Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Space, East and West

By D. Eric Bookhardt

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  All through the ages, people have regarded their own views as realistic while assuming that other perspectives were somehow deluded myths, dreams and fantasies at best. This has been true in most places, but especially in the West, perhaps because we have so successfully projected our techno lifestyle onto the rest of the world. Confucius may have once influenced the masses of China, at least for a while, but now Mickey Mouse and Disney are omnipresent, global and growing all the time.

So to the extent that the lifestyles of the world are shaped and guided by the prevailing myths and legends of those places, we might say that corporate technology is the dominant mythology of the West, especially America. Mickey, Madonna, Microsoft and Disney are its established icons and oracles, and if their outer facades seem mostly like smoke and mirrors, we remain confident that their underlying technology is scientific and up to date -- hence, "realistic." This peculiar mix of illusionism and science is an especially Western trip that began with the Renaissance and continues to this day. Some subtle ripples on this time-honored theme are seen in Michael Brown's paintings at Sylvia Schmidt.

Technically, Brown's images suggest the hazy atmospheric effects of the Italian renaissance and baroque masters. But they also are implicitly technological, as we see in their sweeping vistas of earth and sky, in cloud-shrouded sunsets glinting off rivers and streams as they might be seen from airplanes or spy satellites. And if this sounds novel in light of their classical execution, it is actually more of an update than a departure.

The "realistic" style of the Renaissance came about because of scientific innovations like the camera oscura, a dark chamber outfitted with a lens. Like a room-sized box camera without film, it enabled artists to draw the image that the lens captured. This reflected the way the camera saw the world, but not the way most people had seen the world until then. Thus began what artists now call "single point perspective," in which the sight lines of the composition recede toward a particular point on the horizon.

When Three Points Connect provides a cloud-level view of a lush landscape. A lazy river meanders rather snakily toward an eventual rendezvous with some smaller streams, and it all looks very hazy and Southern as the sun protrudes coyly from a dense cloudbank, glowing gold and silver against the slithering rivers.

Zen works -- like Treasure Boat, an 18th century painting by Ekaku Hakuin -- are freewheeling and fun.
Everything seems accounted for, explicitly or implicitly, under the renaissance veil of haze. Here Brown affirms, at least technically, the traditional Western faith in outer appearances. But it is ultimately their soft intimacy within the atmospheric distance that causes us to stand and pause, to contemplate their near-Olympian perspectives on such otherwise familiar terrain.

The Zen paintings and calligraphy at NOMA provide a very different take on inner and exterior space. Culled from the Gitter-Yelen Foundation collection and NOMA's own archives, Masters of Zen Painting and Calligraphy consists of 30 Edo-period works from the 17th century through the 19th century.

Seemingly freewheeling expressions of an ancient artistic tradition, many have a lighthearted, rather humorous quality about them, a kind of dry wit mingled with a populist flair for mixing the majestic with the ordinary. In Sengai Gibon's Three Gods of Good Fortune, a trio of Japan's most venerable deities seem to swagger into each other like unsteady hobos. The legend reads: "Making three good fortunes into one -- a large cup of tea!" Another image titled Mount Fuji and Eggplant is just that, an eggplant with Mt. Fuji in the background. Eggplants in Japan denote dreams, while the mountain evokes ascension. Here they suggest fulfillment through auspicious visualization, or something like that, in this distinctly deadpan, yet almost droll composition.

There is a sketchy elegance here that contrasts sharply with traditional Western aesthetics, although it does evoke abstract expressionism to some extent. And it is easy to see why the Beat generation poets and artists thought this stuff was so cool -- it is cool, an almost jazzlike blend of skill and spontaneity with a subtle hint of rebelliousness.

Zen stresses a mix of skilled, spontaneous action and quiet meditation rather than dogma, so it seems odd that it encompassed Japan's power elite for centuries. But it did -- until things began to change in the 17th century, which ironically freed Zen to be Zen, hence the buoyant irreverence we see here. But Zen space always had been fluid and asymmetrical, stressing inner dynamism over completion and static outer appearances. Life is change, in other words. So go with the flow. Eat your eggplant.

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