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Tangka from Seeking Shambhala (Photo: MFA)

The MFA’s small show, Seeking Shambhala, is a quiet treasure chest opened up in a corner gallery of the Asian Wing. With a mythical utopian location at the heart of the exhibit, Shambhala (or as it is sometimes referenced in the West, Shangri-La) offers an open invitation to blend both the ancient and the contemporary. An exquisite collection of thangkas (gifted to the MFA in 1906) is combined with Buddhist objects as well as compelling works by two present-day artists, Gonkar Gyatso from Tibet and Tadanori Yokoo from Japan.

From Sebastian Smee‘s review in the Boston Globe:

Is it a real place? A mere state of mind? No one can say. It’s a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside I forget precisely what. The word derives from the Sanskrit, meaning “bliss arising,” or, less rousingly, “source of happiness…” Real or unreal, Shambhala has been described as a kingdom in Central Asia, obscured by a ring of snow-covered mountains and enveloped in fog, ruled by a succession of 32 kings…

The thangkas (there are nearly two dozen of them) are the beating heart of the exhibition; you could spend all your time with them alone. They’re magnificent—at once deliriously decorative, dauntingly potent, and laden with arcane symbolism…They make up one of the largest suites of paintings of the 32 kings of Shambala outside of Asia. And they have been lovingly restored for the occasion: Four MFA conservators…reportedly spent 4,000 hours on the job—removing them from old mounts, retouching faded areas, and adding silk borders, veils, and streamers.

The old is put in high contrast to the new. A series of silkscreens, called Shambala, were created by Yokoo in the 1970’s. They came into existence during a critical period in the artist’s spiritual journey when a monk came to him in a dream and spoke of the “King of Shambhala.” That mystical connection seems very fitting for the spirit of this show.

Gonkar Gyatso’s contemporary piece, “Shambhala in Modern Times,” offers another view from a different angle. His seated Buddha is haloed in the detritus of our noisy commercial world—throwaway images, logos, clippings, advertisements. From a distance it is a luminous and sacral portrait; it is only when you look closely that the nature of the elements making up the image are revealed.

The setting of this show is also in keeping with a spirit of the illusive and ethereal. Walking to the exhibit takes you through quiet galleries of ancient sculptures and meticulously detailed woodcuts. The show itself hangs in the foyer leading into the darkened space that is the Buddhist Temple Room, a space that holds its worthy silence with gravitas. Worthy of more visits, the show is up through September 30.

Gyatso’s Shambhala in Modern Times

Close up of Gyatso’s Shambhala

Another close up of Gyatso’s Shambhala

From Tadanori Yokoo’s series, Shambala

Sammy Tunis as Ada Lovelace in Futurity (Photo: Evgenia Eliseeva/Boston Globe)

In an interview with Tony Kushner that took place when his landmark play in two parts, Angels in America, had just opened in Los Angeles, he talked about the genesis of the idea for AA. It was the 1980s and he was living in New York City. The time and circumstances of his personal life had brought a specific set of themes to his attention, front and center: the AIDS epidemic and sexual identity, the role of his Jewish heritage and community, and the American religious phenomenon that is Mormonism. As unconnected as that list appears, he wanted to weave all of them together into a play that used those concepts to forge a much larger story. His success at achieving that has been well documented.

Assembling a cohesive and memorable work of art from a panoply of unexpected themes is ambitious and a bit daunting. It is easier to take one core idea and let it unfold. But when the assemblage approach comes together, the results can be unexpectedly fresh and surprisingly provocative. Futurity, a play with music (I can’t bring myself to call it a “musical”, a term I view as denigrating when applied to serious theater—that being my own prejudice, admittedly) currently being presented by American Rep in Cambridge, is an exploration into that theatrical genre of idea assemblage. Set at the time of the Civil War, the play interweaves narratives of science fact/science fiction imaginings, war, technological utopianism and American roots music. Factual and fictional characters come together and include Lord Byron‘s real life daughter Ada Lovelace, a brilliant young woman who worked with Charles Babbage in thinking through the genesis of computational technology. There is the overarching theme of building a computational prototype, a “steam brain,” that can couple human intelligence and technology to bring the end to war. Part H. G. Wells, part Civil War photographer Matthew Brady, part Red Badge of Courage and part adventuresome and slightly wacky indie-rock opera, Futurity has a lot to recommend it.

The creative team behind the production is César Alvarez and the The Lisps, a “band” by some accounts but more accurately self-described as a “public/performative version of all the relationships you are struggling with.” The members of that creative matrix are well suited at blending music with theatricity. While produced in collaboration with an impressive crew of theatrical talents—Molly Rice cowrote the book and award-winning Sarah Benson directed it—the production still feels like a work in progress however. But works in progress are OK too. The hope is they will continue in their process of being honed, polished and tightened.

A few words about the production from director Sarah Benson:

Futurity is about that power of the imagination to transcend our human frailties and limitations. If war is a failure of the imagination, Futurity asks us to challenge or assumptions and invest in the imagination, our “steam brain” enabling us to think beyond our own perspective and create new possible worlds.

Technology makes real these new worlds. It enables us to realize the imaginary, and as yet, what seems impossible.

And from co-writer Molly Rice:

What was most exciting was that the band was both outside and inside the story. They were never not a band, but never not the characters they played, either…And the mere fact that a band from Brooklyn sought to tell the tale of a “peace machine” made by a Civil War solider/inventor and an unsung Victorian lady scientist? Who also happens to be Lord Byron’s daughter? I wanted to work on that…

In part the piece is about the hidden similarities between seemingly different things, like science, art and war; math, mechancis, and music. And something about about the piece beckoned many disciplines to collide inside of it, from visual art to dance to sonic invention.

Futurity runs through April 15 at the Oberon Theater.

There are a few voices in my world who consistently ring true, like that neighbor who puts things back into perspective after a robbery down the street has everyone unduly fixated on urban crime.

Jerry Saltz is one of those guys in the art world, and I repeatedly find his “set it right” point of view a valuable balm applied to the latest hot spot.

Witness his response to the latest kerfuffle, the 60 Minutes defamation of the art world by Morley Safer as seen through art fairs, wealthy collectors and the circus that constellates wherever ego and money come together.

From Saltz’s response on Vulture:

Art is for anyone. It just isn’t for everyone. Still, over the past decade, its audience has hugely grown, and that’s irked those outside the art world, who get irritated at things like incomprehensibility or money. That’s when easy hit jobs on art’s bad values appear in mainstream media. A harmless garden-variety example aired tonight on CBS’s 60 Minutes (I didn’t know it was on anymore), as Morley Safer went into high snark. Never mind that he did virtually the same piece in 1993…

In tonight’s segment, Safer delivered cliché after cliché, starting with “the emperor’s new clothes…” He worried that the “gatekeepers of art” permit such bad work. He doesn’t know that there are no “gatekeepers” in the art world anymore, that it’s mainly a wonderful chaos…

Rather than really looking at art, he’s focused on the distraction, on celebrity, cash, and crassness.

Saltz moves beyond the repetitive and well worn issues raised by Safer’s piece and addresses the larger context. I like this framing of contemporary art:

Safer told Charlie Rose and Gayle King, “Even Jerry Saltz says 85 percent of the art we see is bad,” adding that he’d suggest that it’s 95 percent. Whatever. I wanted to tell him that the percent I suggested doesn’t only apply to the present. Eighty-five percent of the art made in the Renaissance wasn’t that good either. It’s just that we never see it: What is on view in museums has already been filtered for us. Safer doesn’t get that the thrill of contemporary art is that we’re all doing this filtering together, all the time, in public, everywhere. Moreover, his 85 percent is different from my 85 percent, which is different from yours, and so on down the line until you get to Glenn Beck, who says everything is Communist. No one knows how current art will shake out. This scares some people.

Roberta Smith‘s New York Times response to the Safer piece chimes in with another reminder of the larger view:

No one bothers to explain that even speculators and the superrich don’t stay interested too long unless they have some knowledge of and attraction to art, however you may disagree with their aesthetic choices or be put off by the outrageous prices they are willing to pay.

Have they ruined art? No, they’ve just created their own little art world that has less and less to do with a more real, less moneyed one where young dealers scrape by to show artists they believe in, most of whom are also scraping by. Mr. Safer should visit that one sometime, without the cameras, and try to see for himself, beyond the dollar signs. Either that or he should just come clean: He could not care less about the new or how it makes its way, or doesn’t, into the world and into history. That’s fine.

The obsessions of others are opaque to the unobsessed, and thus easy to mock. Nascar, jazz, baseball, roses, poetry, quilts, fishing. If we’re lucky, we all have at least one.

For those of us who are obsessed and proud to be, the energy just keeps returning to the essential: chop wood, carry water.

Greek Princess 8, 1976, Courtesy of Estate of Jules Olitski/Licensed by VAGA, New York, Photo by Lee Stalsworth

Revelation: Major Paintings by Jules Olitski, is currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. (The show originated at the Kemper Art Museum in Kansas City, travels next to Toledo before opening within reach of my viewing radius—at the Katzen Arts Center in Washington DC in mid-September.)

Some moments in the video below about Jules Olitski are worth calling out. Art historian Karen Wilken is clear and articulate in putting his large scale (“public scale”) works in perspective. There is also a heartwarming clip of Olitski himself speaking in Hartford. Frustrated by the search for meaning some viewers apply to abstraction, he dismisses that line of approach with an analogy to sex—when you are making love, who is asking what does that this mean? I was particularly caught by Olitski’s friend and sculptor Willard Boepple describing how his friend approached art making: How the desperation and the awfulness of a work of art in progress is essential because that desperation leads to discovery and that is where the adventure happens.

Another Olitski confrere reads this insightful quote by G. K. Chesterton word for word:

There is at the back of every artist’s mind something like a pattern and a type of architecture. The original quality in any man of imagination is imagery. It is a thing like the landscape of his dreams; the sort of world he would like to make or in which he would like to wander, the strange flora and fauna, his own secret planet, the sort of thing he likes to think about. This general atmosphere, and pattern or a structure of growth, governs all his creations, however varied.

I love that.

Some of Olitski’s work send me high, like Greek Princess 8 shown above. Others are not as redolent to my eye and spirit. But his descriptions of his approach, his concerns, his way of working—I feel a commonality with those concerns every day in my studio.

Lights at a roadside shrine

In his introduction to Tantra Song (written about previously here) Lawrence Rinder invites us into the world of Tantric images by describing how he feels when he is out in the countryside, looking at the trees and the stars:

I have little idea what I am looking at, even though I might be able to give it a name, or perhaps recall some principle of nature that has made it as it is. What I see is color, texture, shape. I see energy, evidence of change, and the transforming powers of life and death.

He goes on to draw an analogy to the experience of looking at mystical images such as those contained in Tantra Song:

Franck André Jamme’s collection of Tantric images affects me in a similar way. Just little scraps of paper really with barely a mark upon them. Simple. Anonymous. Repetitive. But utterly riveting. I can’t begin to say what these images are. I know virtually nothing about the tradition from which they spring…In these divine images, I find an echo of art.

It helps that I have a very broad definition of art…Maybe art isn’t quite the right word: let’s call them experiences that ground us in the real, images that cut to the quick of what we might be.

Rinder’s response to Franck André Jamme‘s collection of sacred Tantric images parallels my own response to those exquisite forms. It also played out for me again during my weeks visiting living Hindu temples in southern India.

Much has been written to denigrate the dark side of our Western proclivity to be idea tourists, shopping for concepts and tokens inappropriately stripped of their sacred cultural context. But there is a significant distinction between insensitive, sacreligious appropriation and the open mind/open heart position that Rinder describes. His words have helped me find a place of integrity to stand as I encountered these deeply moving rituals and celebrations. And even though I am not an expert on Hindu thought and will always be an observer looking in from the outside, I feel the connection to the “transforming powers of life and death” that are played out every day in these ancient shrines.

Inside the temple at Madurai

Chanting in the ancient temples of Hampi

Offerings of coconuts and flowers, ready for the pilgrims at Chamundi Hill in Mysore

Jain priest at the foot of the immense statue of Lord Gommateshwara

Hindu variation on milagros

Temple entrance, Madurai

Altar at Madurai

Nandi in the Shiva temple at Madurai

Generally inclusive, Hindus have their limits too

Puja procession at Madurai

Putting the gods to bed…Madurai

Temple elephant at Thanjavur: A coin offering gives you a gentle tap on the top of the head

Sacred lingam at Thanjavur

Brahmin family’s prostrate offering at Kanchipuram

Gods adorned, a sign of being cared for

Pilgrims in Chidambaram, a part of life

Wise men in the digital age

Ornamenting the tree

Offering to Nandi, in Kanchipuram

Reader at Sri Kanchi Kamakshi temple