Of all the marvelous Chinese Paintings from Japanese Collections currently visiting LACMA, courtesy of curator Stephen Little, three ink works from perhaps the 13th century not only caught my attention, they rewarded revisits and made me think I could look at them for days on end. That, I suppose, is one goal of a Zen painting – seemingly simple yet infinitely deep.
First in show was “Sparrows on Bamboo in the Rain,” two tsutsume snuggling on a lone branch, with a cluster of leaves below. Little made a point of how accomplished this painting was, despite its apparent simplicity. Nothing other than the subject, however, looked all that simple. The twig the birds rest on is a single stroke of delicacy. The bamboo leaves are a jumble of different shades of black, perfectly balancing the intensity of the birds. They are the focal point, placed exactly in the center, with almost nothing above. The lower sparrow is asleep, eyes shut. Her mate has his head turned down. His eye is open and has a dark eye-ring that extends backward – is he looking at us? As in all three of these works, it is the several intense patches of darkest black ink that stand out and provide personality: here it is the beak, the eye-ring and the chin patch. Could these two birds be yin and yang, forming a complete circle?
The poster work for the show is the simplest: a profile view of “The Poet Li Bai Chanting a Poem On a Stroll.” The body is four quick lines that could as easily represent a squash. But magic is made by dark black strokes, again, that show the poet’s feet peeking from under the robe. Balancing the feet, at the apex of a triangle, is the poet’s topknot, even darker and richer than his hair. The last black spot, a small round dot, is the poet’s eye, looking out of the picture into the sky. Every stroke of the brush commands attention, from the soft broad wash of the robe to the fine lines of the anatomical ear.
Far more complex than either of these is the pair of “Patriarchs Harmonizing Their Minds,” – i.e., sleeping. The richer and more complex of the two, if only because it also contains a tiger, is the portrait of the priest Fenggan. Here the blackest black is liberally used to outline the slouching priest’s robe. These lines are wild and crazy, but the composition is calm (calmer than its mate). I think Stephen Little said something about Abstract Expressionism, and looking at the lines alone one could easily see Franz Kline or Clyfford Still. As perfect as the man is – the dark black slashes transform an even wash into a recognizable body – the real marvel is the tiger, expertly foreshortened, with regular stripes and scratchy fur that contrast in every way with the figure resting on him. The face is more a tabby than a tiger – these artists had limited experience with the real animal – but its closed eyelids carry over the contented harmony of his master. There is a circle of white – blank paper – around the tiger’s entire head that separates it from the tiger’s body and foot, providing both depth and a kind of focusing halo. As we saw with the sparrows, the tiger’s nose is in the exact middle of the sheet.
Three simple subjects, drawn in ink on blank sheets of paper, yet so much to contemplate.