Left: Picnic Party at Hagidera (1700s), by Katsukawa Shunchō. Right: A Record of Modern-Day Customs (2015), by Paul Binnie

What does a curator do with a half-missing work of art? 

That was the challenge facing Bradley Bailey, former curatorial fellow at the College’s Mead Art Museum. The museum has a celebrated collection of Japanese prints, the gift of William T. Green, a man of modest means who purchased Japanese prints voraciously, often in combined lots. 

As a result, nearly 200 of the 4,000 prints in the Green Collection are “orphaned,” fragmentary panels that Bailey says are “like an incomplete sentence begging to be made whole.”

Left: Akira Yamaguchi's Muppet: Frantically Busy (2016). Right: a kabuki actor by Utagawa Kunisada (Toyokuni III) (1859)

So, in the spirit of the Surrealist game known as “Exquisite Corpse,” Bailey asked contemporary artists to extend some of these prints into full compositions. The result: a three-month Mead exhibition. 

The Exquisite Corpse game dates to 1925, when Surrealist friends in Paris took turns writing a fragment of a sentence that the next person, without seeing the previous contribution, would complete. The game eventually inspired art and theories regarded as touchstones of Surrealism.

Bailey, now associate curator of Asian art at the Ackland Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, gave the artists complete freedom to create anything they could imagine, “as long as their creations were connected to the lines of the original print.” 

Each took a different approach. Scottish artist Paul Binnie completed two polychrome woodblock prints. American artist Ely Kim responded with a pair of digital prints. The UK-based design team Studio Swine created a mixed-media sculpture. 

Left: Sweaty Americen (2016), a digital print by Ely Kim. Right: After the Bath, fro an 1895 series by Yōshū Chikanobu

American photographer Gregory Vershbow first drew an image, colored it in Photoshop and made prints of it. “I then photographed the prints (along with a reproduction of the original) on expired, hand-processed 4x5 color-positive film,” he says. 

Japanese artist Akira Yamaguchi contributed ink-and-watercolor drawings. He said it was his first time creating a work with the prerequisite that it would be displayed with the original. 

“I tried to judge the personality of the earlier picture, and from there, link my piece iconographically,” he says, so that “a slight sense of a leap between the works would emerge.” 

The exhibition will travel to the Ackland Museum this fall.