Students passing through the halls of the Fine Arts Building around 5 p.m. on Friday evening may have detected the faint aroma of egg rolls and fortune cookies wafting through the corridor outside the main art gallery. This was not a new item added to the menu at John Arthur Café, but a part of the Binghamton University Art Museum’s opening night reception in celebration of its new winter exhibitions. The opening was timed in accordance with the Lunar New Year and the exhibitions in both the main and mezzanine galleries feature a wide array of carefully curated Asian art and artifacts.
The main gallery features an exhibition titled “Snowflakes between Gauze: Rubbings from Han Dynasty Tombs,” curated by Claire Kovacs, curator of collections and exhibitions at the BU Art Museum. Kovacs worked alongside the Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera at BU to organize the showing, which focuses on contemporary rubbings of Han Dynasty tomb reliefs. Rubbings are an ancient, century-old method of printmaking, used in China long before there were other methods of reproducing copies. The rubbings on display in the exhibition showcase intricate designs with both aesthetic and intellectual value, and are currently on loan to the museum, which worked with the Confucius Institute of Chinese Opera to bring them from artists in China.
Out of the 40 works shipped to BU as possibilities for the display, Kovacs chose around 25 pieces to put on view in the gallery.
“The ones that I chose gave us a sense of the breadth of the different tomb reliefs, and they also resonated with each other,” Kovacs said. “You’ll see musicians, you’ll see dragons, you’ll see different attendants to the tombs.”
The rubbings are a part of a long and meaningful history of the practice throughout Chinese culture, and are made by transferring the indentations of a physical piece, such as a stone relief, onto paper using ink.
The exhibition is set up so that viewers can explore it in their own way, based on what they want out of the experience. It features purposefully minimal writings on the walls next to the pieces. Most of the calligraphy on the rubbings is untranslated.
“You can walk into the space and really just appreciate them for their quiet, reflective poetic beauty,” Kovacs said. “And then if you want you can take the trifold brochure … You can situate them within a historic context with [Distinguished Service Professor John William] Chaffee’s essay.”
In view above the main gallery is an expansive collection of historical Asian art in an exhibition titled “The Surface and the Line: Alumni Gifts of Asian Art.” The exhibition was curated by Nancy Um, associate dean of Harpur College and a professor of art history, with research support from Gabrielle Bonilla, a sophomore majoring in anthropology. These works include prints, paintings, ceramics and calligraphy whose origins range from ancient civilizations before written records to modern day. Some of the pieces are the works of living artists.
In referencing a piece of painted earthenware from the Neolithic period in China, before written records, Bonilla, who interned at the museum with Um, noted the historical importance of the work.
“The most we have out of the culture are pieces like this, and it’s so cool to be able to see the art like that — to hold something and know it’s out of a different time,” Bonilla said. “It’s also kind of hopeful because the things we create last long beyond ourselves.”
The pieces are gifts donated by two BU alumni whose collections complemented one other and shared similar themes of East Asian art. While initially examining the pieces, Um noticed many of them could be identified and paired by aesthetic characteristics such as color and pattern or flatness versus depth.
“There are these works that are just really about line, and that kind of privilege, the flat surface,” Um said. “And then there are these pieces that are all striving for depth — trying to show things receding back into space and suggesting this world that exists beyond the picture.”
Um hopes students and faculty alike will visit the exhibition and appreciate the art in classes or their own free time, and perhaps even make use of the objects for study.
“We like it when our objects are being really used for pedagogical study,” Um said. “They’re here not just for display, they’re here to be used by students. We have some really unique works that I don’t think you get the chance to see around Binghamton, certainly, so this is a really great opportunity.”
One floor below the main gallery is another exhibition of historical artifacts, which holds four smaller collections curated by current BU students and staff members. The four exhibitions all feature works of art connected to history, but each one offers new perspectives on the past through different cultures and lenses.
The entrance of the gallery contains an exhibition titled “Marvels of Materials: Trade and Materiality in Ancient Egypt,” curated by Doug Braun, a senior triple-majoring in history, classical civilization and anthropology. The exhibition provides a fresh take on Egyptian history by focusing on materials used in ancient Egypt rather than on common themes in Egyptian art, such as the gods and the afterlife. Its emphasis on this subject allows for the exploration of trade patterns and interactions throughout ancient Egypt and examines the notion that all historical artifacts of the era are interconnected.
“The ancient world doesn’t exist in a bubble — people are always interacting with each other in some way,” Braun said.
Braun spoke with Diane Butler, director of the BU Art Museum, to become an intern at the museum last spring, and worked with Hilary Becker, an assistant professor of classical studies, as a faculty adviser throughout the process. Braun took an interest in ancient art, specifically Egyptian, throughout his studies at the University.
“Ancient art can tell us a lot about how we think in the modern era, and it’s still bringing up questions about ethics and accuracy and context in art,” he said. “I think that sort of multifaceted nature of ancient art is what interests me.”
The other exhibitions on display include “American Mythology,” curated by Kaleigh Pitcher, a senior double-majoring in history and political science, “Visualizing Voyeurism,” curated by Emily Mendelson, a senior majoring in business administration, and Eta Pastreich, a senior double-majoring in anthropology and history and “Portraits of Daily Life: Daumier in the Permanent Collection,” curated by Tom McDonough, an associate professor of art history. All current exhibitions will be open to the public until March 4.