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RITUAL JADES
by N.F. Karlins
 
Asia Week may be gone, but some of the gallery shows associated with it are still around. One of the best is Throckmorton Fine Artís "Shang and Western Zhou Jades."

While the Chinese have been creating jade objects since the Neolithic, the discovery of jade-filled tombs in Sichuan Province, in southwestern China, has forced a rethinking of the history of jade centers, usually considered earlier metropolitan areas to the north and east.

The finding of about 3,000 jade funerary objects in the Jinsha area of Sichuan, with perhaps many more to be found in the future, along with abundant sources of raw jade, gives credence to this area as another center of jade-carving during the Shang (ca. 1600-1100 BCE) and into the Western Zhou (ca. 1100-771 BCE).

You can, however, know nothing of all this and enjoy this exhibition of visually alluring and sometimes spectacular burial jades. †

One category consists of jade replicas of blades from weapons and tools. A partially translucent yellow-mottled axe head is incised with a snarling, "demonic human head." Could the head be a shaman? A deity? A mask? Some hybrid of these?† Itís anybodyís guess at present.

These blades, which all seem to have been used symbolically to indicate status, range to over two feet in height, like an early Shang or even pre-Shang insignia blade in a deep green mottled jade, almost delicately inset with three round turquoise inlays. The form, called a "zhang," is a ritual blade, possibly evolving from a hoe. It originated at a much earlier date, showing a selective borrowing in the Shang from earlier jade traditions.

The show also contains a lively assortment of personal adornments -- clothing decorations and pendants. Neck decorations in the shape of abstract feline dragons were often uncovered in tombs. A slate blue one-half disk with collar is typical. You can recognize the tiny jagged teeth in the mouth of the beast, while an indentation like the end of a golf club denotes its tail.

Small flat animal pendants had arrived earlier and continued into the Shang. Two pale green-gray tiger ornaments were probably part of an upper-class personís pectoral. †

But animal pendants fully carved in the round are an innovation of the Shang, and there are many intriguing examples here. A pale green "Couchant Ox," about three inches long, certainly has a contented look on his face. Decorated with raised lines, he might have been worn suspended from the neck or in the hair or perhaps simply put in the hand of the dead.

A perky owl in pale green has raised line decorations on its puffed-out chest and wings. A kneeling figure, perhaps an enemy captive or servant, holds a fish as an offering in one of the more enigmatic jades.

The gallery has added some Shang bronzes, the most well-known art forms of the period, a Shang stone altar pillar, some Neolithic and some later pieces to round out one of the most interesting Asian shows in New York.

Every jade collector will want to own the fine catalogue that accompanies the exhibition.

"Shang and Western Zhou Jades," Mar. 22-Apr. 24, 2010, at Throckmorton Fine Art, 145 East 57th Street, New York, N.Y.


N.F.†Karlins is a New York art historian and critic.