Globally, Los Angeles is a kind of cultural border town between East and West. No wonder, then, that an exhibition of Japanese painting seems so at home in the modest seaside Long Beach Museum of Art. The sensibility of the island nation has influenced L.A. art from its Craftsman architecture to its Assemblage and Light and Space art.
Titled "When Brightness Comes: Japanese Paintings From a Southern California Collection," it was organized by the museum and its guest curator, Scripps College art historian Bruce Coats. He deserves praise for conciseness and clarity in managing to convey about three centuries of development in just 30 scrolls, screens and other objects. There is unfortunately no catalog for the vest-pocket survey, but Coats' wall labels are particularly pithy.
Philosophically, the most striking quality of this and other Asian art is its self-effacement. Historically, Japanese artists have reflected the great value their culture puts on venerating the past and learning from established precedent.
Thus, religious paintings like those on view are mainly careful copies of old images believed to have sacred powers. For an artist engaged in such a holy task it would be heresy to insert marks of individuality. In more secularized art the masters and teachers of new artists are so respected that their works are copied sometimes right down to the signature. This has nothing to do with forgery, but sometimes makes scholarly authentication a nightmare.
The concept is particularly difficult in the ego-centered West, with its mania for novelty. One person who seems to get the idea is the owner of the collection who, museum director Harold Nelson said, loaned these treasures on condition of anonymity. That's rare and refreshing.
Chronologically, the show begins with images influenced by the introduction of Buddhism in the 6th century. Scrolls are subdued but sumptuous, mounted on rich fabrics. Tending to hierarchical symmetry derived from cosmic diagrams, they give faces to concepts. "Godaimyoo, the Five Wisdom Kings" depicts ferocious, armed protector figures who destroy objects of spiritual wisdom. "Amidha, Buddha of the Pure Land" shows a monumental deity whose gold halo emanates rays that have surprisingly modern optical effect.
Zen Buddhism emphasizes individual attainment of enlightenment and was the great symbolic touchstone for the American Beat generation in the '50s. Its art is loose, calligraphic and laced with joy. "Hotei, a Zen Eccentric" shows a legendary 10th century roly-poly beggar fishing in a little boat. He collected interesting treasures in his bag and played with children, talking to them only with giggles and cackles. A source of modern abstraction is seen in Gesso Inukai's Zen "Enso, Circle of Enlightenment."
By dramatic contrast to this religious art, images derived from nature and everyday life flourished starting in the 17th century. A particularly elegant example is "Standing Courtesan," which shows an aristocratic prostitute adjusting her hairpins. This kind of imagery led to the popular woodcuts of the 19th century that showed Tokyo's demimonde "floating world."
On its face it would seem to have little to do with wonderful imaginary views of nature like "Eight Views of the Xiao and Xiang Rivers" or the grandeur of a gold-ground screen depicting cherry blossoms. One crucial thing, however, unites it all.
Along with most other non-Western cultures, Japanese art respects nature by not really trying to compete with it. Such cultures make art though stylization, while the West has insisted on trying to imitate nature to the point of fooling the eye. The non-Western way has the curious advantage of offering an experience that is at once completely artificial and completely convincing.
* Long Beach Museum of Art, 2300 E. Ocean Blvd., through June 19, closed Mondays and Tuesdays, (310) 439-2119.