Asian ArtX4

The Seattle Asian Art Museum is welcoming visitors to its renovated building in Volunteer Park with four new exhibits that span 16 centuries and include sculpture, paintings, calligraphy, sacred vessels, fabrics and even a video. Each exhibit offers a different perspective on Asian art and culture.

"The Orchid Pavilion Gathering: Chinese Painting from the University of Michigan Museum of Art" is the first exhibition of Chinese painting at SAAM in 15 years. These paintings come from one of the nation's most acclaimed collections of the genre. Because of their fragility, they don't often travel away from the museum. The opportunity to see them here will be particularly appreciated by those who know and love Chinese art.

The title of the show is taken from one of the highlighted works, an elegant hand scroll depicting a famous literary gathering. Forty-one revered scholars met for intellectual and social enjoyment at an annual Spring Purification Festival. Seated along a stream, they played a drinking game which demanded that each compose a poem before a floating wine cup passed him by. No poem ... then drink the cup. As you might guess, the merriment increased as the celebration went on.

The scroll typifies the artistic style of the 17th century and exemplifies the honor that was accorded to scholars in China's past. This particular event is immortalized because it was attended by a highly revered calligrapher. He, the scholars, the stream, their game and more are all beautifully rendered in the scroll.

The exhibit offers insights into the artistic tastes, intellectual pursuits, daily life and political changes in China from the 14th century until today. A little boy leads home a buffalo in the face of an approaching storm. Mountains peek through clouds and mist to reveal a lone fisherman or weary traveler. Amidst grass and flowers, a cat with a knowing look peers directly at the viewer. Elegantly drawn blooms and trees offer beauty and symbolic messages.

Many of the scrolls include calligraphy, either by the artist himself or in praise of the artist by his peers. Calligraphy, as does painting, champions the expressive use of the brush. In the Chinese literati tradition poetry, painting and calligraphy are considered the highest form of aesthetic expression.

These artforms come together in "Fragrance of the Past: Chinese Calligraphy and Painting by Ch'ung-ho Chang Frankel and Friends." In this exhibit, the focus is on the work of a single artist, in this case a living woman, but it also includes work by her fellow artists.

"Lady Playing the Lute" provides a good example of how painting, poetry and calligraphy are united in Chinese art. It was painted by Ch'ung-ho with an economy of line reminiscent of some of Picasso's work. Her inspiration was a poem written by her calligraphy teacher. The beauty of the image and words caused other poet/calligraphers to honor the artwork by inscribing their own poems on the paper that surrounds the lute lady, thus enhancing the work.

The piece was confiscated during the Cultural Revolution yet, amazingly, escaped the fires in which the Red Guard destroyed so many other cultural artifacts. Ch'ung-ho managed to retrieve it in 1991, and here it is on the walls of SAAM, a work of art as well as a document of history.

"Discovering Buddhist Art - Seeking the Sublime" is a new installation of pieces from the museum's permanent collection. Thanks to Herman Hesse, many non-Buddhists are familiar with the story of the Indian prince Siddhartha, who renounced worldly possessions and desires as he sought and eventually obtained enlightenment, then shared his new understandings with disciples who spread the word. This exhibit gives a sense of the artistic styles and objects that were created over 2,000 years as Buddhism was disseminated throughout Asia.

In it you'll see familiar representations of Buddha seated in cross-legged position, eyes cast downward, the lump on the top of his head - which is considered a symbol of wisdom - the elongated earlobes and the mark in the middle of his forehead called the radiant mole. There are the compassionate Bodhisattvas, too, as well as fierce-looking guardian warriors. You'll see the elaboration of these forms as they took on the artistic characteristics of the many different regions to which they were exported. A very nice interpretive brochure provides just enough explanation for those who like background information.

The video installation "Tooba" by Iranian-born Shirin Neshat opens with intense closeups of an unadorned woman in black - her eye, her cheek, the play of her hair on her face. As the camera slowly recedes, viewers realize that she stands alone, her body encased within the folds and crevasses of the trunk of a massive tree. As the camera backs farther away, a dry, mountainous landscape is revealed, featureless except for the tree within a walled enclosure.

Stark, yet mesmerizing, this video manages to evoke calm, curiosity, dread, fear and relief. For the artist it symbolizes the mythic "feminine tree" mentioned in the Koran, a tree said to offer shelter and sustenance. For those of us unfamiliar with the Koran, it's a meditation on transcendence and oppositions.

This exhibit quartet is predominantly focused on Chinese art, though there are numerous representations from other cultures. Together, the exhibits include works from the past and present, offering insight into the diversity and endurance of Asian art.[[In-content Ad]]