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.

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