At a time when museums seem to be torn between blockbusters and specialized scholarship, it's refreshing to come across "In the Land of Snow: Buddhist Art of the Himalayas" at the Norton Simon Museum, a no-nonsense exhibition that spares the bells and whistles to make a strong case for the virtues of amateurism.
Not that long ago, before America was a nation of over-professionalized experts, pretension was something to be made fun of and it was OK to be an amateur. The word's Latin root is "lover." Admiration is essential to its definition.
Those emotions form the heart and soul of the two-gallery exhibition, which was organized by assistant curator Melody Rod-ari. Made up of 34 ceremonial objects of Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, all but two of which are drawn from the Pasadena museum's impressive holdings of Asian art, "In the Land of Snow" is both manageable and satisfying.
Buddhism began in India about 2,500 years ago. By the 6th century, Vajrayana Buddhism was well established. It spread to Nepal. In the 7th century, it also moved into Tibet. By the 13th century, it was no longer a major religion in India but thrived in the mountainous north.
Vajrayana Buddhism is distinguished by the belief that enlightenment can be achieved in a single lifetime, through the direction of a guru and with loads of hard work. Self-determination and the virtues of labor resonate with modern Americans, at least those who believe that instantaneous gratification is a sham.
On a pedestal just inside the entrance sit three small statues of Buddha: a bronze one from 8th century Kashmir, a copper one from 13th century Nepal and a brass one from 12th century Tibet. Although the statues differ in materials, style and workmanship, the similarities in demeanor and effect are astonishing. All radiate serenity. It is as if time and space were illusions.
This trio of sculptures is the extent of the exhibition's brief history lesson. The rest of the works have not been installed to highlight stylistic developments as Vajrayana Buddhism moved northward. Instead, two-dimensional works (thangkas and mandalas) are juxtaposed with three-dimensional ones (mostly statues but also a ritual dagger, a stupa and a bronze lotus whose hinged petals open to reveal eight Hindu deities, who were sometimes worshiped by Buddhists).
The pairings of paintings and sculptures suggest that various paths lead to the same goal: enlightenment.
Most of the works feature deities. Painted in opaque watercolor on cotton, a 1648 mandala from Katmandu depicts Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi engaged in a sexual embrace and surrounded by crowds of worshipers. Next to the jampacked composition, a gilt bronze sculpture of the same couple, from 18th century China, compresses the image's visual energy into doll-sized bodies, whose heads and arms multiply to convey unbridled ecstasy.
There is violence along with sex. Mahakala, a wrathful deity, appears as a painted bronze sculpture from 15th century Tibet and in an awesome mandala from 19th century Tibet.
The 2-D/3-D setup recurs in pairs of works that depict the Indian monk Padmasambhava, the deity Tara and the deity Vajrakila. As sculptures, they stand alone and self-possessed. As painted images, they interact with companions, wives and emanations. Inner consciousness and outward action fuse.
In the second gallery, under lights much brighter than in the dimly lighted first one, a gigantic silk banner depicts the future Buddha Maitreya. Commissioned by the eighth Dalai Lama, Jamphel Gyatso (1758-1804), the dazzling 22-by-15-foot thangka speaks to the transience of all things. You don't need to be an expert to enjoy its beauty or to understand its wisdom.
'In the Land of Snow: Buddhist Art of the Himalayas'
Where: Norton Simon Museum, 411 W. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena
When: Closed Tuesdays. Through Aug. 25.
Contact: (626) 449-6840, http://www.nortonsimon.org