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Buddhist bounty

A contemplative season brings collections of ritual objects and images of enlightenment.

October 05, 2003|Suzanne Muchnic | Times Staff Writer

Art stardom wasn't what the founder of Buddhism had in mind 2,500 years ago when he left his family, gave up his worldly riches and set off on a quest for spiritual enlightenment. But that's exactly what he has achieved this fall in California art museums. Ten Buddhist art shows are already on view or opening soon and more are on the way, along with related programs.

Like Buddhism itself, the exhibitions cover a lot of history and geography. They also take different tacks. "Tibet: Treasures From the Roof of the World," opening next Sunday at the Bowers Museum of Cultural Art in Santa Ana, is a blockbuster-style spectacle of 200 objects made for Dalai Lamas, on loan from major museums in Lhasa. In sharp contrast, "From the Verandah: Art, Buddhism, Presence," to be unveiled today at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, is a contemplative environment that encourages visitors to slow down and savor two artworks, a marble sculpture by Wolfgang Laib and a field of cracked clay by Hirokazu Kosaka.

Between those extremes, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art offers 160 pieces of Buddhist meditational art in its big fall show, "The Circle of Bliss," also opening today. The Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is gearing up for the Oct. 18 opening of a landmark 110-work exhibition of historic Korean art, including many Buddhist pieces.

The Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena and two Claremont colleges, Scripps and Pomona, also have Buddhist art on view, in special exhibitions drawn from their collections. Yet another show, "The Art of Rice: Spirit and Sustenance in Asia," appearing in tandem with "Verandah" at the Fowler, also has a Buddhist component.

This lineup might sound like an intricately organized Buddhist bonanza, but that isn't exactly the case. "Verandah," several performances and educational programs grew out of "Awake: Art, Buddhism and the Dimensions of Consciousness," a consortium of arts professionals who recently investigated the relationship between Buddhism and the arts in America. But most of the exhibitions developed independently.

"It's a happy confluence of events," says Marla C. Berns, director of the Fowler. And it seems to reflect a growing, nationwide interest in all things Buddhist, from yoga and meditation to artistic depictions of Buddha. "Awake" is the West Coast counterpart of "The Buddhism Project" in the New York area. "Himalayas: An Aesthetic Adventure," a major traveling exhibition of Buddhist and Hindu artworks that debuted at the Art Institute of Chicago this year, opens Oct. 18 at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C.

"For a long time, art people thought Buddhism was just a fad, a New Age thing," says Jacqueline Bass, who became program director of "Awake" after retiring as director of the UC Berkeley Art Museum. "But partly because of interest in the Dalai Lama, they now see that Buddhism is here to stay as a part of American culture."

An attractive flexibility

Buddhism appeals to many Americans because "it is not a theistic religion," Bass says. "The Buddha was just a person who sat and focused on problems for seven years and figured a few things out. It's a very pragmatic religion or philosophy or psychology -- however you want to think about it. Also, it's very malleable; it takes on different forms wherever it goes. Here in the United States, it has tended to hook up with psychology and artistic practice, and it is clearly continuing to develop in ways that meet the needs of American culture."

Himalayan Buddhism is particularly popular in the U.S., and Stephen Markel, head of LACMA's department of South and Southeast Asian Art, thinks he knows why. Earlier forms of Buddhism "postulate that one needs to go through many lifetimes to achieve enlightenment," he says. "In Himalayan Buddhism, you can do it in one lifetime. We live in a fast-food, fast-lane culture, so that's very appealing."

If he's right, the two largest Southern California exhibitions -- both of which deal with Himalayan art -- should find an appreciative audience.

"Tibet," at the Bowers, is drawn from collections housed at the Potala Palace and the Norbu Lingka, the historical winter and summer palaces of the Dalai Lamas, and at the more recently established Tibet Museum. About half of the pieces left Tibet for the first time in 2001, for an exhibition in Shanghai, but all are making their first trip to the U.S., says Bowers director Peter C. Keller.

"We have a very distinct story to tell about the history, art, religion and ritual objects of Tibet and the daily life of the Tibetan nobility," Keller says. He chose the objects with Terese Tse Bartholomew, curator of Himalayan art at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the final venue for the nationally traveling exhibition in summer 2005.

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