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Geoff Spear

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New Blue and White

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Through July 14, 2013

Free with MIT ID

I grew up surrounded by blue and white dishes — Spode Blue Italian, Churchill Blue Willow, Chinese rice pattern teacups. They are comforting objects, objects of beauty, but not things that I often think about.

The story of blue and white china is a complex one. It began with cobalt pigment on white clay in 9th-century Mesopotamia; the blue and white color scheme later spread throughout Asia and eventually, Europe and the Americas. New Blue and White at the Museum of Fine Arts pays tribute to blue and white in a variety of contexts, and with over 40 artist studios represented and nearly 70 works, it is something not to miss. The exhibition is organized around four themes — Cultural Camouflage, Memory and Narrative, Abstract Interpretations, and Political Meaning.

The largest work in New Blue and White is Yu Yu Blue (2012), by Somerville-based artist Mark Cooper. Viewers can walk through the installation, feeling as if they have fallen down the rabbit hole — surrounded at once by walls covered in printed rice paper and unconventionally-shaped ceramics spilling from towering wooden stands.

Smaller works are equally mesmerizing. New Dutch Blue (2003) by Neils Van Eijk and Miriam Van der Lubbe was created as a part of the Dutch Souvenirs project. The work consists of traditional windmills decorated with Ethiopian, Moroccan, and Arabic blue and white designs — mirroring the ever-changing ethnic fabric of the country. The Disasterware series by Charles Krafft puts topics we would rather forget into porcelain, at one point turning a cow creamer into a Mad Cow Creamer (2005).

Livia Marin’s 2012 Nomad Patterns series features vessels melting onto the shelf, much like Dali’s clocks in The Persistence of Memory.

Perhaps some of the most interesting modern interpretations of blue and white are those that experiment with the human form. Sin-Ying Ho paints two large vases with Ming dynasty-style blue and white foliage in Transformation: Motherboard No. 1 and Transformation: Motherboard No. 2 (2010). The unexpected comes in the form of Adam and Eve, silhouettes with circuitry-patterned skin. Instead of painting bodies on vessels, Claire Curneen’s Blue (2012) molds vessels into bodies, perhaps as a nod to the age-old comparison of a body as a vessel for the soul. Two slightly wrinkled, cracked porcelain bodies, blue and white and flecked with gold, stand apart, arms outstretched to each other. Whether they are reaching for each other or pulling apart is uncertain; the fragility of the connection is especially poignant.

New Blue and White is an exhibition of unlikely connections — connections between objects, connections between cultures, connections between past and present — and the new perspectives that the artists give are refreshing.