Visual Arts

Celebrated ceramics artist Zhu Legeng makes his U.S. debut in Lexington

Andrew Maske didn't come into the Ann Tower Gallery and give the proprietor a hard sell.

“He said, ‘Oh, hi. I'm the new faculty at UK,'” Tower recalls. “‘Would you be interested in showing a Chinese artist?'”

Tower wasn't sure. She already had a show planned for February.

“It didn't strike me as something I'd want to do immediately,” Tower says.

But then she Googled Maske and the artist he wanted to bring in, Zhu Legeng, and that changed her mind completely.

It turned out that Zhu is a leading ceramics artist in China, where his works are revered and command top dollar. And Tower had a chance to host the first exhibition of his work in the United States.

How could she refuse?

On Wednesday morning, just two months after Maske visited Tower, Zhu was in her upstairs gallery, getting his ceramic pieces neatly arranged in groups of five for display.

“Everybody in the world knows that the Chinese have a very long ceramic history,” Zhu said, through translator Hua Jing Maske, Andrew Maske's wife. “Very few people know Chinese contemporary ceramics. So (Zhu) would like for this, his first U.S. exhibition, to be something of a window for Americans to look into Chinese contemporary ceramics.”

Fine ceramics, after all, are also known as china.

Zhu was born in Jingdezhen, considered the ceramics capital of China. His father a leading porcelain artist, was persecuted under the Cultural Revolution of Mao Zedong. During those years, the government dictated that art must have a utilitarian purpose, and purely decorative art was considered an extravagance of elites. Chinese ceramics, which had set a standard for centuries, suddenly ceased to play any role in the art world.

“They were supposed to be destroying all the formulas and getting rid of all the knowledge that they had,” Tower says. “It's unimaginable to me.”

The strain of persecution eventually took the life of Zhu's father.

But the work lived on in the son, who was drawn to ceramics and began work at Bejing's Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, first working on pieces by other artists and eventually building his own reputation. Studying traditions of the past, Zhu began to teach, first at Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute and now as director of the Ceramic Art Center at the China Academy of Art. Through his work as an artist and curator, he is reconnecting China to contemporary ceramic art and putting modern spins on the ancient form.

That is why coming to America, where Zhu also has been lecturing at Harvard University on this trip, is so important to the artist.

“Traditionally, the world got to know China through its ceramics,” Zhu says, again through Maske, who added, “He also wants that now in the contemporary world, that the people get to understand the Chinese like they did in history, through ceramics.”

Tower says, “Initially, I was more taken with the story, the scholar and the opportunity than the objects.”

But then the objects arrived — herds of oxen and horses and fine bowls and sculptures — carefully packed in crates with shipping orders in Chinese characters and English.

Lexington might not seem like the most likely place for a major international artist to make his American debut. Andrew Maske was the catalyst. He met Zhu while in China on a Fulbright Scholarship, studying contemporary Chinese ceramics. When the opportunity to exhibit Zhu's work came up, Maske says, he considered several options, including venues on UK's campus, but he decided to approach Tower because of her gallery's scheduling flexibility and Main Street location.

“This really is something that should be a town-and-gown event,” Maske says.

In the exhibit, which kicks off with Friday's opening reception during Gallery Hop, viewers will see a broad range of Zhu's work, Maske says.

But there is one element of his work that will have strong resonance in Lexington.

Horses are prominent in Zhu's art, including large horse sculptures and a sleek image of a horse seemingly ready to gallop across an icy jade field.

“It's the sky and nature, a living thing, heaven and nature together,” he says of the sculpture, part of his Heavenly Horse series. “That's a very ancient Chinese philosophy. You have to respect nature. You have to respect the environment you're living in.”

Hua Jing Maske says that when Zhu landed here and saw the horse imagery and culture, “he said it's his destiny to come here, to choose Lexington to be the first U.S. exhibition of his work.”

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