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18th century lacquer work from Quianlong Garden

Currently at the Peabody Essex Museum: The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City, on view through January 9 before it moves to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. This collection of artifacts, never before seen by the public, is taken from a sanctuary built in the Forbidden City. Quianlong Garden was constructed in the 18th century in a remote corner of the massive complex. Closed up for many years, it is now undergoing an extensive renovation.

Among the furnishings (which generally are of less interest to me) there are a few objects that were quite conversant with our modern sensibilities. Some of the lacquer work suggests the fluidity that was so signatory of late 19th century European Art Nouveau (as seen above). And the found rock sculptures (scholar’s stones), long treasured in Chinese culture, feel right at home with the minimalist tradition in contemporary western art.

Charles Sandison’s re-envisioned East India Marine Hall

Other installations worth seeing: First, the East India Marine Hall, part of the museum before it its major facelift a few years ago, is festooned with wooden figureheads from 18th and 19th century seagoing vessels. Artist Charles Sandison has taken the words of ship captains’ logs and turned an otherwise stodgy room into a lively hive of flashing digitalia referencing the trade routes, politics and personalities that led to the founding of the museum in the seaport of Salem. The play of contrast is engaging and fun.

Purgatoire River, by Mark Ruwedel (Photo: PEM)

Second, unforgettable photographs by Mark Ruwedel. “Imprint” features the tracks of both humans and dinosaurs in remote locations throughout the western US. The photographs make no reference to human life, just the trails that were worn into the stone or desert surface by our ancestors in prehistoric times. The silence and stillness in this body of work is extraordinary. (I wrote about Ruwedel’s show in more detail a few months back here.)


Dinosaur tracks along the Purgatoire River, one of many photographs in Mark Ruwedel’s exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Massachusetts

Reasons to stop in at the Peabody Essex Museum are many, but here’s my favorite from my latest trip: “Imprints—Photographs by Mark Ruwedel.”

At first glance I assumed these 41 images were an Olafur Eliasson-inspired conceptual/installation piece on landscape. The photographs have a reduced tonality and a barren understatedness that could lead to that assumption. But once I took a step closer I was disabused of that idea, caught quickly and willingly in the dynamic silence of Ruwedel’s portraits of place—haunted and emptied of a previous existence during an ancient earth eon.

Mark Feeney’s review in the Boston Globe describes it well:

Mark Ruwedel[‘s}…West is riotously austere and beautifully desolate: a Beckett landscape so empty of human life that even Beckett’s lost souls would feel out of place there…As much archeology as art, his images explicitly remind us that the West has a past, one immensely longer in duration than the past of cowboys and Indians we see in westerns. “California is west of the West,’’ Theodore Roosevelt once said. The parts of Texas, Colorado, Utah, and California that Ruwedel photographs aren’t west of the West. They’re so desolate they almost seem underneath the West…

Time is an abstraction, of course, and these pictures have a stripped-down, abstract quality. Looking at them, one thinks not so much of other Western photographers as of Minimalist sculpture, Robert Smithson and earth art, or even Zen mysticism. Look closely, though, and notice how concrete the abstractions are.

Ruwedel lugged a large-format camera across a variety of these exquisitely remote Western terrains, and the payoff is a level of detail in these photographs that would be impossible to achieve without this cumbersome tool. The textures and depth of complexity are mesmerizing. Included in this show are images of the dinosaur tracks along the Purgatoire River in the Comanche National Grassland in Colorado, the ancient Indian trails that lace through the Chocolate Mountains of California, and other uncommonly traveled spots.

The show is up until January 1. I’ll definitely be back.

Chocolate Mountains

For more of a sense of Ruwedel and his approach to photography, here a great clip of him talking about a recent show at LACMA called “The New Topographics”: Mark Ruwedel