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Beastly Beatitudes

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Before TV and computers, we had animals. Domestic beasts aside, animals represented the world beyond the village gate; horses and camels plied the trade routes connecting Europe to Asia, while migrating birds dotted the skies like omens from elsewhere. All played a role in the real world as well as in the imagination, and wherever there were animals, artists were sure to follow.

The artists of the past provided our only record of extinct species, but creatures like the phoenix and the dragon existed only in mythology. Or did they? Isn't it odd that dragons turn up almost everywhere and look much the same in pictures and legends all over the world? If they never existed, why did so many people see them? It is one of those imponderables, but the Japanese had an answer: Dragons came from China. There they lived in the wild, inhospitable regions the land, air and sea as well as in the imagination. Mythic yet real, they were dealt with as such by the artists in the From Myth to Reality: Animals in Japanese Edo-Period Painting exhibition at NOMA.

The Edo period spanned hundreds of years before Japan opened up to the West, yet Western influences appeared, nonetheless. Even in the 16th century, as we see in Kumashiro Yuhi's Old Tree and Bird, a painted fan exhibited like a hanging scroll. Here the old tree is a typical, delicate Japanese ink drawing, but the bird, an elaborately rendered woodpecker, is almost European in its precise attention to detail. In fact, Yuhi's Woodpecker has an oddly Dutch baroque quality about it. How could this be?

There is a non-mythic explanation. Just offshore from the old port of Nagasaki is an island where only officially tolerated foreign vessels were allowed to dock. The ships were Chinese and Dutch (Japan's only trading partners) and Yuhi was a resident of that island. His art teacher was Chinese, but the Dutch influence is clear in Woodpecker. Even so, tigers and dragons were a common presence in Edo era works, evidence of pervasive Chinese influence.

In fact, tigers really did exist in the wilds of China, where, as in the West, they were icons of fierceness and valor. Yet, in Japan as in other places where jungle cats were not native species -- medieval Britain for instance -- tigers sometimes displayed almost human features. In an 18th century hanging scroll by Kishi Ganku, a tiger displays the staring eyes and fierce demeanor of Bodhidharma, the legendary Buddhist sage. Dragons, by contrast, were elemental beasts who lived in the depths of the sea and ascended to the clouds, shedding the rain that watered the crops. Dragons were inscrutable but wise. (But only in the East; in the West they were a nuisance, an obstacle to commerce.)

A later dragon ink painting on a paper screen by Buntoku Cho'o Koji depicts the elusive mega-reptile surfing the vaporous updrafts on its way to some dragon Valhalla in the sky. Across the panel, a pair of tigers practice fierceness in a bamboo grove. Dragons and tigers were opposite sides of the same mythic coin; taken together they epitomized the ethereal yin and earthly yang of Japanese life.

More beasts appear in the large, convoluted collages of James Barsness at Arthur Roger. Here, too, an Asian aura abounds, with elephant headed beings and Hindu and Persian filigree, yet cartoon characters and superheroes, as we see in King of Categories, lend this stuff a pop flair as well. All of the above, taken together, evoke a modern-day Hieronymous Bosch environment that melds the commonplace with the improbable in a familiar yet alien landscape.

Sometimes the ideas are simple, yet Barsness takes them to wild extremes, as we see in Family Tree. Nothing to it really, just little round photos of heads dangling from branches and roots like ornaments on a Christmas tree. Of course, it's not that simple: the branches and roots coil like medusa tresses in relentlessly twisted patterns, so the whole thing is a many-tentacled monster, a beast that would have done Bosch proud. In Big Chicadee, Persian textile patterning is festooned with the heads of leering demons and frat-looking guys as a tangle of foetal quintuplets writhes inside a pentagram at the center of the ornamental maze. Here as elsewhere, men double as beasts and the beasts are all omens, projections of the wayward human impulses that define this world of folly, the push and shove, the hate and love, all rolled up into an elaborate tapestry -- a two-dimensional hall of mirrors reflecting the many facets of the wayward world around us.

James Barsness' works feature convoluted collages of beasts, cartoon characters and superheroes as evidenced by his King of Categories.
  • James Barsness' works feature convoluted collages of beasts, cartoon characters and superheroes as evidenced by his King of Categories.

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