Friday, August 24, 2007

Overwhelming to behold

(From the New York Sun)


Special to the Sun
August 23, 2007

Eveline Yang / The Tibetan and Himalayan Digital Library

Monks unveil a Tibetan tangka, a gigantic fabric painting, depicting Buddha Shakyamuni at the 2005 Drepung Yogurt Festival in Tibet. A new exhibit at the Rubin Museum of Art, ‘BIG! Himalayan Art,’ showcases the largest tangkas from the museum’s collection.

Big art seeks to awe. It also seeks to speak to many people at once, in the context of public festivals or religious observances. The Rubin Museum of Art exhibits Donald and Shelley Rubin's outstanding collection of Himalayan art, and currently features an exhibition that provides a fine introduction both to that art and to the museum: "BIG! Himalayan Art" showcases more than 30 large-scale artworks from the collection. These include textiles, ritual objects, and especially tangkas (scroll paintings on cloth).

A large-format photo shows a tangka unfurling down a mountainside, suggesting how these works appear in situ. The works on the walls here aren't that big, but many were parts of series that must have been overwhelming to behold. As with Western religious art, the makers have aestheticized devotion for admonitory purposes. We who have not experienced Buddhist art from the inside may nonetheless feel the "emotional rush" that Mr. Rubin has said he wishes visitors to his museum to feel. And the rush from "BIG!" is, well, pretty big.

The critic and philosopher Arthur C. Danto once observed, "Ordinary Tibetans, who may have seen these often dauntingly intricate representations of enlightened beings Â-- human, divine or semi-divine Â-- must have been nearly as diffident in supposing they understood what was meant by the art as are we, coming from another tradition, when we encounter them as artifacts from a remote artistic culture. The difference of course is that they must have felt that the truths embodied in these hangings and sculptures were momentous and urgent, and in consequence they had to have felt an accompanying gratitude that there were those who grasped such truths and labored for the redemption of the others who barely understood them."

That's an important point. The iconographic panoply on display at the Rubin Museum could not but daunt any but the most advanced scholar of Eastern religion. Yet I wonder if we need be from within those cultural traditions in order to feel the "momentous and urgent" emanating from the extraordinary tangkas. For one thing, while the noninitiate may find the symbology abstruse, enough parallels exist with the art of the West to aid us over such humps en route to a real emotional payoff.

For example, 14th-century Tibetan tangka shows, surrounding the central figure that is the main structuring device in these works, 146 squares in which appear haloed, prayerful figures whose particular import may elude the viewer yet whose obviously Gothic resonances may nonetheless transfix him. So, too, do we find that terror is terror, death is death, and sex is sex: So many of these images, for all their iconographical complexity and inscrutability, convey powerful raw emotions. The dark ferocity of the 18th-century Tibetan Vajrakila, or the seriously steely, mesmerizing gaze of the yellow fat man, resting on a shell, rendered in pigmented clay from 17th-century China exude a force that is at once alien and unmistakable. Monsters, beheadings, ominous brandishings of sharp, shiny blades, and intertwinings of sex and death that would make a fèn de siecle Viennese blush Â-- all these exert an unmistakable, elemental, universal force. And might not the maker of the orange and blue chubby figures, rendered so zestfully, from 19th-century Bhutan, have seen prints by Rowlandson?

Among the fiercest, most complexly composed, and vigorously colored, of the tangkas are three 17th-century Vajravali tangkas from a set of 43: How could viewers or idolaters possibly have registered such richness? Then, again, we may say the same for the worshippers at Chartres.

In this realm of Tantric numerosity, topographical painting should have its due, and it does: The Khon Family History paintings from 17th-century Tibet feature towns, mountains, forests, people, animals, radiating from the central seated figure. They evoke a teeming world projecting from, almost being called into being by, the individual consciousness, something that Western literature, though not Western painting, has accomplished as successfully.

And so much of the pictorial style of tangka painting found its way into American pop culture Â-- album covers, posters, etc. Â-- that it got thoroughly kitschified. Now at the Whitney Museum of American Art, "Summer of Love" features "psychedelic art" that sometimes found its inspiration in Himalayan imagery. Forty years ago, Nepal, Tibet, and India enjoyed enormous cultural prestige among the adventuresome young. At the Rubin as much as at the Whitney, Moby Grape tunes long consigned to memory's dustbin waft unbidden to the mind.

So what? The show, curated by Jeff Watt, is a gem: though mostly tangkas, we also see some eétraordinary applique textiles, ironwork, clay sculpture, and wood sculpture. Mr. Wattsensiblykeeps the number of works low, so that the modern viewer may bear the sensory overhead. A present-day mural painting, on wood, by Pema Rinzin, included in the show, features themes and techniques inspired by the other works on display. The Rubin's artist in residence, Mr. Rinzin, wows with his color and virtuosity. And finally, the skylighted rotunda displays these works to profoundly good effecté The view down Andree Putman's dramatic, mandala-like staircase, which never looked so good at the old Barney's, may make you feel eight miles high.

Until March 3 (150 W. 17th St., between Sixth and Seventh avenues, 212-620-5000).

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