Review: “Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond” — The Crow Collection

[Originally published in Arts and Culture magazine]

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Despite horrific political travails, Tibet retains an implacable allure of exotica and deft academic parsing. It merges the fabric of daily life — seemingly, the more mundane and monotonous the better — with philosophy sufficiently rigorous to fatigue entire armies of Mensa members. Fittingly, Robert Thurman, father of the luminous actress, Uma, is one of the West’s leading authorities on the topic. He dined with Sir Lawrence Olivier as a youngster, went to Exeter and Harvard, joined rebel armies and eventually headed for Tibet where he became fluent in their language in a scant ten weeks. Shortly thereafter he became the only American to be ordained a monk by the current Dalai Lama. He’s a swaggering emissary from a rarified Eastern “paradise” most Westerners imperfectly grasp via books, yoga mats and incense. Nonetheless, he tells us that we, too, can become Buddhas. While that sounds utterly implausible to Western practitioners, it’s precisely why the current show at the Crow Collection isn’t just beautiful; it’s important.

“Tradition Transformed” shows us the path. Literally. One work by Tenzing Rigdol, “Excuse Me Sir, Which Way Is It to My Home?” is an apt example. It displays a figure in a recognizable cross-legged posture. This is all completely reassuring. However, the flesh of the Buddha is a composite of road maps. It’s an-all-too ordinary and utilitarian guide of the sort one uses while on vacation or a business trip. It’s daunting that this is supposed to constitute a “path.” It’s not galactic light and crystals and spendy trips to Esalen. Instead, it’s the messiness of daily terrain that’s daunting precisely because it’s so familiar. The artist has even banished the reliably present Bodhi tree. Instead, we get a cross-section of contemporary culture, a world of magazine imagery and advertisements. The title of the piece operates as a dual lodestar for the Tibetan community of monks and nuns, banished from their homeland since 1959, and for each and every individual on the lam and searching for a transcendent lap into which to collapse. In fact, in the latter instance, it’s a reminder that the most trying and opaque landscape is the off-road wilderness conjured by our own abundantly challenging self.

Similarly, Gonkar Gyatso’s “LA Confidential” shows us another scarily familiar array of stickers and Western pop culture. It’s an eerie combo-pack of everything-you-love-to-hate. And, yet, it’s arranged — Buddha style — to convey the penetrating coolness of the most recognized vessel of serenity on the planet. Here, again, we’re made to postulate that the very things from which we long to flee might be the very stuff that turns us from mere carnal creatures into the sublime stuff of Bodhisattvas.

Again, as Thurman has reminded us, nothing — not even the things we consider assaults to our sensibilities — can keep us from the path of transformation. And, after a pilgrimage to the Crow Collection, there’s a rising arc of delight behind my ribcage and south of my overrated noggin that makes me think he’s right. After all, in the pyrotechnical calculus of Creation, it makes sense that the dull might fully sacrifice itself such that the beautiful will burn more brightly.

Review: “Noble Change” — The Crow Collection

[This was published in an altered format by The Dallas Morning News]

 

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The Tantric art currently on view at the Crow Collection is remarkably unique. Although you see a series of figures, none are meant to represent specific deities. Nor are they intended to merely serve as beautifully crafted decorative artifacts. Instead, these pieces are meant to support seekers in their meditative practice. They offer a means of conveying the Truth that we aren’t individuals in the typical Western sense of the term. In fact, they offer aid and support to those intrepid souls willing to spend time exploring the dodgy and perplexing space between themselves and the world they inhabit. The show is an opportunity to look more closely at the “One-ness” His Holiness the Dalai Lama espouses and, moreover, it offers an opportunity to experience it in a more substantial way rather than via rigorous intellectual precepts.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, it’s posited that we’re part of a pulsing cosmos that is inextricably entwined and our bodies are vehicles for exploring ultimate consciousness by way of breathing techniques and sitting positions (asanas). Tantric art offers tools to explore that concept in a bodily and visceral way. The art, in fact, can be used to enhance our flow of energy (qi) and the array of images on display can serve as teaching aids for yogic practitioners. For example, “Dakini of All the Buddhas” is depicted drinking blood and displaying an almost wrathful demeanor. The point is: even things typically deemed lurid are part of a glorious whole and nothing should merit derision. Like the dakini, we are called to transform negativity into the stuff of creation and vitality. It’s a lesson to be learned via image.

The objects inspire a range of emotions – compassion and peace or ferocity. They’re “memory theatres” that can teach, encourage and remind us of a transcendent goal and the means by which it can be attained. This is not your usual exhibition. It’s as deep as things get. It’s not simply beautiful art. It’s meant to instigate a journey – your own.

 

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Review: “Fabled Journeys” at The Crow Collection

[Originally published in a different format in The Dallas Morning News]

 

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While the primary motif for “Fabled Journeys” is travel, its current incarnation seems to express arrival. We’re already “there.” Viewers share space with various deities from the Hindu and Buddhist pantheons and, if we treat the adventure metaphorically, there’s much to be gained. Moreover, the exhibition provides impetus to do a little investigative work to understand diverse cultures. Harvard professor Diana Eck, one of our great contemporary religious scholars, has noted that we don’t fully understand religion until we become acquainted with two traditions. Well, now is our white-hot chance to do exactly that — and the effort to do so easily transmutes the aforementioned “arrival” into a pilgrimage without the need to pack bags, negotiate airports and deal with less than adequate hotels. It’s all here and ready to spill its genius if we simply take the time to look.

 

Among the images depicted are the Hindu gods Ganesha and Vishnu, both of whom are forms or aspects of the Indian godhead. Unlike the Western notion of the divine, they never offer Eastern followers a completed picture of the ultimate spiritual being — nor are they meant to. Rather, these Indian figures are signposts, clues and guides that merely point toward the truth, which is too vast to be grasped directly. For instance, Ganesha is widely regarded as the remover of obstacles. His distinct iconography makes him easily recognizable and a popular figure in Indian art. Here we see him with his characteristic elephant head and four arms. He’s sitting in a manner that indicates a readiness toward movement and appears agile despite his substantial girth. In other words, he does, indeed, seem wholly capable of banishing obstacles, both physical and yogic. While he‘s not an embodiment of a sole, universal god, to Eastern believers he’s invoked as a means of facilitating their spiritual journeys.

 

Vishnu can be understood as yet another inflection of the numinous. He reports that he “comes into being in age after age.” He offers us yet another way of understanding that the divine is never complete. We’re reminded that it’s never culminated. Instead, it perpetually streams forward, enabling evolution toward increased meditative understanding. Surprisingly, a marvelous place to enhance our own personal journey might be near at hand. Downtown, to be exact.

Review: Theo Wujcik — Galleri Urbane

[Originally published in The Dallas Morning News]

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Theo Wujcik’s show, “Asian Invasion” takes its cue from the extraordinary influence contemporary Chinese artists are exerting on the art market. While Wujcik is an American, born in Detroit, his slant on pop culture exhibits a barbed wit that’s unsettling. He shows us iconic Americana – a smashed MacDonald’s container, a beer label, a Coca Cola logo and a Wall Street ticker tape parade – in ways that make us uncomfortable. They’re juxtaposed with Eastern motifs that give his work a tilt that’s wince inducing. However, he manages to keep the visual banter light — he delivers jabs rather than knockout punches.

One image,  “Made in the U.S.A.,” shows us our tacky selves in a way we would typically never entertain. It’s a brilliant acrylic-on-canvas work depicting quintessentially Asian fare delivered to us via a quintessentially American foil plate. It makes us ponder our fast-forward culture and what it means that we no longer have time for sit-down dinners. Moreover, Grandmother’s meatloaf has been swapped for an eggroll and chop suey. The work becomes a formidable metaphor for our evolving mash-up of cultures.

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Similarly, “Mountain Jade” displays a Rolling Rock beer label and coyly alludes to the way jade is mined in China. It’s tossed down mountainsides and gathered after it reaches its downhill destination. The torn and recognizable label is a background for widely seen carved elephants that are a wee-bit tacky.

Astonishingly, Wujcik is in his seventies. His art exhibits such a youthful exuberance and enthusiasm that one suspects it would be the product of an artist half his age. In this time of global interconnection, it’s interesting to watch two – highly diverse – sides of the globe collide.

 

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“Dreaming Forward” — Caravaggio and Lucas

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Caravaggio —  “St. Jerome in Meditation,” circa 1605 and Sarah Lucas — “Self Portrait with Skull,” 1997

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While it’s certainly not necessary to become a theologian to examine art with theological import, simple observations add depth to the process. One example is the motif of skulls. They cover the invisible — they house our psychic mysterium — and yet they also offer apertures through which we, literally, see the world. They house both memory and vision. Additionally, the ground where Christ was crucified was named “Golgotha,” the place of the skull. In mythological terms, this  can be construed as the new cosmic mountain or axis mundi around which everything that exists was [re]arranged.

Skulls certainly figure prominently throughout the canon of Western painting. One example among thousands is Caravaggio’s “Saint Jerome in Meditation,” ca. 1605. The Italian Baroque master painted a number of portraits of the Church Father, a contemplative hermit responsible for creating the Latin Vulgate. Caravaggio’s choice to depict the figure in chiaroscuro suggests that it is darkness that invites mystery and cultivates a meditative state. Thorough illumination is resisted because a rich “center” is constituted by something indefinite and without clear delineation. Moreover, the skull in Caravaggio’s painting reminds us that Golgotha and its concomitant stony ground is the place where things such as despair, anguish and cruelty are transmuted into a place of fecundity.

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Caravaggio’s work is brought into greater clarity when juxtaposed with work by the contemporary artist, Sarah Lucas. “Self Portrait with Skull” was produced in 1997 and shows us a woman framed by a doorway and addressing the camera. Between her blue and orange sneakers is a skull placed such that it lines up with her own head. Unlike the image of St. Jerome, she’s seated in a brightly lit room that offers an antithesis of the cave of the desert father. Her legs are spread wide and what seems to bloom between her thighs is death.

Or is it? Perhaps it’s the same sacred ground to which we’ve been alluding. It’s merely given a new context. This new world has no dim corners. It’s “enlightened.” Thus, there can be no “spooks” or gods in the room. Everything “is what it is” to use the current vernacular. The “there there” is everywhere. It’s without a tear, a rip in the fabric of the known. And, if it seems a bit leaden, maybe it’s supposed to be exactly that. It’s a new incarnation for the people willing to gaze into — and out of — gaping cranial orbits that are unblinking.

In any case, it’s certainly an interesting counterpoint to Caravaggio’s painting — and because we learn by analogy, it’s invaluable. The task of “seeing” can be woefully discomfiting. But so is the process of “dreaming forward,” of allowing myth to evolve. In fact, the work of the contemporary British artists, particularly the YBAs, remind us that the lacunae in our psyches, the places of discomfort, exhibit an accrued richness. They demand that we maintain a sense of narrative and ambiguity that we might, out of sheer intellectual lassitude, reject. Such a willingness to transcend the constricted sphere of the literal is a jarring task. But all the better. It means that what we deem “normative” is being forced to assume new shapes. And, in the process, our “pathologies” (our tendency toward fundamentalism) are delicately dismantled.

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“Nunquam enim satiatur oculus visu.” — Cusanus

“The eye, as a sense organ, is neither satiated nor limited by anything visible; for the eye can
never have too much of seeing; likewise, intellectual vision is never satisfied with a view of
the truth…. The striving for the infinite, the inability to stop at anything given or attained is
neither a fault nor a shortcoming of the mind; rather it is the seal of its divine origin and of
its indestructibility.”