Public News (Houston) - - FRONT PAGE - story and photos by Rosanne Fried­man rosanne.fried­man@pub­lic­new­son­

The fig­ure that greets all view­ers walk­ing into the an­cient Chi­nese ex­hibit, at the Hous­ton Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral Science, is mon­u­men­tally tall and post-thin from the Bronze Age in south­west­ern China. The face is some­thing never seen be­fore. A styl­ized mask that is riv­et­ing- sim­ple and pow­er­ful: clear lines de­fine the eyes, nose and mouth. Arms held out as hold­ing some­thing, now fin­gers and thumb in per­fect cir­cle are wrapped around an empty space. The joints of the hands are ev­i­dent and each fin­ger is ren­dered sep­a­rately. This is not a car­toon gen­er­al­iza­tion of hands but in con­trast to the highly styl­ized face these so­phis­ti­cated huge hands are more nat­u­ral. Per­haps the fig­ure was hold­ing an ele­phant tusk since ele­phant tusks are found in the pit. We can only guess at the rea­son why. This fig­ure is wear­ing an em­bel­lished tu­nic that del­i­cately flares to the hem be­low the knee. Stand­ing flat­footed and solid on a pedestal that is en­graved, em­bel­lished and carved with styl­ized shapes that are rem­i­nis­cent of bird and beak, the foot of the base curls up with a lyri­cal fin­ish.

The res­o­nance be­tween the or­ganic ges­ture of life and the styl­iza­tions with soft­ened ge­om­e­try is dis­tinc­tive, en­thralling.

En­ter­ing the gallery we are em­braced by the semi-dark­ness, com­fort­able but cool in tem­per­a­ture and warmed by mu­sic. Lights are fo­cused to al­low the clar­ity, di­men­sion and in some cases cast shadow to de­fine the forms. The im­pact is a non­ver­bal in­vi­ta­tion to re­lax and join the mys­tery that sur­rounds these mes­mer­iz­ing ob­jects. There are am­ple places to sit in reverie. This is a place for those who seek out mys­ter­ies that al­most go be­yond the reach of word. No one has seen faces like these. There was no writ­ing, no handy way to un­der­stand them, arche­ol­o­gists are still in search.

To de­scribe we can make some ob­ser­va­tions: a mask like face, both bold and del­i­cate. The fig­ure seems to be based on a square post. The ears stand­ing out from the head—is hear­ing is em­pha­sized with these styl­ized ears? The mouth is wide and nar­row, slightly open, it stretches across and around the face and in some the lips are gen­tly curved up at the corners. Are they smil­ing? The eye socket as a pro­trud­ing al­mond shape that tilts up at the cor­ner. A line across the face mark­ing a cheek­bone again and again-- that line ap­pears on a face that’s smil­ing. Are they smil­ing at us? The gen­tle chin stands out from the neck with an in­di­ca­tion of a square jaw, per­haps an echo of the struc­ture of the post un­der­neath or some other in­tent?

The only stand­ing fig­ure in the ex­hibit is tall, dig­ni­fied, to see this fig­ure is to look up, tall and yet higher on a pedestal. If this is meant to be ad­mired or in­tim­i­dat­ing in its power, I am ad­mir­ing and am in awe. These fig­ures and masks are pow­er­ful and there is some­thing mod­ern about their sim­plic­ity: Pi­casso- known to steal ideas from any stu­dio he en­tered-would steal them.

But maybe oth­ers found their de­signs worth em­u­lat­ing: the imag­i­na­tion of an art his­to­rian could go into ac­tion here- a look at the an­cient Scythi­ans met­al­work and there are sim­i­lar­i­ties with some of the ob­jects. The Scythi­ans were no­mads who roamed the Eurasian steppes and Cen­tral Asia at their peak they dom­i­nated Cen­tral China. They were a few hun­dred years af­ter the Sanx­ing­dui, but around the same time as the Jin­sha peo­ples.

We en­ter here and are in­vited in com­fort to sit and pon­der about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of what these ob­jects might have been un­der­stood to be— Gods or idols, per­form­ing rit­u­als for peace­keep­ing—good weather, wa­ter, or war­riors call­ing troops to bat­tle? And what we might see them to be: an ex­ten­sion of the love of things Chi­nese as we love the echo of the del­i­cacy of de­signs rem­i­nis­cent in later Chi­nese art, or curves of de­sign found in yet other civ­i­liza­tions.

The bold mask like face with eye­balls that are posts, as if posts were the act of star­ing, cap­ture ab­strac­tion in the ob­ject and then live in the viewer’s mem­ory as only iconic im­ages are able to do.

Find­ing these ob­jects was much like find­ing arche­ol­ogy all over the globe-- A chance meet­ing, a chance dig­ging. There is a hole some­where some­thing dropped in it. The farmer dig­ging a drainage ditch came upon some jade in this area as far back as 1929. And there were wars and pol­i­tics to di­gress from their un­cov­er­ing. There was ex­plo­ration in the 1950’s and 1960’s and fi­nally in the 1980’s an in­ter­na­tional pro­fes­sional arche­o­log­i­cal dig came into places that were fur­ther south­west in China than things were ever found and found these, up­set­ting the sta­tus quo and story about what hap­pened where and when, giv­ing arche­ol­o­gists new ob­jects and new mys­ter­ies to un­cover. We may join them here. The ex­hibit con­tin­ues through Septem­ber 7.

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