Wednesday, July 3, 2013

'In The Moment' at the Asian

Seated male Shinto Diety, 800-900. Heian period. wood. As the material embodiment of native Japanese gods or kami, statues like this one were kept within the uttermost sanctuary of Shinto shrines.
 In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection, on view June 28– Sept. 22, 2013, introduces more than 60 exceptional artworks spanning 1,100 years. The exhibition comprises of works by noted artists of the Momoyama (1573–1615) and Edo (1615– 1868) periods, along with other important examples of religious art, lacquer, metalwork and armor. Highlights include a 13th–14th-century wooden sculpture of Prince Shotoku; a 16th- century bronze goose-shaped incense burner; six-panel folding screens dating to the 17th century by Kano Sansetsu; and 18th-century paintings by acclaimed masters Maruyama Okyo and Ito Jakuchu.

Peacock (right side of screen). Usumi Kiho. Taisho period (1912-1926). Pair of six-panel folding screen. Ink, colors, silver, gold and lacquer on silk.
A lot of art critics had a fit because a billionaire is showing a portion of his collection in a museum. Oh shame, gasp, oh horrors. OH BS. Mr. Ellison is indeed the fifth richest person in the world. Anybody who follows the news knows that Mr. Ellison owns a lot of expensive trinkets and real estate. Most recently, he brokered a controversial deal and grabbed a significant portion of the San Francisco waterfront prior to the upcoming America’s Cup event. Mr. Ellison even has entered the race with his fancy boat - which is not doing too well at the moment.  All of this may be related to his desire to have portions of his collection on display but it does not take away from the beauty of this exhibit.

Every single museum in the world has shown the collections of its wealthy patrons. Many museums, including the Asian, are built around the gifts from wealthy donors. They make museums possible, from the Frick, the Norton SImon, the Morgan Library - the list probably encompasses every museum in the United States. Recently the de Young hosted William Paley's collection, the Legion hosted the van Otterloo collection of Dutch art and the Asian displayed a section of Jerry Yang's Chinese calligraphy.
  Put aside your cynicism and your judgmental hostility toward Ellison - the endless saga of acquisitions, litigation, aggressive business dealings. Put aside your belief, without even seeing the show,  that is a "vanity show" as L.A. Times art critic Christopher Knight declared in a conversation that we had on twitter.

Curated by Emily Sano, the former head of the Asian Art Museum and now Mr. Ellison's private consultant, this is a stunning collection.

Ms Sano. who also acted as an adviser to the exhibit says that Mr. Ellison's interest in Japan can be traced to a trip he took in the 1970.

The first display -- a pair of folding screens from the 17th century, each nearly 6 feet high and 12 1/2 feet wide pulls the viewer into a Japanese viewing experience. Attributed to Hasegawa Togaku, they make up a dynamic panorama of crashing waves and jagged rocks, and seating in front of the screens puts viewers right at their level. The seats are covered with tatami mats and changing lights in the gallery mimic the sun's moment from sun rise to sun set.

There are faint sounds of rain falling and birds chirping. Screens of this kind were meant to be viewed while sitting on the floor says Laura Allen, the museum's curator of Japanese art and the exhibition's co-curator. Being positioned at the bottom of the screens, she says, "changes your perception and makes you feel like you're surrounded by the screens' scenery." Thankfully for the Western viewer, the Asian didn't go that far but the tatami covered seats, the soft sounds of birds and crickets are meditative and soothing, making for a three-dimensional intensive experience.

The first gallery also contains what Sano described as "some of his favorite objects." Among them, a charming wood sculpture from the 1200s of two puppies at play and a pair of screens, one depicting a rooster and chicks, the other a quintet of puppies gathered underneath a banana plant. "Mr. Ellison fell in love with this pair," Sano said, "particularly the puppies."

The second gallery contains one of the oldest pieces in the show, a Shinto wooden sculpture over 1300 years old, as well as images of the Buddha and numerous hanging scrolls portraying art with symbolic meanings - pines, bamboo, plum, cranes and turtles - fidelity, tranquility, long life. There are 2 6-panel folding screens portraying scenes from two of Japan's national epics - The Tale of Genji and The tale of the Heiki.

The exhibit's third, concluding gallery compares three schools of Japanese paintings: Kano painters, who worked for military rulers and favored battle scenes; Rinpa painters, who worked for the court and emphasized seasonal plants; and Kyoto-based artists, who favored birds and animals.

Dragon and tiger, 1606, by Hasegawa Tohaku (1539–1610). Momoyama period (1573–1615). Pair of six-panel folding screens; ink on paper. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 11.4808, 11.7073. 

It is rare that an exhibition allows viewers in on the owner’s personal thoughts, but in this case, a pair of folding screens depicting a dragon and tiger is singled out as Mr. Ellison’s favorite object.  The screen was created in the Edo period by Maryyuma Okyo (1722-1795), Dragons are not necessarily considered malevolent, as they are in Western culture. In Chinese art and mythology, which heavily influenced Japanese art, dragons symbolize potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, hurricane, and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck.

From this, one could speculate that Ellison envisions himself as a dragon - whether benevolent or not is up to the individual viewer.

Through: Sept. 22
Where: Asian Art Museum, 200 Larkin St., San Francisco
Hours: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday, until 9 p.m. Thursday
Admission: $8-$12; $5 Thursday after 5 p.m. 415-581-3500,

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