Pasadena's Pacific Asia Museum is a nice, quiet place to go. The building, in Imperial Chinese style, has a bamboo-shaded courtyard with a pond that houses shiny koi fish as big as large cats. They're about 40 years old and with any luck will still be swimming calmly around in the year 2060. In Asia, koi are revered as symbols of fecund longevity. So, evidently, is the subject of the museum's new exhibition.
It's called "A Selection of Paintings by Cui Zifan; A Contemporary Master of the People's Republic of China." Apparently the artist is a personal favorite of David L. Kamansky, the museum's chief curator and executive director. The show has a catalogue with a laudatory essay by scholar Lars Berglund. You get the impression these guys are big, heartfelt fans of the artist, and that's pleasant.
So is the exhibition. Cui Zifan is 80 years old. In China these days that means you've lived through a lot. He was born to a peasant family and fought against the Japanese when they invaded in 1937. He was so seriously wounded, he's still disabled. Ten years later, when civil war erupted, he organized the resistance around his hometown in Shandong province. Eight members of his family died in the fighting. During the Cultural Revolution, he worked in seclusion while other artists and intellectuals were purged.
Somehow through all this he managed to become an artist, hold some cultural posts and finally emerge as one of his country's leading figures. Over there, he's not regarded as a late bloomer. In China, artists are rarely seen as mature until they're 60.
Nobody would be surprised in the West if Cui Zifan's experiences had made his work angry or brooding. Instead, trauma seems to have enhanced his appreciation of the simple, resonant subjects that have always been part of Chinese art because they're always a part of life.
Cui Zifan echoes tradition in some 45 works with straightforward titles like "Bird on Rock Beside Pine" or "Two Cranes and Plum Blossom." Generically, this kind of scroll painting has been around for centuries. Loose, stylized strokes start out as calligraphic poetry and turn effortlessly into drawing that is, at the same time, painting.
In the schizophrenic Occident, we've isolated all these elements in separate categories assigned to specialists. By comparison, most of what we do looks fragmented and scattered. We need to tear everything apart so we can put labels on the pieces.
Meantime, a guy like Cui Zifan goes on doing what the ancestors did and achieves, what? A moribund, exhausted academic version of a mined-out vision? Wrong wrong, wrong.
This art is surpassingly fresh, lyrical and amused. His animals are so animated they look like Western cartoon characters relieved of the mechanical deadness of their rendering. You can feel the fuzz on his ducklings, sense his roosters' arrogance, savor the pulpy leaves of his black lotus. So, it's really a kind of naive folk art?
No, this art seems to know all about the witty borrowings a French artist like Bonnard took from it at the turn of the century, and the spontaneous power it inspired in Abstract Expressionists of the '50s. So, it's really canny and sophisticated?
No, it's really an object lesson in the singularity of a quality the West has chopped in half and called opposites. Call it accuracy. When anything is done with aptness and precision, it seems both simple and complex because it's so elegant.
Cui Zifan is, at bottom, a master of the integrity of his culture and the authenticity of his person. The result of that ponderous formulation is a profound lightness of spirit that allows an old man to paint like a wise child.
* "A Selection of Paintings by Cui Zifan," Pacific Asia Museum, 46 N. Los Robles Ave., Pasadena; through March 31; closed Mondays and Tuesdays, (818) 449-2742.