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The American “Zen”-influenced artist John Cage apparently is said to have once commented that all of the stones at Ryôan-ji’s rock garden were in just the right place. And that any other arrangement would also be just the right place.1 Normally I’m not a big fan of American New Age misconceptions of Zen, and the art and philosophy influenced by them, but here Cage actually summarizes very beautifully something I’ve been thinking a bit about. We look at artworks and talk about them as if every single aspect of them is perfectly arranged, perfectly intentional. Sure, as art teachers or art critics we may consider some works more successful than others, more technically proficient, or more aesthetically moving or powerful. But when it comes to those works already judged by history, by scholars, by curators, by general consensus, to be “masterpieces,” we talk about them as if they have no failings, as if every aspect of them is perfectly just as it should be. Consider the works of Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Jackson Pollock, Ni Zan, and how they are typically discussed. Every brushstroke in precisely just the right place. Yet, if it were different, would we talk about that version of it too as being just precisely as it should be?

(1) Stokstad, Marilyn and Michael Cothren. Art History. Fourth Edition. Pearson Prentice Hall, 2011. p816.

Photo of the rock garden at Ryôan-ji taken myself, 18 July 2010.

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After much anticipation, I finally got the opportunity to see “The Sound of One Hand,” an amazing exhibition of Zen paintings and calligraphy by Hakuin Ekaku, at Japan Society in New York. I regret taking so long to compose this post – I had not realized the exhibit was closing quite so soon. Still, if you are reading this, and are interested, and happen to be in the right part of the country, “The Sound of One Hand” will be showing at the New Orleans Museum of Art Feb 12 – April 17, and at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art May 22 – Aug 17.

Hakuin (1685-1768) is widely regarded as one of the top masters of Zen painting and calligraphy. His works, most of them in monochrome ink on silk or paper, can look kind of crude, and can be quite difficult to appreciate. They are certainly not masterful works in terms of their realism, and while I myself am thoroughly impressed and awed by his individual brushstrokes here and there, overall these are not “stunning” compositions by any means. A traditional critic, someone speaking from the point of view of traditional Chinese/Japanese attitudes towards art, would most likely praise his work for its naivete, for its awkwardness while maintaining perfect balance, or any number of comments such as this. In traditional Chinese & Japanese ink painting and calligraphy, it was the pure spirit, personality and energy of the artist, conveyed directly onto the page that was valued over works that revealed expert training and skill. The use the terms amateur and naive a lot, preferencing this over the professional and expert, though of course most of the most celebrated “amateur” painters in Chinese & Japanese history were exceptionally skilled.

But, returning to the point, I am not a traditional Chinese critic, and I can only appreciate them as myself. What impresses and amazes me about Hakuin’s works is the way they work with themes, metaphors, and symbols, each work the visual equivalent of a sermon, or of other wise words from the Zen master. It is for this reason that I applaud the effort taken by the organizers of the exhibit to include translations of the inscriptions on each painting, as well as transcriptions (in romaji), on the gallery labels, alongside further explanation of the meanings and stories involved. There are certainly those who can appreciate the construction of his characters and the balance of his brushstrokes on a deep level, and perhaps one day I will revel in doing the same, but for now, for me, an understanding of the stories, metaphors, poetry, and symbols involved in Hakuin’s depictions are the keys to my enjoyment of them.

I am sorry to say that the works, visually, do not really do much for me – I don’t spot one from across the room and gasp in awe, nor do I stand before one for long minutes contemplating it, taking it in, and gaining some kind of profoundly relaxing or pleasurable spiritual or aesthetic benefit from it. But even so, the very idea of having so many extremely famous and old works here, right in front of me, gathered in this room, is really incredible. I hope that that feeling never gets old for me.

The show, though limited by Japan Society’s space, represents a wide swath of Hakuin’s career and ouevre, including quite a number of his most famous works. And while I don’t have the catalog in front of me right now to check who/where the lenders of these works are, one cannot help but be struck by the feeling, the knowledge, that if any of these works are coming from museums in Japan, that it is really quite an accomplishment, quite a rare and precious opportunity, to get to see these works in the US.

Though they are behind glass – and though as an avid museum visitor I have had this experience many times before – I am still struck by the idea of being in the direct presence of such works. And the silk mountings (not that I really know much about mountings) are gorgeous, their deep blues and bright golds offsetting the monochrome of the works themselves beautifully.

His range is fairly incredible as well. Some works, such as a depiction of Monju, are quite detailed, complex, and expertly executed, with subtle and delicate use of ink wash. Other works, meanwhile, those for which he is more famous, are much more basic and amateurish in their broad strokes, outlining figures with a minimum of detail, but still with an amazing degree of power.

Though his figures can sometimes seem extremely simple, their eyes no more than a black dot between two curves (・) they can seem, if not necessarily “lifelike,” certainly powerful and piercing.

Hakuin’s brushwork alone can certainly be captivating for those so inclined, but it is the religious meaning and religious practice underlying, or connected into, his works that really bring them to life for me. On the far wall of the first room, a series of paintings of inka dragon staffs hung next to one another. Though some are more elaborate than others, some more closely resembling dragons and some quite intriguing in the way the fly-whisk is depicted wrapping around the staff, each painting of a staff is at its core a single vertical brushstroke, made with what I can only assume must have been a fairly large brush, soaked with dark ink, creating a very dark, very thick line. Intriguing and compelling simply on the merits of the brushwork and other aesthetic elements, these works are only enhanced by their calligraphic inscriptions. Each is dated and inscribed for the time when a disciple or follower “heard the sound of one hand.”

Another work which I quite liked was one depicting just the shoe of Bodhidharma – founder of Zen – atop a reed floating on the Yangtze. “Even this is the Reed Daruma,” the inscription tells us. It is these works which, for me, are the most meaningful and enjoyable of Hakuin’s works. Sure, it’s aesthetically interesting, and skillfully done. But it also has a deeper meaning, making the viewer contemplate Buddhist concepts and deeper meanings. The image of Bodhidharma crossing the Yangtze floating atop a reed is an oft-seen one (and an oft-heard story) in Zen Buddhism, and has certain deeper meanings or profound lessons that it relates. But here, Hakuin points out that even this abbreviated version, alluding to the whole image, which in turn alludes to the whole story, which in turn alludes to the deeper meanings or lessons, serves the purpose just as well. How much can you take away before it stops being the Reed Daruma? What is the most minimal way one can express the same idea? Do we even need images or words at all, or is it the idea behind the images and words that is of importance? I don’t presume to understand Zen except on the most superficial level, but I can appreciate that there is something here that is really meant to get the viewer thinking.

His “Blind Men Crossing a Bridge” is a particularly wonderful piece, the allusion being to us all, any of us, “blind” in trying to feel our way along the path to Enlightenment. Hakuin painted several versions of this composition, and in at least one of them, the bridge does not actually extend all the way across the chasm – but, of course, the blind men, making their way with their canes, or their hands to the ground, do not yet know that as they slowly make their way along the bridge. If you know how to look at them, how to interpret them (and I’ll be honest, more often than not, I needed the gallery labels to explain it to me), many of Hakuin’s works contain these kinds of very clever allegories for the struggle for enlightenment.

And returning to the matter of brushwork, the blind men are striking indeed. So simply described, and yet, so lively. This, surely, must be what is meant when traditional Chinese painting critics speak of “spirit resonance.” The depiction is hardly realistic, at all, and yet it exudes the spiritual feeling, the energy, of being the real thing (or, of being beyond the real thing – the blind men as mythical, metaphorical, symbolic entities). Each has only a thick brushstroke or two for a body, thin spindly limbs, and a black circle for a head. The brushstrokes are perfectly obvious – there is no effort at illusionistic reality here – but the men they describe still seem wonderfully lively, their emotions conveyed quite clearly and truly.

Such an exhibit serves, too, as an education in Buddhist figures, other symbols such as the dragon staff, and Zen thought in general. I don’t specialize in Buddhist or religious studies, but I thought myself fairly well-informed, and yet was pleased to find new and quite interesting material here. For example, the origin story, so to speak, of the Demon Queller Shôki (known as Zhong Kui in Chinese), a figure not truly Buddhist, particularly popular in the Edo period, and associated to some extent with Boy’s Day. He apparently was once a mortal man who passed the Imperial examinations but was nevertheless denied an official position in the Chinese Court, on account of his ugliness. In anger, he dashed his head against the stairs or the palace gates and killed himself. Moved by this desperate act, and by Zhong Kui’s passion and devotion, he posthumously named him an official and granted him the burial of an official. A few centuries later, Emperor Xuanzong found that someone had snuck into the palace and stolen a flute and some other objects from the emperor’s beloved concubine Yang Guifei. The thief was suddenly stopped and attacked by a large man in an official’s cap – the spirit or ghost of Zhong Kui, who returned the items to the emperor, and declared that he had vowed to protect the empire from evil.

So, if you appreciate such colorful stories, or are just curious and eager to learn more about who Kannon, Monju, and Yuima are, this Hakuin exhibit could be a good starting point.

All in all, I would say the key strength of the Hakuin exhibit was simply in bringing these extremely famous works to New York, to the gallery, making them visible and available, and, perhaps, hopefully, bringing a little more awareness and information about a real true Zen master (not New Age stuff, not John Cage stuff) to those interested.

Meanwhile, hanging on the wall just outside the gallery, in an empty space where the shop once was, four portraits of Bodhidharma by the NY-based manga artist Hiroki Otsuka tie together the themes of past, current, and upcoming exhibitions wonderfully, while providing a little color and upbeat atmosphere. As light-hearted as many of Hakuin’s works can be (one simply depicts a club and tiger skin loincloth lying on the ground, with an inscription saying “Where has the demon [who normally would be wearing/carrying these] gone? Maybe off to the bath.”), they are today serious works of fine art and of great religious significance, and are displayed in a rather serious atmosphere.

Otsuka depicts the same anime-style Daruma, in pencils and ink, the only color being the red-orange of the figure’s robe, in four poses or states of being, representing ki, shô, ten, and ketsu (起承転結, introduction, development, conflict, conclusion), one typical Japanese way of articulating the four stages of plot or character development, and, I gather, a way of looking at the stages of the journey for enlightenment as well.

Otsuka had been “mangaka-in-residence” during the Society’s Kuniyoshi show last year, in which it played up the connections between ukiyo-e and manga to attract the younger crowd.. Now we see this work in conjunction with Hakuin’s sometimes playful Zen paintings. In combining traditional themes and new forms, I think Otsuka’s work also works well to presage the next show that will be up at Japan Society – a marvelous show of contemporary art, much of it what I’ll call Neo-Nihonga, which I am very much eagerly waiting to see.

Hakuin: The Sound of One Hand will be showing at the New Orleans Museum of Art, Feb 12 – April 17, and at LACMA May 22 – Aug 17. The beautiful and very thorough and informative, if somewhat expensive, exhibit catalog from Shambhala Publishing is on sale now.

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