Anybody who likes classic children’s book illustrations or vintage Disney cartoons will love the L.A. County Museum of Art’s endearing big little show “Treasured Miniatures: Contemporary Netsuke.”
The intricate miniature Japanese carvings originally served practical purposes. In the traditional dress worn during the Edo period, netsuke served as toggles from which to suspend little boxes or pouches from sashes. When Japan was coerced into opening to the West in the 1860s, Western clothes with pockets became the rage, and, for a while, netsuke were obsolete.
However, since the law of paradox is as fixed as the law of gravity, foreigners were charmed by the micro-mini sculpture, started collecting examples first as curios, then as artworks. As a result, the best museum collections of netsuke (as well as of Japanese prints) today are in Western repositories. LACMA has its renowned Bushell collection, the British Museum possesses outstanding holdings. Their respective curatorial specialists, Robert Singer and Lawrence Smith, decided to organize and share an exhibition.
Aside from the sheer delight of the thing, the 150-work show makes important points. First, the Japanese have clearly gotten back into their own game, as the show’s honorary patron and principal lender is Prince Norihito Takamado. Second, the traditional art of netsuke carving is not dead or altogether debased to tourist kitsch, nor is the practice confined only to Japanese artists. Eleven of the 60 carvers whose work is on view are not Japanese. For some unfathomable reason, their works have been placed in a separate display case, but they prove themselves the peers of their Japanese colleagues. Finally, as a gesture of revulsion over the slaughter of the African elephant, the exhibition includes no ivory carvings.
All animals, including human beings, seem to come with a gene that makes us suckers for small things. It has been said it’s there to keep us from killing our children. Whatever the reason, something in us goes dewy-eyed at the mere sight of these things. The artists are happy to play to this weakness. After all, they’re not out to do Michelangelo’s “David"--and if they were, he’d get cute too.
Kozan Fukuyama’s “Here I Go!” depicts a hippo handstand that’s at least as funny as the hippo ballet in “Fantasia.” He also shows a dodo bird John Tenniel would recognize from his “Alice” illustrations. It’s called “Wonderland.” Masami Sakai’s little bear is straight out of “Winnie the Pooh,” and Kansui Wakabayashi contributes a frog who has read “The Wind in the Willows.”
Along with amber bunnies, mahogany bats and ebony tigers, there is matter to appeal to the grown-up-inside-the-child-within, such as sumo wrestlers, delicate geishas and memento mori skulls.
Bishu Saito’s “Boundless Love” offers the chance to contemplate the philosophical implications of copulating whales and a “Harvest Dance” performed by a chimerical creature who has half feline, half playgirl and manages to look as if she’s made of smoke. Something very surreal about this guy.
Kiho Takagi likes to make deeper points by adding complication to intricacy. He does two-part pieces that imply narrative. “Rikyu and Hideyoshi” presents itself as an austere tea vessel of the type favored by Rikyu, founder of the Japanese tea ceremony. The vessel (about an inch-and-a-half tall) opens to reveal an ostentatious gold tea service of the type favored by the Shogun Hideyoshi. For a time he was Rikyu’s patron, but they had a falling out, so the Shogun ordered Rikyu to commit ritual suicide, which Rikyu was honored to perform.
If there is a contrast between the Japanese and other carvers, it is probably that the newcomers are a trifle more restrained. British Susan Wraight makes particularly clean, direct works, such as her “Hatching Snake.” Her countryman Nick Lamb adds naturalism to charm in a depiction of a badger lovingly grooming himself. Australia’s Vaughan Cottle makes a cultural joke by applying the Japanese form to the image of a cowboy hat, boots and lariat.
There’s a touching quality of self-abnegation in the whole practice of making netsuke that shows up in Cottle’s work. Why would anyone put himself to the trouble of carving a life-size snail shell from a stag antler and then put a tiny gold bug inside if he didn’t think that life is altogether absurd and wonderful?
* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. ; through Aug. 14 . Closed Mondays and Tuesday s. (213) 857-6000.