With objects ranging from a hulking bodhisattva, a flamboyantly painted box and a large collection of pottery, the Yale University Art Gallery is currently showing “Ancients and Moderns: Tradition and Transformation in the Arts of Asia,” an exhibit exploring trends in Asian art throughout the ages.
This show marks a significant departure from previous special exhibitions because it is well organized and shows a substantial body of works. It is, however, visually bland and dedicates such a high proportion of the show to comparing old and new pottery that, though the result is comprehensive and logical, it is also mundane.
Juxtaposing ancient pieces from, for example, the Northern Qi Dynasty in China (550-577) and contemporary art movements like the Heisei Period (1989- ) in Japan, the exhibit achieves success in its comparisons. Judging by the ambitious title of the show, one expects to find more variety in the works on display. Perhaps overzealous, the curator errs in selecting to fill two of the four rooms of the exhibit with glass cases exhibiting the evolution of Asian pottery.
There are the undecorated, blue-glazed “bulb bowls” called Jun Ware from the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1126) next to the “Vase with Birds and Willow” by Tamura Koichi from the Japanese Showa Period (1987) and additional blue vases from the Heisi Period.
After initially intriguing — but eventually exhausting — comparisons between the showiness of modern tea caddies and the conservative forms of ancient caddies, the visitor comes across the show’s most interesting, subtly underexposed pieces. Impossible to avoid, but not to be missed is a c. 550 Buddhist votive stele, which is an enormous sheet of grey limestone commissioned by scholars to stand in ancient temples. The accompanying text panel is clear, helpful, interesting and unfortunately, along with the Stele, it is positioned at the edge of the exhibit against its far left wall.
Also interesting and more prominently displayed is “Box in the Shape of an Object Wrapped with a Polka-dot Furoshiki.” Matsudo Yuriko’s (1943- ) piece dates from the late Showa period. It is appropriately displayed in a well-lit case in the center of the exhibit’s front room and also has a helpful descriptive panel.
The modern “View of the Distant Sea II” is placed at the far-end of the exhibit and serves as a nice break between pottery displays, but the absence of any substantial explanation of the piece might leave a visitor wondering why it is placed in the back and what its significance might be.
Perhaps the most interesting, but what seems to be the most random, piece in the exhibit is an enormous polychromed gilt wood statue from the Jin Dynasty (1115-1234). The “Bodhisattva Guanyin” is unlike any of the other works in the collection, but is nonetheless a strongpoint of the exhibit because it is remarkably well preserved and the only open-air piece.
The show looks at Asian art throughout the ages from a different perspective. Whereas most art exhibits focus on one specific artistic movement or time period, this show compares similar styles from different periods. If it were not so narrowly focused on pottery, with the inclusion of occasional other mediums, it could be more appealing to all visitors and more representative of the “Arts of Asia.”
Ancients and Moderns: Tradition and Transformation in the Arts of Asia
Yale University Art Gallery