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Entertainment & Arts

Review: No diamonds but plenty of gems in ‘Jeweled Isle,’ first big U.S. museum survey of Sri Lankan art

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Sri Lanka, “Buddha,” 18th century; wood with paint
(Museum Associates / LACMA)
Art Critic

“The Jeweled Isle: Art From Sri Lanka,” a modest exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, is a sometimes captivating, sometimes peculiar gathering of Hindu and especially Buddhist paintings and sculptures, historical documentary photographs of the currently troubled island off the southeast tip of India, plus assorted works of decorative art — carved boxes, chests and hair combs, jewelry, fans, ceremonial daggers and several beautifully painted if significantly damaged earthenware pots. A cheeky recent sculpture from Bay Area artist Lewis deSoto caps it all off, even if it seems a bit out of place.

According to press materials, this is the first comprehensive survey of Sri Lankan art organized by a museum in the United States, spanning the 3rd century BCE through the 19th century. A familiar museum rule of thumb for pitching an exhibition of art that isn’t widely known goes like this: If jewels are in the vicinity, sell the diamonds, not the art. Everybody knows diamonds.

“The Jeweled Isle: Art From Sri Lanka” doesn’t have any diamonds, but it does have rubies, sapphires and lots of lavishly cut quartz, plus other assorted precious and semi-precious stones. Twenty-one unmounted gems, most borrowed from the large collection at the Natural History Museum in Exposition Park, are displayed in a case right up front at the show’s entrance.

They’re very pretty, though not especially helpful in illuminating the assembled artworks. The show’s most important feature is the general context it provides, however fragmentary, for the Sri Lankan works in LACMA’s own collection, said to be the most expansive such holdings in an American museum. The catalog is limited to those 42 works, omitting another 200 or so exhibited items.

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The exhibition opens with a display of 21 precious and semi-precious gemstones.
(LACMA)
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Buddha Shakyamuni, 18th century, gilded copper alloy
(LACMA)

Among the most beautiful is an 18th century gilt-copper Buddha Shakyamuni from Kandy, a former independent monarchy that fitfully managed to stave off full colonial incursion into Sri Lanka by the Dutch and Portuguese for more than three centuries, until finally overwhelmed by the British Empire early in the 19th century. The general composition of the 16-inch sculpture is conventional — a meditating figure seated on a stylized lotus, legs crossed with soles up, hands held in the lap and a harp-shaped flame that signals enlightenment rising atop a protuberance on the head. While the elements might be predictable, the style is special.

The sculptural forms are sleek and simplified rather than naturalistic, the overall contour an array of stacked geometric shapes — an oval balanced atop a heptagon standing atop a triangle. Torso and limbs are compressed cylinders, and the flattened, upturned feet streamlined wedges. (No matter how experienced the meditator, ordinary human feet just cannot do that.) Simplicity and geometry pull together to embody a formal state of serene harmony.

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The artist, whose identity is not known, added an abstract surprise: The garment’s surface is enlivened by row upon row of wavy ridges, radiating like ripples from a pebble dropped into a pond. Buddha’s robe falls from his left shoulder, as convention dictates, but the drape is patterned in rhythmic folds.

The pattern glints in the light, while shallow depth emerges from linear shadows. Visual energy radiates from the meditating figure’s tranquil body. Buddhism’s moment of enlightened awakening is enacted through splendid sculptural means.

A similar design is found on another, somewhat smaller and more sober Buddha sculpture made about 200 years before, but its brass robe is painted a muted red. The gilded work adds drama. Gold is an agent of light with metaphoric implications. For a disciple the sculpture is an image of aspirational hope; for a skeptic, an enticement.

At LACMA, curators Robert L. Brown and Tushara Bindu Gude have set the magnificent gilded Buddha Shakyamuni before a handsome, painted wooden shrine of the kind in which a private owner might once have stored it. A bodhi tree, site of the historical Buddha’s awakening, is glimpsed on the back wall, but the lighting is such that much of the shrine’s interior decoration is obscured. Nearby, however, a curious group of painted wood panels lends some sense of Sri Lankan temple painting of the period.

The exact function is not known for these 14 panels, decorated with images of Indian gods and demons and mostly painted in opaque blue and red watercolors. The show’s slim catalog is a bit confusing in attributing them to the 17th or 18th century while also noting that they were probably produced during a resurgence of Buddhist faith, which flourished in resistance to the 19th century British occupation. Since they are painted on both sides, however, it is reasonably thought the 5-foot-tall panels might have been window shutters or doors at an unidentified temple.

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Panels painted with gods and demons were once part of an unidentified temple.
(LACMA)
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Lewis deSoto, "Paranirvana (Self-Portrait)," 2015, painted cloth and electric air fan
(LACMA)

The wonderfully painted figures imply volume in an unusual way. Although it takes a while to notice, the feet are seen in profile; most bodies are frontal, displayed dead-on; and, the heads are shown in three-quarter view. Depicted in two dimensions against flat fields of solid color — the visual equivalents of an otherworldly form and ethereal space — their bodies extravagantly twist.

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Nonetheless, these fantastic gods and demons don’t seem the least bit awkward. That’s because lavish serpentine elements and dazzling patterning create a dimensional bridge, propelling your eyeballs on a high-spirited, non-stop ride. Sakka, king of the gods; Ganesha, lord of obstacles; various planetary deities and the rest are simultaneously here and elsewhere, earthly and otherworldly — which seems just about right for such a subject.

In the final room, deSoto’s clever 2015 sculpture “Paranirvana (Self-Portrait)” stretches out on the floor opposite a similarly reclining 18th century Buddha that’s about 3 feet long. DeSoto’s, a 26-foot inflatable sculpture, is one of four versions the artist has made. This one is fabricated from black cloth, painted with the artist’s features and filled with air from a continuously running industrial fan.

The self-portrait takes one long, last breath through artificial means, preparing to shed its material body and achieve a final state of eternal bliss. A meditation on death, it also contemplates the temporal instability of art: The sardonic sculpture will exhale at the end of the day, when the art museum closes, the whirring fan is unplugged and the sculpture crumples.

Maybe tomorrow the art will fire up again, but maybe not. Paranirvana clearly isn’t for the faint of heart.

The work is based on a monumental 12th century example famously carved into a stone cliff in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka’s medieval capital. Yet, the contemporary sculpture’s inclusion in the show is a bit puzzling, since reclining Buddha statues, made over centuries, are found throughout Southeast Asia. Beyond general inspiration, it’s unclear what meaningful connection this new work has to the old.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

‘’The Jeweled Isle: Art From Sri Lanka’

Where: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

When: Open Thursdays-Tuesdays, plus this Wednesday and Jan. 2

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Admission: Free-$25

Information: (323) 857-6010, lacma.org

christopher.knight@latimes.com

@KnightLAT

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