Yow, does anybody need a little break from presidential egomania and threats of mass-produced death on a global scale? Had enough orange and yellow alerts to last you three lifetimes? Well, there are two intimate galleries at the University of Michigan Museum of Art that can reboot the international dial tone in your head and connect you to the universal nature of things. The shows in them — “Arts of Zen” (in the Japanese Gallery) and “Chinese Mortuary Art” (in the Chinese Gallery) — pack a subtly powerful impact into fairly small spaces. Rarely has an hour or two investment returned such enlightening dividends.
Organized by Maribeth Graybill, UMMA’s senior curator of Asian art, these installations draw primarily on the museum’s own holdings in presenting centuries-old objects and images that, whatever else they’re about, emphasize one of the Buddha’s prime teachings: “Everything changes.” That simple understanding resonates in Graybill’s overview of funerary artifacts produced in China during four millennia, from the modest clay pots of Neolithic Yangshao culture (2600-2300 B.C.), through the ostentatious burials of the Bronze Age and the longings for immortality of the Han period, all the way to the gorgeous ceramics of the Song period (10th-12th centuries). What these ancient epochs had in common was the Chinese attempt to provide the dead with nourishment and reminders of everyday life for their sojourn in the afterworld. During thousands of years, pots of grain, vessels of wine, incense burners, and renderings of human figures, buildings, animals, birds and clouds were buried along with loved ones in the belief that, since the dead never really stop affecting our lives, they need our care and attention.
Also included in the Chinese exhibit are stunning examples of Neolithic hardstone (often called jade) carvings of discs and other geometric forms, decorated with amazingly intricate details — along with later examples of bronze mirrors, which were thought to keep away evil spirits. The pervading sense of time passing in this show, eons upon eons of time, is a reminder that empires come and go, armies rise and fall, rulers may violate the mandate of heaven, but earth and the people endure.
“Arts of Zen,” on the other hand, is a brief but bracing look at the great variety of art produced by the Chinese and Japanese Zen imaginations. The sequence of 18 hanging scrolls begins with a portrait of Sakyamuni, the historical Buddha, by Hara Zaichû (1750-1837), a Japanese artist of the Edo period. Though Sakyamuni was Indian, the painter has given him Japanese features and depicts him as he descends, emaciated, from six years of difficult practice in the mountains. This recasting of traditional Buddhist figures in local ethnic terms continues in the painting Avalokitesvara with Sudhana, where the Indian deity and a student seeking instruction are both portrayed as everyday Chinese. The painter, Chen Xian, was a Chinese Zen monk of the mid-17th century whose work greatly influenced later Japanese artists.
Rather than limiting itself to a single-minded idea of “Zen spontaneity,” Graybill’s selection presents a wide variety of stylistic approaches that includes comical portraits of monks, misty landscapes, stark renderings of legendary patriarchs Bodhidharma and Linji, as well as a lovely display of ceramic tea bowls and a cast-iron kettle.
A common idea of Zen artfulness is that it centers on calligraphy, and this show has a standout example by Muan Xingtao (1611-1684) entitled Snow (pictured). Here spontaneity is the guiding principle, but the contrast between the single large character in block script and the set of smaller fluid characters is what gives this piece its appeal.
Then there are delightful depictions of Zen eccentrics, those crazy characters of antiquity who obeyed no rules but their own sense of the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings). Two portraits of Hotei (Pu-tai in Chinese) give us a look at the man whose body and actions inspired the many images and statues of “The Laughing Buddha” so prevalent in Chinese culture. Legend identifies him as an incarnation of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future: It was said that he could sleep in a snowfall and the flakes would not land on him. The portrait of him by Japanese painter Ogata Kôrin (1658-1716)(pictured) is a tender reminder of Zen’s goals of compassion, wisdom and mindfulness. Don’t we need a little of them now?
“Chinese Mortuary Art” (ongoing) and “Arts of Zen” (through June 15) are at the U-M Museum of Art (525 S. State St., Ann Arbor). “Arts of Zen” will change on April 14, with Snow coming down and Hotei’s portraits going up. Call 734-764-0395.
George Tysh is the arts editor of Metro Times. E-mail email@example.com