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ART REVIEW : Exploring Humanity in Indian, Tai Works

March 23, 1993|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

Art museums are often regarded as places of entertainment--pious entertainment but entertainment nonetheless. Serious study of the matter therein is seen as a peripheral pastime. It has been deleted from the curricula of most public schools and downgraded in colleges and universities. Recently the economy has dictated the erosion of museums--witness the County Museum of Art's cuts in staff, gallery hours and exhibitions.

The idiocy of such cultural policy may now be coming home to roost. This fragmented and fractious world admits a crucial need for understanding between the peoples of the planet. It also admits it doesn't quite know how to go about fostering and nurturing that understanding.

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Two relatively modest new exhibitions at LACMA make the point. "Textiles and the Tai Experience in Southeast Asia" includes a lot of pretty cloth, but it's about more than woof and warp.

"Pleasure Gardens of the Mind: Indian Paintings From the Jane Greenough Green Collection" consists of 61 small paintings that mark developmental points in art of the Indian subcontinent from the 16th to 19th centuries. It comes with a catalogue written in gracefully accessible style by Pratapaditya Pal, LACMA's senior curator of Indian and Southeast Asian art, and his associates Stephen Markel and Janet Leoshko.

Anything Indian borders on a long and complex history. This event, slightly over-simplified, reflects the taste of two ruling dynasties--the Muslim Mughals and the Hindu Rajputs. Both were enthusiastic patrons of agreeable and courtly arts that mirror their pleasures, fantasies and beliefs.

Luckily for viewers not in the mood for hard lessons, this show is arranged in thematic groups that dramatize, rather than chronicle, the Indian imagination.

Pictures are so small as to border on miniaturization. Their style is a melange of native, Persian and European influences. Their look is a paradoxical blend of worldliness and naivete that gives them the aura of an ultra-sophisticated rococo folk art.

Flattened surface patterning lends their narrative content fairy-tale dreaminess. Extremely sharp underlying draftsmanship and apt color testify to a profound level of expressive control.

Hindu patrons liked religious themes such as the lush "Krishna and Radha With Milkmaids." Its setting will remind Westerners of the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve translated into a courtly pair. The nice thing about this art is that its themes always dribble away from the esoteric toward the human. The most convincing sections are on Romance and Courtly Life.

They suggest that the celestial is never far from the temporal and that, combined, the outcome is poetry that speaks across cultures. "Sohni Swims to Meet Her Lover" predates the song about forging the deepest river and climbing the highest mountain but the effect is the same. "Jilted Heroine in the Moonlight" uses an astonishingly subtle combination of grayed greens and lavenders to convey a magical tryst gone awry.

The most spectacular of these pictures happen to roost in the section on life at court. A portrait of a courtier tells us there were artists at work with eyes as elegantly penetrating and discreet as those of Hans Holbein. An autumnal "Tiger Hunt" is more like the hunters' after-the-fact lyric account than the bloody reality.

If such groupings are revealing, the one called "Musical Modes" is absolutely telling. India has long pursued a tradition that was only taken up by the West in the 19th Century: the attempt to use the arts to evoke one another. Indian melodies--ragas--are supposed to personify themes that are then translated into poetry that attempts to both capture the spirit of the raga and call forth visual images. Then there developed a tradition of painting that aims to visually parallel the melodies. Some images such as "Vasant Ragini" are fairly literal scenes of dancers and musicians. Much more germane is an image such as "Asavari Ragini." It intends to call up a ragini (a six-part raga) about the spirit of a somber early morning and is personified as a woman sitting beneath a tree taming and teaching writhing serpents.

In viewing these marvelous paintings, you can sometimes hear as much as see them. It is easy to identify with an old art from far away that has already accomplished what we are all still trying to do--understand life and make ourselves whole.

Meanwhile, "Textiles and the Tai Experience in Southeast Asia" is about the way cloth is almost literally used to weave the social fabric in Thailand.

The word Tai , according to LACMA's ever-informative, didactic wall labels, identifies groups of people who speak that language and live mostly in Thailand and Laos, with others scattered about Burma and southern China.

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