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THE BEST OF TOMBS : From the Graves of Chinese Notables Come Ceramics Shaped by Centuries of Culture William Wilson is The Times' art critic.

October 18, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON | William Wilson is The Times' art critic.

MOST PEOPLE WITH an omnivorous appetite for art eventually arrive at the conclusion that Euro-American humankind forgot something about making art a couple of thousand years ago. Something important. We glimpse it only fitfully in the best Western art, but we see it all the time in African and Oceanic art. We envy it in the ferocious energy of the Americas before Columbus, and when it comes to Oriental art, we are ready to throw in the sponge at their combination of philosophical dignity and geometric balance. What Piero della Francesca did once, they did all the time, century in and century out.

This superiority is dramatized once again in "The Quest for Eternity," which opened Thursday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and remains on view through Jan. 3, 1988. The exhibition is a jewel in the crown of the museum, which organized it with Chinese officials after LACMA's senior curator of Far Eastern art, George Kuwayama, was inspired by an exhibition of Chinese ceramic sculptures. The museum gathered a selection of more than 155 works from 14 Chinese museums; they scan the culture from the Neolithic to the Ming dynasty, which ended in the 17th Century. There have been more spectacular shows, such as "Archeological Finds From the People's Republic of China" in 1974-75, and dozens of more probing connoisseurs' exercises, but memory does not supply a nicer general survey of Chinese ceramic art in a digestible dose.

What is liable to get folks flocking to the galleries is the news that the menu offers four members of the huge ceramic army of Qin Shihuang, the colossal and widely publicized archeological find at the emperor's tomb in Shaanxi Province where, in the 1970s, scholar-diggers unearthed thousands of life-size ceramic soldiers, horses, chariots and trappings that had stood patiently underground guarding Qin's spirit since 221 BC.

The quartet of two officers, a warrior and a perky little horse look as if they were molded on identical models and then individualized. The truth is, they are a trifle lumpy and probably look best as part of the great host of forerunners to George Segal's votive mannequins. They do, however, bear the same conceptual superiority as the more refined, small works that actually characterize the exhibition.

"The Quest for Eternity" is made up of figures and ceramic scenery buried with notables to serve them in the next world. If that sounds morbid, think of the alternative: Ceramic funerary figures were a humane invention that took the place of human sacrifices--or so some scholars believe. Maybe that is why the sensibility of the show is not grief but charm tempered by the nobility of artistic excellence.

From the very earliest Neolithic human-headed pot we are disarmed by the the straightforwardness of this art. It accounts for itself with the transparent clarity of a child telling of his day. Four Han soldiers reveal themselves as simple dog faces. It is their remarkable sloe-eyed, big-chested horses that have the macho. A keen metaphor for wars in which men become the vassals of their weapons.

The secret ingredient of this excellence is easier described than duplicated. This art doesn't distinguish between what we call abstraction and realism. Here a figure, a ball-shaped head on a conical body, was modified just enough to tell you that it is a particular person or type. That simplicity makes for great clarity of expression even when depicting something complicated.

The Chinese admired the expressiveness of animal bodies the way the Greeks admired the nude. The famous Tang horses are so powerful because they are reduced to seven limpid volumes that are never gummed up by detail. Character is conveyed by orchestrations of shape. A Bactrian camel is as temperamental as a great courtesan; a courtesan is as gentle as a perfumed pink spring breeze. It is all in her big round cheeks and his crazy, snaggletoothed mouth.

Visual honesty lets this art present the ordinary and the sublime on the same plane so that life becomes a rich mixture of humorous commonplaces and lush fantasies that are equally believable. In Western art you have to search out a Peter Paul Rubens to come up to that mark. The Han dynasty section includes ceramic house models that are both a factual report of what architecture looked like and an endearing lyric on what the comforts of home and protection have always meant to the tired worker in all of us. If a Sui dynasty tomb guardian walked in there with his human head, dog's body and flaming dragon wings, nobody would laugh at this ridiculous get-up because the chimera would be as much a part of this reality as the ducks on the roof.

As you move through the show you can feel history modeling this clay into sensibilities that change from the archaic shyness of prehistory to the bellicose realism of the Qin dynasty and the adolescent assurance and dexterity of the Han. A sad, eroded awkwardness comes over the Wei period, as if the struggle for civilization is about to crumble into primitive chaos, but the Tang pulls it out into a magisterial baroque and the Ming ends with a musician as wistful as a Watteau lute player.

It's a very human art, but it is so in touch with the universal trade winds that maybe it should be called "Eternity Found."

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