. Another interesting observation that I have made was the abundant books by Thomas Mann published in 20’s and 30’s by Alfred Knopf. Not accidentally this was a period that many famous German exiled immigrates such as Mann or Schoenberg found their followers in the US. Their high culture root was praised and fostered all over the country. In particular Mann was regarded as a heritage culture authority and a champion of liberal and democratic values.

It was a smoldering day and we ended up buying a chunk concrete bird bath featuring a group of chubby angles which we sold later at half of the price before the move to Brooklyn. But the surprise of that trip came from the stop at Cambridge, Ohio where we found a nice art gallery in which we bought a painting by a local senior painter and a used-book store where I found the first edition of In Cold Blood for 15 dollars.

Beaver Falls is smaller. It is one of those dying river towns– the scenery painted by George Hetzel more than 100 years ago, given away to mills and factories which subsequently died out with the declination of manufacturing sectors. When my ex-classmate moved from State College to Beaver Falls, they were told that they made the history to become the first Chinese residents of the town. “That grocery store owners took particular pride to see the influx of ‘ALIEN’ faces, but I am not sure he was friendly.” My friend’s father-in-law told me.

I have seen quite some good porcelains made in Beaver Falls. If I am correct, some of those president plates displayed in Hoyt Institute in New Castle, Penna were made in Beaver Falls. In fact, a lot of restaurants in western Pennsylvania had been using their porcelains for decades.

Besides the fact that Kittanning clay was used in the manufacturing process, I knew nothing about this particular porcelain made in Beaver Falls. Zanesville was more remote since I didn’t have the chance to visit its downtown area. But they have laid such a deep impression that the images of the towns are just as clear as the figures on those tiles. In both cases, the objects remind me the flourish of the small river towns during the industrialization period. They once prospered, wealth collected, mansions or bigger houses built, even though what I have seen in the past does not necessarily prove that, or even worse shows the opposite.

There has always something special about those visits to these river towns, especially to someone like me, born and raised outside of US. It was a vivid revelation of American history that would never be put in any Chinese history textbook, yet those white old antique dealers sitting still in either once-to-be warehouses or Victorian family houses are quintessentially American. When I look back, those antique trips seem so remote in the lifestyle of New York where every minute of living must be justified by doing something profitable. The trips of antique shopping had a much slower pace than that that I took stepping out of the subway. Nine out of ten times the stores contained more junk (or in a better phrasing collectibles) than real antiques and 9.5 out of 10 times we ended up not buying, but driving around. But soaking in the stagnant air and surrounded by piles of stuff in an antique mall, one’s life became meaningful by seeking and preserving the meaning of the past: The joy came from seeking while the happiness of preserving came like an unexpected trophy.

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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