By Brenda Velasquez | Asian Avenue magazine

lacquer
Cosmetic Box With Mandarin Orange Branches

Tucked in a corner of the Denver Art Museum, a tiny gallery houses an ethereal collection. Inside the black-walled salon, soft yellow light falls upon four panels containing thirty artworks gleaming and polished to perfection for their debut.

Upon entering the room, visitors can read the history behind the lacquer tree, indigenous to China, India, and Tibet and introduced to Japan thousands of years ago. The tree’s toxic sap became a venerable art medium, yielding vessels esteemed for their lightweight, durable and versatile qualities that have allowed lacquer ware to evolve and persevere. Gazing through the glass encasement, the visitor finds that the majority of these highly-decorated artworks are functional pieces, serving as glossy containers and impressive folding screens; transforming ordinary household items into extraordinary masterpieces, the artists imbued the everyday life with an inspiring sense of elegance.

A manifestation of the pieces’ balance between imagination and utility, the artisans frequently chose realistic natural subjects like cranes, rabbits, bamboo and chrysanthemums, but framed them within an air of mystique. Decorating the surface of a large square tray for example, a tangerine-colored fish with wing-like fins leaps into the air surrounded by a sweeping wave of golden flecks, its eye shining with iridescent mother-of-pearl, glowing with a celestial aura.

Most striking, the vibrant creature exists suspended against a pure black barren canvas, caught in a moment of powerful stillness, a glistening organism born out of silence. This ebony plane in fact characterizes many of the pieces, portraying a vacuum of space which, unlike a black hole, begets creation; thus, rather than perceive its emptiness as a grave, the craftsmen likely viewed a void as an arena for divine genesis, housing a realm of wondrous possibility.

Their creation spanning three eras: Taisho (1912-1926), Showa (1926-1989) and Heisei (1989-present), the works’ designs reflect the changing styles of the decades. One teardrop-shaped vase for example, resembled a 60s psychedelic lava lamp with a red-orange weather-map pattern floating along the contours.

Another avant-garde artist defied the symmetrical geometry of his predecessors’ lacquer art by molding a fluid-like box with sloping sides and incorporating transparent materials; his plant imagery features dissected leaves exposing a tangled web of veins superimposed upon classical gold-plated blades, resulting in a semi-abstract work. These forward-thinking artisans incorporated new techniques and styles to generate a jarring interaction between tradition and modernity within one body of space.

Standing in the middle of the gallery, a display counter provides insight into the intricate lacquer-making process. Accompanied by a heavy one-inch deep booklet explaining vocabulary and techniques, the sample box, which required three years to put together, showcases specialized tools and diverse materials: vials of gold and silver powder lie next to shards of precious metals.

Common ingredients for lacquer ware include wood, charcoal, shells, and porcelain with a color palette dominated by opaque shades of red and brown, recalling the natural subjects’ earthly habitats. Lacquer ware’s prominent motif of layering adds depth and three-dimensionality to the vessels, giving them pronounced texture and raising their dynamic compositions into the holder’s appreciative hands. These brilliant treasures represent centuries of Japanese tradition, enduring through the years as artifacts of stunning beauty.

All That Glistens is on view at the Denver Art Museum in the North Building Level 5 until Oct. 5, 2014. For more information, please visit www.denverartmuseum.org/exhibitions/all-glistens.