East meets West

Two shows offer two different approaches to art from foreign lands

Two visions of faraway lands render the Other and the Far East in dramatically different ways in The Female Buddha: Women Of Enlightenment in Tibetan Mysticism at Oglethorpe University and A Breeze from the Gardens of Persia: New Art From Iran at Georgia State University and the Atlanta International Museum.

Buddha is a survey of 13th- to 19th-century objects and tangka paintings (believed to bestow blessings on those who respect them) from Tibet, and at first glance it seems the more traditional show, offering a glimpse into a complex, exotic culture. For this reason its culturally specific subject matter can initially feel intimidating.

"Volumes could be written on the symbolism found in even a small Tantric painting," notes curator Glenn Mullin in an accompanying catalogue. And if the works themselves seem remarkably dense, one only has to peruse the involved, labyrinthine wall text to become daunted by the complexities of the show.

But look a little deeper and Buddha is like falling into a vortex of wild excess. The entire canon of filmmaker Terry Gilliam (Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen) can be suggested in a single one of these ornamental images with their mad dervish swirl of curlicue forms, lion-faced demons and ribald subject matter. Drawn from the largest tangka collection in the U.S. (owned by Oglethorpe alumni Donald and Shelley Rubin) and curated by local "Tibetologist" Glenn H. Mullin, Buddha is revelatory for its fervid, hallucinatory dimensions.

Penetrating the text and action-packed imagery holds great rewards. "Tibet" affords the startling vision of a culture older than our own that is amazingly in touch with its mojo, as evidenced in the many scenes of highly symbolic sexual couplings. In the western world, sex tends to be just sex, but in Tibetan art it expresses a remarkable array of meanings depending upon color scheme, leg position, objects held by the participants and surrounding images.

The style of the work ranges from the outrageous and colorful like "Amitayus: Buddha of Boundless Life," whose repeated imagery creates a gorgeous red wallpaper of demons and deities, to more delicate and sedate works whose pastel tones and gentle faces suggest illustrations on antique porcelain.

If the images weren't shrouded in the past and spirituality, Buddha would be another "Piss Christ" with its scandalous content. Though the central role of women in Buddhist art is the focus of the show, it is the provocative subject matter — running toward copulation, oral sex, vaginas, penises, menstruation — that can be the most shocking. Incredibly detailed paintings, whose repeating iconography of eyeballs, arms and tiny heads, fill every square inch of the image plane.

It is no coincidence that these works resemble psychedelic posters of the '60s: These works share an interest in the altered state of enlightenment. Or as curator Mullin notes, "Most Buddhist art is intended as a spiritual aid ... to bring an atmosphere of serenity and transcendence into the household." Peering at the unbelievably concise, miniature details of these works can become a process of losing track of time and place, a momentary step off of the 21st-century treadmill and into the eternal.

While Buddha is ribald, shocking and strangely beautiful, A Breeze From the Gardens of Persia: New Art From Iran has the staid presence of the expected and unchallenging, of artwork cloaked in the straitjacket of diplomacy. A survey of passive, spiritual, romantic work concerned with the beauty of flowers or a bowl of goldfish captured in the moonlight, the show suggests a political goodwill gesture meant to convey a certain unthreatening idea about the Middle East to Westerners. There are repeated studies of mosques and pretty women on their wedding day, villages and lions lolling in the sun, which can be pleasant enough to look at but feel too unremarkable to ship halfway around the world. Some of the work is simply facile, like Taha Behbahani's surrealist trick in which a series of doorways appear as the body of a hawk and other work that has the look of Iranian hotel art. There are, of course, many exceptions to the overarching superficiality of the show: in Yaghoub Emdadian's abstract "Desert Village" or the surprising mix of classical and modern media in artist Mohammad Ehsaie's paintings executed with car paint and gold.

While Buddha embraces the Other with its vive la difference approach, Breeze seems intent on making the "Other" less so: to suggest it is a kinder, gentler phenomenon, and that we have nothing to fear from these neutral images of flowers and peaceful villages.