Scholar's Rock, Meng Zhao (b. 1967), brown stoneware, unglazed, wood firing, ht. 16 in.
The Chinese appreciation of rare rocks can be traced back as early as the Tang dynasty (618-907), during which the four criteria to judge the aesthetic qualities of rocks had emerged: thinness (shou), openness (tou), perforations (lou), and wrinkling (zhou). In the Song dynasty (960-1279), the literati class started to collect certain kinds of rocks and placed them on their studio's desk as a way to introduce nature to the interior. In Ming dynasty (1368-1644), wooden stands were used for the display of scholar's rocks, which indicated that the literati viewed these tokens of natural world in the same light as collectable antique items.
Meng Zhao studied in the Ceramic Department of the National Academy of Fine Art, Hang Zhou China, from 1988-1992. He came to the United States in 2002 hoping to expand the definition of contemporary ceramic art by incorporating the traditional art forms and sensibilities, experimenting with the full capacity of the material, and challenging the categorization of art work, in his case, sculpture versus ceramic art.
The various forms and textures of Scholar's rocks are determined by the interplay of earth, water, air, fire and time. To Zhao, the process of making a sculptural ceramic rock is a combination of mimicking the natural force of water (modeling the clay) and creating controlled accident (glazing and firing). Anyone who has observed Zhao working is amazed by his dexterous way in creating the indentations, winding holes, and overlays in shaping the clay. Sometimes, he uses a sponge with water as to "put himself in the position of lake water eating away the stone." Zhao once said, "I am very fond of the concept of water in Taoism. In the "Dao De Jing", Laozi regarded water as the supreme good, because it gives life to all things in nature and is happy to stay in a low place…To me, following the natural course without much struggle is the ideal status of being."
The art of making a rock requires a calculated balance between spontaneity and precision. In his 2009 stoneware work Xianglongshi, in order to recreate the auspicious dragon rock in Song Huizong's (r. 1101-1125) handscroll painting, Zhao studied the reproduction image of the rock carefully while giving it a three dimensional form. Other times, he simply follows the feeling of his hands, imaging water or incense running through from the top to the bottom. His other scholar's objects, such as the celadon brush rest pieces resembling waves, Buddha's hand citron, roots, stalagmites, island, etc. are created in the similar fashion. In Zhao's work, the demarcation between perception and preconception is often blurred.
Scholar's rock is a popular motif for several contemporary Chinese artists. For example, Zhan Wang (b. 1960) uses stainless steel to make sculptural rocks. Often exhibited as public art, his rocks carries an immaculate and reflective surface which simultaneously mirrors the images of the floating clouds as well as the urban landscape and its dwellers, therefore acting as the artist's commentary on the modern culture. Liu Dan's (b. 1953) painstakingly conceived ink paintings of scholar's rocks intend to reveal the complex compositional structure on a two-dimensional surface. Zeng Xiaojun (b. 1954), on the other hand, is more interested in showing his rock objects in an isolated atrophied form, implying the loss of meaning in an age of disintegration of old culture.
Compared with these artists, Meng Zhao's work is significant in the sense that he chooses a challenging material in refashioning a cultural object that usually takes hundreds or even thousands of years to form. With ceramics, the success rate drops with an increase in the size and the complexity in construction. Different clays, various ways of firing (electricity/gas kiln versus wood firing) and firing temperature, positioning of other objects in the kiln, and glaze versus non-glaze, can all contribute to the final effect of the work. "Firing is the biggest challenge," Zhao said, "It is full of surprises."