Dozens of artists and scholars from around the world will converge on SUNY Buffalo State on Monday for a four-day symposium dedicated to the ancient art of Asian lacquer.

To accompany the conference, the Burchfield Penney Art Center will host “Asian Lacquer International,” an exhibition that explores artists’ diverse uses of lacquer – an expensive resin extracted from trees found only in Asia – in decoration, painting and sculpture.

Patrick Ravines, the director of Buffalo State’s recently expanded art conservation department and an associate professor there, described lacquer as “a dying art” and the conference as an attempt to bring together artists and scholars whose paths might not otherwise cross. The exhibition, he added, is a way to communicate to the public the “many faces of lacquer” throughout the centuries in a way that may surprise gallerygoers.

The show will contain traditional decorative pieces of the sort visitors might have seen in vitrines at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But it will also feature plenty of contemporary uses of the medium, such as the luminous paintings of Vietnamese-American artist Nhat Tran or the bulky, multisurfaced creations of German sculptor Heri Gahbler.

The use of lacquer through the centuries has evolved from one of necessity to one of aesthetic preference. Whereas primitive versions of paints were prone to growing mold or other problems in the high humidity of Southeast Asia, lacquer – a precious substance that often causes those who handle it to break out in severe rashes – was a substitute impervious to mold. Today, many artists use lacquer for its rich depth of color and its difficult-to-replicate texture.

For Ravines, who has been at the college for three years, organizing an exhibition around a single medium like lacquer provides an opportunity to bring attention to a living medium that too many ascribe to a distant era.

“You can do an artist and his different periods. You can do a medium like this and just show the expansiveness, but also that if you want to continue to see this, we have to preserve the craft,” he said. “It’s kind of a cottage industry that goes all the way back to the tree itself.”

The conference will feature more than 25 speakers, including three artists working in the traditional mode of “Urushi,” or Japanese lacquer: Kazumi Murose, Fumio Mae and Kunihiro Komori. It will also feature talks by Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Barbara Brennan Ford, as well as panels moderated by Ravines and Buffalo State College design professor and lacquer expert Sunhwa Kim.

The breadth and ambition of this first-of-its-kind symposium, Ravines said, is extensive.

“We’re bringing in art historians,” he said. “We’re bringing in lacquer artists, craftspeople, conservators, restorers, scientists and museum people, and basically anybody who has touched or is touching lacquer and hasn’t gotten a rash will be coming to talk to about it.”


What: “Asian Lacquer International”

When: Monday through May 24

Where: Burchfield Penney Art Center, 1300 Elmwood Ave.

Admission: $5 to $10

Info: 878-6011 or