Contemplative Thinking on Visual Stimuli


The Zen goal is simple, if not easily reached: experiencing total unity between oneself and one's surroundings.

Zen masters try to get you there with gardens. Artist John McLaughlin, who studied Zen Buddhism, uses paint. Laguna Art Museum invites visitors to experience both with a Zen garden temporarily installed inside a gallery beneath its retrospective exhibit of McLaughlin's Buddhism-inspired, geometric abstractions.

"John McLaughlin: Western Modernism/Eastern Thought," with 50 works by a key figure in Southern California art history, opens July 20. "Zen Rock Garden," a serene composition of jagged rocks, pebbles, grass and moss taking up about 300 square feet, opens Friday. Seating is not provided, but visitors may view the contemplative Zen-scape as long as they like.

"The Zen garden's rocks and moss and sand are so [visually] simple that they don't lend themselves to an objective assessment," said Kigen Bill Ekeson, a Zen Buddhist monk who installed the garden. "There's not much room to say, 'oh this is beautiful, this is not beautiful.' "

McLaughlin's paintings, meanwhile, are devoid of virtuosic display, formal exercises or references to real-world objects in order to restrict attention to the work and the experience of viewing.

The artist, who lived and painted in Laguna Beach and Dana Point, "breaks down your normal Western perceptual apparatus to get you to see his paintings for what they are in your immediate space," said Laguna museum chief curator Bolton Colburn.

In both cases, the aim is an unfettered mental connection with the object--rather than viewing with a mind cluttered by critical evaluation or intellectual analysis--which results in object and viewer "dissolving into each other through the vehicle of sight," said Ekeson, who practices at the Mount Baldy Zen Center in the San Gabriel mountains.

"In Zen," he said, "we say we go wrong when we look at a pine tree or moss and all we see is an object with no connection to ourselves, rather than seeing those things as part of our consciousness" and experiencing unity with the cosmos.

"It has a meditative, metaphysical edge," Colburn said of McLaughlin's art. "It's tough work, but if you're able to stay with it and deal with it on its own terms--in the sense that it's not referring to anything or playing any visual tricks or game--then I think you'll appreciate it the way you don't appreciate a lot of geometric abstraction."

It was Colburn's idea to install a garden (designed by Zen Center Zen master Joshu Saski) in conjunction with work by McLaughlin (1898-1976).

The traveling retrospective is the first to explore the artist's place in American art and how the Japanese aesthetic influenced his work, according to the museum, which organized the show.

* What: "John McLaughlin: Western Modernism/Eastern Thought" and "Zen Rock Garden."

* When: The McLaughlin exhibit opens July 20; the garden is on view beginning Friday. Museum hours are 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday.

* Where: Laguna Art Museum, 308 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach.

* Whereabouts: Exit the San Diego (405) Freeway at Laguna Canyon Road; go south. Go right at Pacific Coast Highway to Cliff Drive, one block past Main Beach on the left.

* Wherewithal: $4-$5.

* Where to call: (714) 494-8971.

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