Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Audacious Eye -- Japanese Art from the Clark Collection

“The Audacious Eye -- works from the Clark Collections of Japanese Art” is an exhibition currently on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. Apparently, the Clarks have donated Japanese art objects acquired over a lifetime of collecting to the MIA -- presumably, parts of this collection will be on display in the future, although exactly how the institution intends to present this art, whether by integrating it into its already excellent Japanese galleries (mostly gifts from the Dayton family), or in some separate housing, is unclear to me. The Clark collection begins with artifacts from the 12th century (Kamakura era) and continues through five or six large rooms to the present. Most of the art objects are jaw-dropping, many of the images bizarre and grotesque. The exhibition demonstrates how little we know about Japan, how mysterious its metaphors and icons are to us, and how baffling and peculiar its artistic techniques and representational strategies. I understood almost none of the images shown in the collection -- confronted by a massive, life-size wall-hanging of a bull, edged with a peculiar densely neon blue, calligraphically elegant (the “ductus” is the hand of a calligrapher using an ink brush on rice paper but in a heroic format), it is hard to know how to react. The image is not naturalistic nor is it abstract nor even particularly stylized -- rather, the image demonstrates a reaction to an animal that is filtered through a sensibility that is precise, intensely intelligent, and completely alien to the way that our visual and literary culture has taught us to imagine a bull. The Japanese beast, a symbol for the passions, I think, in Zen Buddhism, is not fierce and tragic like one of Goya’s animals, nor is it peculiarly masculine like Picasso's bulls, but,rather, almost kittenish, powerful but not really frightening, large and strong but not intimidating. There are vast landscapes with sheer bluffs like stalagmites, the entire vista somehow dank and moist and gloomy like the inside of a limestone cavern. A number of folding screens feature bare boughs, jagged as lightning and slashing upward across a cream void, fierce-looking hawks glaring at smaller birds frolicking on the naked branch -- one of these images is a "three-white" painting, that is, a tour de force in which the artist demonstrates the differing textures of white plumage, white blossoms, and white late-spring snow encrusting the bough. Raffish-looking bodhisattvas frolic near waterfalls like jets of pure pale energy, columns springing from shaggy cliffs. One erotic scross shows intertwined couples, their white faces floating over entangled genitals that look a tree-clogged ravine in some remote mountain landscape. A pop-eyed boy cartoonishly leers at an elegant woman whose kimono is disheveled by the wind. The force of the boy's stare has inflated his face like a balloon and pinkened his eyes. One huge wall-hanging displays a fat frog with bulging eyes, a monster elegantly made by a couple of sweeps of a house-painter's brush. Hidden beneath the dewlaps of the frog is a small, elegant mouse, the whole image overlaid like a palimpsest with text. A series of astounding and melancholy ghosts, painted in the most subtle sfumato, rise like fumes ascending through darkness -- they are dead mothers and their faces are a combination of lily-like beauty and grotesque sorrow. One of the dead mothers hovers over her sleeping child, the baby an abstract pudgy form protected by a mosquito net -- although the woman seems insubstantial, fading from sight as we look at her, she is, also, nonetheless, a half-decayed corpse with sagging mask-like features. Another image shows representatives of the three types of humanity -- a Japanese scholar and a Chinese sage and a balding Westerner who looks a little like a bust of Homer and pages idly through an anatomy picture book. This is curious enough, but the top of the painting shows a lurid blossom of flame, a pink roseate fire burning wildly while tiny figures direct arcs of water against the blaze from hoses. What in the world does this image, or this combination of images mean? Similarly puzzling is a vivid, crowded landscape showing a scene from the Tale of the Genjii. There are lords and ladies and peasants in processions, pagodas and palaces and ornate temples but the image is half-obscured by clouds of gold-leaf, a flat abstract pattern that is supposed to simulate -- what? -- early morning fog, low-lying mist, in any event a sort of glove-shaped void that interrupts the picture surface and conceals completely many of the episodes that I presume we are supposed to discover in the twenty-foot long picture. This is a show that must be seen in the gallery -- the scale of the images is important to their meaning and effect and most of the pictures have an aspect-ratio unfamiliar in Western art: the pictures are either elongated horizontally to stretch across extended folding screens or they are tall and narrow, sheets of painted rice-paper displayed like pennants or banners as wall-hangings. I don't think these images could be easily reproduced in a book because of their format -- they are either too long or too tall to fit readily onto the pages of a book of standard size. Nonetheless, I went to the gift shop anxious to buy a catalog of the collection. I hoped that a written text explicating the images would unlock the iconography and meanings encoded in the pictures. There was an elegant and expensive catalog for sale but I didn't buy it: the text was all in Japanese.

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