Tradition Transformed: Crow Collection

“Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond” can be seen now through September 11 at the Trammel and Margaret Crow Collection of Asian Art in Dallas.  The exhibit was organized by the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City.

I don’t know if I enjoy Asian art so much because of the Crow Collection or if I like visiting the Crow Collection so much because I enjoy Asian art:  the two are inseparably intermingled in my mind.  The Crow continues to bring spectacular exhibits to Dallas.  Why, just in the past year there has been “New Vision: Ballpoint Drawings by Il Lee,” “Black Current: Mexican Responses to Japanese Art, 17th -19th Centuries,” “Tibet: The Land Closest to the Sky, Photography by Marc Riboud,” and “Soaring Voices: Recent Ceramics by Women from Japan,” among others.

Losang Gyatso (1953 - )
Clear Light Tara, 2009
Limited edition photographic print on paper
36 x 30 in.
Collection of the artist

The Crow seems to do more with less gallery space than many museums, they are open visitor-accommodating hours, admission is free (so truly art for the public), their staff is friendly and knowledgeable, and they have really great, appropriate, and enhancing programming to add to the Asian Art experience – thinking of the Chinese New Year celebration and regular yoga classes among others.

Now before we get started, I will admit a certain unrequited fascination with Tibet.  Closed societies interest me in general, the Dalai Lama interests me, and take one look at photographs from Lhasa and elsewhere in Tibet and, well – you’ve just got a great story with a whole lot of mystic.

This show, “Tradition Transformed: Tibetan Artists Respond,” is another in a line of really fine exhibits hosted by the Collection.  There are eighteen pieces (by eight artists) here but the richness and depth of them will cause you to look and read and look again.  The show is not “over-curated” in the sense that the stop cards are informational without being pedantic and the show introduction painted on the wall gives you just enough information to get really really interested.  This is a show that hooks you – be forewarned.

First a bit of background information.  As you might expect, the tradition of artists in Tibet is a family tradition, handed down from generation to generation in a “master – apprentice” sort of system.  The work of an artist even includes creating the traditional stone ground mineral pigments used.  In addition, traditional Tibetan art is exclusively sacred work – in fact, the show information points out that the Tibetan word “art” literally translates “rendering deities into physical form.”  Some further reading after viewing the show taught me that the artist is seen as an intermediary in a way – that person on earth who can portray the deity and give it dimension and “life” so others can be edified.  The profession is a calling.  Individuality or personality in art is not a part of the tradition.

As you certainly know, since 1950 a Communist government, the Peoples Republic of China, has governed Tibet.  The 14th Dalai Lama (who was just at SMU getting an honorary degree) has been the head of state for the Tibetan government-in-exile since 1959 after attempting for several years in the 50s to come to an acceptable governing agreement with the PRC.  The Dalai Lama is as well, of course, a well-known Buddhist spiritual leader and Nobel Laureate.

Notably, all eight of the artists who contributed to this exhibition are born after 1950 – most of them are under 40 years old. They are the first generation of Tibetan artists to lend a personal voice to their work rather than simply create the sort of expected traditional Buddhist iconography of the artists of previous generations.  As such their work displays a sort of internal conflict – bringing a personal voice, but holding dearly onto the past either out of respect, out of fear that it will be lost, out of a personal journey to find their roots – or some combination of all three of these. This makes for a wonderful emotional tug-of-war in many of these pieces: a desire to create contemporary art in a society that clings righteously to its past.

The Crow again utilizes every inch of the downstairs galleries to house this exhibit – including placing the first piece – a real attention-getter – in the hallway outside the main gallery room.  This piece is a series of 18 identical sixteen inch Buddha sculptures mounted so that it appears their heads have disappeared into the wall.  All we see are the backs of these figures.  Do What You Love is by Gonkar Gyatso.

Gyatso has other work in the show.  One I like is LA Confidential (2007). This piece uses children’s stickers to fill in an outline of a huge Buddha head.  The negative space shows the pencil proportion grid for the ideal Buddha proportions and then various applied stickers in a transportation theme – a row of cars, trucks, busses, and so on at the bottom and randomly placed rockets and airplanes around the Buddha head itself.  It’s gaudy and shiny and interesting all rolled into one.  Disneyland visits the sacred temple.

The only woman artist in the show is the lyrical storyteller Dedron.  She is in her mid-thirties and grew up, graduated from university, and still works in Lhasa – and is one of the few Tibetan artists of her generation who wasn’t originally trained in the traditional sacred art.  She’s exhibited many times in China, the UK, Nepal, Singapore, and Tibet.

Grandparents – Son (2010) is a large (long) painting depicting portraits of four generations of Dedron’s family from her grandparents at the bottom to her unborn child at the top.  The painting is less than three feet wide, but almost eight feet long.  Dedron paints with the traditional opaque mineral pigments on what appears to be raw canvas displayed under glass.  Her style is very stylized – portraits have huge eyes, for example, and yet don’t appear overly cutesy or kewpie-like.  Every inch of the positive space in the work is filled in with beautiful scrollwork and decoration that reminds me of Peter Max’s style in the late 60s – except with a decidedly eastern flair.


Dedron (1976 - )
We Are the Nearest to the Sun, 2009
Mineral pigments on canvas
65.5 x 33 in.
Collection of Shelley and Donald Rubin

We Are the Nearest to the Sun (2009) is Dedron’s other piece in the show.  It, too, is large – 33 X 60 inches.  It depicts layers of the city of Lhasa painted using that so-called primitive style of perspective – with a temple in the center.  The gorgeous flat autumnal colors dominate the lower two-thirds of the canvas with scenes of Tibetans going about their daily business.  The way Dedron portrays her neighbors is in profile with one huge eye in a pictograph style that reminds me of certain Aztec or Mayan figurative art.  There is a lot to see in this one – it’s incredibly finely painted with stunning technique.

Sherpa, a Nepalese artist born in Kathmandu, studied traditional Tibetan art methods with his father as well as computer science and Mandarin Chinese in Taiwan.  He now lives in the United States and considers the relationship between tradition and the modern world in his painting.  All three of his pieces in the show are really captivating and technically beautifully rendered.


Tsherin Sherpa (1968 - )
Preservation Project #1, 2009
Gouache, acrylic, and gold on paper
43 x 34 in.
Collection of Shelley and Donald Rubin

In this one, Preservation Project #1 (2009), we see a jar preserving a shadowy Buddha head and dismembered Buddha arms still in their lyrical poses.  The jar is labeled 1959 and several flies surround and land on the jar.  In another, Butterfly Effect – The Chaos Theory (2008), Sherpa depicts a blue devil-figure with a vulture on his shoulder, surrounded by flames.  He’s painted a corporate organizational chart on the devil’s body.  And surrounding this figure, in miniature, are butterflies and the backs of three men covered with wind symbols.  The butterfly effect - the chaos theory that a small action (like the beating of a butterfly’s wings) will produce a large system effect (like a hurricane) are mathematics / physics theories that I vaguely remember from university.  The traditional figures and style of his work in combination with this title and subject are undeniably interesting.

Finally, Wangdu, who lives in Lhasa and was born there, but also studied in Beijing, has painted three really captivating figurative pieces for the show.  Two of them depict a pair of the so-called five mental poisons that in Buddhism prevent you from attaining enlightenment.  The five are often translated as desire, aggression, ignorance, jealousy, and pride.  In the show, we’re treated to The Five Poisons #4, Jealousy (2005) and The Five Poisons #1, Desire (2005).

This series of figurative paintings are particularly strong.  They depict sensual nude figures – a man and woman in Desire and just a man in Jealousy.  The figures’ nakedness is somewhat covered by hovering scrolling clouds.  The figures are contorted to fit in canvases that are too small for them by wrapping themselves around the edges.  The men are clearly men, but they are also sensual and curvy in their nakedness.  Painted on a simple one-color scrollwork background, the pictures could be beautiful but for the leering and demented looks in the subject’s eyes.  It’s clear that they have succumbed to the poison they depict and are not enjoying enlightenment.

I haven’t even mentioned the mirrored mandala with illustrations from the Kama Sutra, the beer cans with images punched in the bottoms that you view like a kaleidoscope, the self-portrait photographs of the artist in four important Tibetan decades, or the monk mooning the viewer.  For that and more, visit the show.  You’ll come away with a new genre of emerging artists to follow and enjoy.