AT THE GALLERIES:Experiencing the abstract in Eastern art

For the past 100 or so years, contemporary artists in the West have derived much of their vision of modern forms from the Eastern past.

It’s easy to see the irony in this, as well as the potential for exploitation. Taking the ancient compositions and lines from Japanese woodcuts, Van Gogh produced such exotic uses of color that his contemporaries questioned his sanity. The influence often goes unacknowledged.

It wasn’t “exotic” in Japan, where artists were craftsmen, and learned by apprenticing in collaborative workshops, passing down the same skills over many years and generations.

In the West, we value the new, the original, the never-before-done. In appropriating the East, you might say artists are really making something derivative look original by exploiting an ignorant audience.


So when Eastern art shows up in galleries direct from the source, it’s often misunderstood or dismissed. It’s hard. It’s deceptively simple. It’s learned and asks us to be knowledgeable and scholarly. In short, it’s demanding.

If you visit the newly-opened Rohrer Fine Art (346 No. Coast Highway), you’ll see this in action. The north side of the gallery is full of traditional sculpture, painting and textiles from the past; the south side is dedicated to the contemporary.

This will make you keenly aware that artists in the East were producing objects of exquisite beauty and intellectual complexity when the West’s idea of art was trying to make a sharp rock.

The reason I’m bringing this up isn’t to talk about antiquities. It’s to bring your attention to the scary perfection of the photographic work of Sieju Toda, and the long history behind Toda’s accomplishment. You have the rare opportunity to browse through the past of an artist right next to his present.


“Bath Room” (offset print, 40 x 57) is, simply, a photograph of carp in a wooden tub. But Toda constructed the hinoki cypress himself, and the square tub holds the living fish (a platinum koi, to be precise) with neatly mitered corners.

Given the level at which the large photographs are hung — low on the wall (as dictated by Toda himself) — the natural light of the photograph (which is clearly not digital: there’s grain here) and the plain frames, it’s possible to recreate the experience of seeing the moment from the photographer’s point of view.

Why is this important? Because such endeavors by artists reach beyond “serene” or “beautiful” (which, no mistake, they are) and attempt to create an experience.

I thought, strangely, of Mark Rothko, whose huge, perfect-color fields create near-religious experiences in viewers (myself included).

Toda has created a moment of enlightenment, of satori. There is non-thinking going on here: you are not to notice that this one picture must have taken a very long time to create, that the artist must have failed many times, that the natural setting is also paradoxically controlled by a human hand. You can be aware of this, but don’t think about it.

Instead, experience. The other works by Toda at the gallery have a similar effect.

“Bar” and “Stairs” follow the same proportions and lines, featuring captive-bred lionfish so carefully placed among the horizontal grains of wood that the composition becomes abstract.

Abstraction. This is what modernist painters fell in love with in Japanese art and what is so misunderstood.


To abstract is to reduce or even merely allude to the original object. But to subtract that — which is the Japanese concept — is to actively remove in order to get at the essential reality of the object.

So Toda’s work is in some ways a culmination of Zen (via Taoist) teachings. It’s an expression of unity, or maybe unities: the artist and the wood, the wood and the water, the water and the fish, the fish and the light, the light and the viewer, the viewer and the artist.

Other examples of this synchronicity can be found throughout the gallery, but the most impressive is the stunning collection of hanakago (flower baskets) and contemporary woven bamboo sculpture.

In particular, the organic forms of Nagakura Kenichi seem to echo the skillful complexity of Toda’s photographs in seemingly simple forms of fascinating texture and color. They, too, speak with respect for the past in a contemporary voice.

Visit the north end of the gallery and you will find a huge and ancient wooden image of Maitraya (74 inches tall). Maitraya is Buddhist bodhisattva, a being that will appear in the future to enlighten with perfect teachings. This Maitraya is crumbling where it sits, paint chips in its lap, splinters on its plinth.

Right next to it is a stunning piece by Honda Syoryu, a woven infinite loop, a Möbius strip, a metta prayer with no beginning or ending, but at the same time, open. It is ancient and utterly modern at the same time. Poised next to the Maitraya, it seems a manifestation of enlightenment, with the responsibility placed firmly on the viewer.

The exhibit runs through Jan. 27.

Don’t miss it.



  • BOBBIE ALLEN is a poet and writer who has taught art theory and criticism. She currently teaches writing at the University of California, Irvine. She can be contacted at