This was our first experience to visit the annual Baltimore Antiques Show. It was exhaustive but fruitful. On the first day, we literally went in when it opened at 11 a.m. and were forced to leave at 7 p.m. when it closed. Luckily the fatigue residue goes away faster than the memory of interesting findings, inspiring discussion, and new acquaintances. Based on my observation, the sales were good. One of our friends Janet Fanto sold a painting by Hayley Lever, which she brought to the All Saint’s Antiques Show at Rehoboth Beachlast month. David Smernoff, another dealer friend, not only sold paintings but also said farewell to a chair that he could sit on comfortably. In one particular case, a British buyer bought an Italian table from Joseph Dasta which will be shipped to London.
The show is so big that it is better to split the visit into at least two days to have a more leisurely pace. We basically skipped most of the book fair, even though on the short visit on the next morning, some interesting items turned out from those booths. Probably it was the sheer number of participant dealers that prevented the show from being strictly vetted like Winter Antiques Show or International Fine Art Fair. The benefit is that the show offered a variety of items in terms of style and prices. There were things for 20 or 30 grand, but there were also dealers selling vintage postcards that I am sure most visitors could afford. Regional dealers from Mid-Atlantic areas and New England dominated the show although there are also notably dealers from West Coast, Oklahoma, Florida or across the Atlantic Ocean.
I first stopped to see Michael E. Bound, a dealer from England specializing Asian Decorative arts. A small Japanese cloisonne vase reminded me of our recent trip to the Met, where we were intrigued by a few lacquer objects from Meiji period. Mr. Bound pointed out the squared shoulder (baluster) was quintessentially Japanese. Not only is the cloisonne wired in silver thread which is more pliable than brass for delicate work but also the silver wires are of different thicknesses. Some are attenuated so thin that they visually blend into the enamels. This particular vase showcases a dazzling craftsmanship with layers of leaves and flowers and leaves flattened on the curved surface which look almost abstract at the first sight. “It is actually harder to make a small cloisonne. This one was probably made between 1890 to 1920, the so-called ‘golden-age’,” he commented. ” I have been to a workshop at Smithsonian. To accomplish this it will takes not in terms of days, but in terms of weeks. I only wish I could make just only this ONE flower.” Out of curiosity, we stopped at Walters Art Museum the next morning and looked at some Japanese cloisonne vases in the Hackerman House Galleries. There we saw a vase with doves and apricots, dated in around 1895. The artist reserved enough space to create rhythms and variety, reminiscent of Chinese Ink and wash landscape. After the comparison, Eric thought the design of the vase at the show was too “busy”. Although I concur with him, I have seen similar patterns in Japanese kimonos, and thought it is possible the design was inspired by the traditional Japanese textile. Eric also warned me that I was looking at an object with every inch height worth one thousand dollars, I was puzzled because my impression was that the price was under $300. The next morning revisit proved Eric was correct and all the time I missed one digit in the price.
At the Northwood’s Spirit of America’s booth, a showcase of Americana in mid-Atlantic region, I have spotted more young collectors hanging around. The less polished, candid yet somehow idiosyncratic looking seems to find echos in the younger generation who seeks individuality in the collecting. Eric was attracted by a white wooden clock case, with a rooster on the top. It was from some social club with amazingly preserved paint. I spotted a painting once owned by the playwright of “To Kill a Mocking Bird.” It was one of the most curious paintings in the show with infinite ways to interpret meaning. I was “bothered” by the off-perspective door which does not seem to be installed correctly. “You can always look at it and come with a different story. A writer appreciated it and got inspiration from its humor.” The dealer told me. I have always been driven by aesthetic values of the objects and been looking for mostly fine arts. But this one was an exception and challenged my mind: At least it will make a perfect picture for the caption contest in the New Yorker magazine.
Of all the stunning pictures brought by Mark McCartyfrom Philadelphia, a still life painting by Robert Street caught my eyes. Robert Street, whose works are in the collection of several major museums, is mostly remembered as a portrait painter. The rare still life paintings by him was once briefly mentioned in William Gerdts’ book “American Still Life Painting.” Both Eric and I prefer a more unpretentious treatment of American still life than Dutch sumptuous presentation. The triangle composition and the way that leaves and grapes looming out of the dark renders the fruits in a sensitive and dignified manner. Both Mark and I know the ground-breaking book by Gerdts very well and Gerdts’ own collection features still-life paintings by non-still-life specialists such as David Johnson. “This is a painting of historical significance,” Mark proudly said. I have seen Robert Street’s paintings in auctions for more than 10,000 dollars, but all are portraiture. I am wondering whether such a fairly large work was painted in his late career when still life began to have a market; or whether he had met and seen still life by Raphael Peale, the first still-life specialist who lived in the same city. It would make for interesting research for whoever acquires this painting.
The great pleasure came from TK Asian Antiquesfeaturing both Chinese antiquities and modern contemporary works in the vein of traditional Chinese art. The marble painting is cut and polished directly from the natural marble stones collected in Da Li’s Cang Mountain area in YunNan province of China. Da Li Cang Stone has been known at least since Ming Dynasty when Xu Xiake, one of the earliest travelogue writers extended his stay in the region because of the natural stone’s exotic shape and texture. The region is now a geographic national preserve park although governmental excavation continues at a scale without endangering the integrity of landscape. When I excitedly talked with one of my friends in China, she showed me some Chinese website offering Da Li Cang Stone. Interestingly, Chinese prefer the exquisite material in the most original natural condition, thus such stones are sold for their three-dimensional sculptural beauty, enhanced by muted colors. Here, all the stones are cut and polished thus presented for their conceptual pleasure. My guess is that Chinese tastes for exotic stones with curves and voids that resemble the flow or zen doctrine can hardly find an echo in Western Culture. By flattening such stone to two-dimensions, such stones can immediately attract “flatware collectors,” but with a benefit of intimate touch of those seemingly impossible “brush strokes” done by the wind and rains. I do not think that sculptural piece is better than marble paintings or vice verse. Both are essentially Chinese in demonstrating the strength of traditional Chinese art: restraint and reduction. The gallery is going to have a show “Rare Ancient Textiles” on the Fuller Building at Midtown Manhattan on Sept 9.
The contemporary antiquarian art made another strong appearance in the booth of Port “N Starboard from Falmouth, ME. A contemporary ship painting was sold by the time I was attracted by its gorgeous colors and meticulous rendering of linearity. It is jaw-dropping to know this painting was done recently while the rest of the booth presented paintings which looked as if from the same hands except the fact they are one hundred year or more apart, and invariably with less vibrant colors. Mr. Michael Leslie also shared with me the information of George Hathaway, a Portland painter. As an avid collector of the artist, he owns the photocopies of his calling card and artist label. “Yes, he is,” Michael confirmed when I asked him whether Hathaway was more or less a tourism painter. “He painted in his studio and brought his small-sized paintings to the sea shore where tourists just returned from the boating. They were great souvenir paintings. He did paint some larger ones, but he painted a lot of light house paintings, those were popular.” Mr. Leslie also told me that his paintings are in the collection of Portland Art Museum. I wondered if I bought a souvenir painting from the local galleries today, what are the chances that the artist’s diligence assures him a path into a regional museum?
Not only were big named dealers in the show, but also I had the chance to meet a world-class artist. Jon Eric Riisis a textile artist whose works have been exhibited in both the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the High Museum at Atlanta, where he lives. In his booth, Chinese official robes are displayed in juxtaposition with his stunning contemporary works handmade with shiny metal threads. It was an intriguing way of installation in which contemporary works paid homage to the inspirational past while the antique textile looked renewed with similar patterns and sewing style suggesting the linkage. A fan made from fabric once part of a prince’s robe was displayed as an installed works of art. The colors have passed the heyday but the exquisite stitch work of the dragon retain the resonant royal power. In the front, a loose waist coat was shimmering with the pure blue and bright yellow, the kind of yellow perhaps would be seen in the Qing Dynasty fan. At first sight, the sleeves of the new piece seemed to borrow the design from other robes around, yet the visible vertical blue thread dipped with yellow patterns made the sleeves a pair of wings flying beyond the golden sunray. Whoever comes to own it, I thought, will make himself a prince.