Scenes of epic proportions, drawn from mythology and folklore, come alive in one of the newest exhibits at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
“Otherworldly Realms of Wu Junyong” features 16 of Chinese artist Wu Junyong’s mixed-media paintings. The exhibit, which opened Jan. 13 and is on display through Nov. 3, is Wu’s US museum debut. The works explore different traditions, such as Chinese and Greek mythology, and “have a very strong, powerful literary content,” said Wu, who was translated by Nancy Berliner, the MFA’s Wu Tung Senior Curator of Chinese Art, in an interview with the Globe. Wu had been in Boston for the exhibit’s opening and subsequent Lunar New Year celebration, and left on Friday.
Wu’s work was immediately striking to Berliner, who first encountered it at an art fair in China in 2016. “It’s delightful, but there’s something very deep there as well, struggling with the challenges of life,” she said.
Many of the paintings render creatures and legendary figures in vibrant color or dynamic movement, but they also capture a tension between the subjects and some force, whether it be an adversary or their own emotions.
“These animals and creatures are just walking all around you with all of the energy,” Berliner said.
Wu, who is based in Boston’s sister city Hangzhou, said he doesn’t plan out his scenes before he begins working. The artist created a painting in front of a live audience Thursday evening, at the MFA’s Lunar New Year celebration, which was entirely improvisational. He encapsulates his approach as “think[ing] with your hand.”
The exhibit spans works created from 2015 to 2020, with some completed over a period of a few years. Seven of the paintings are part of an ongoing series called “Five Hundred Luohan” that portrays “luohan,” or Buddhist disciples who reach enlightenment, in ink and white pigment. The subject of each of these paintings is “a person on a search,” Berliner said.
A few of the paintings experiment with well-known myths. In “The Re-Performance of a Myth: Victory of the Lion,” 2018, the story of Herakles’s triumph over a lion is inverted so that the lion is shown to be winning.
“The Story of Fire,” 2018, merges two legends into one tableau. On the left is Houyi, an archer in Chinese mythology who eliminated nine suns from the sky because they were overheating the earth. And on the right is the Greek figure Prometheus and the eagle that eats his liver. In between them is a person making a fire.
The combination of myths “reflects being surrounded by many cultures,” Wu said.
Two of the paintings are based on Chinese idioms, literalizing common phrases. “Literature Class: Snake Swallowing Elephant,” 2016, from the expression “like a snake swallowing an elephant,” features an actual snake trying to consume an elephant, as well as other envisioned idioms throughout the frame. “Horse, Horse, Tiger, Tiger,” 2018, is the English translation of a saying similar to “comme ci, comme ça,” according to Berliner. It’s the title of a piece that depicts, as foretold: pairs of horses and tigers.
Along with the paintings, there are two QR codes on a wall that allow visitors to watch two of Wu’s animated shorts by scanning the codes with their smartphones.
Visitors have found that the exhibit feels immersive, said Berliner. One visitor told her the paintings gave him goosebumps, while a couple said that after 25 minutes in the gallery they had made it only halfway through the hallway. Wu said he seeks to make his paintings feel unpredictable to visitors, like surprises.
“People seem to really find it engaging,” Berliner said. “The work pulls people in.”
Abigail Lee can be reached at email@example.com.