At the risk of blowing a good thing—you know, like when The New York Times runs a feature on a restaurant or neighborhood, thereby increasing its visibility and making it difficult for the rest of us to enjoy a good meal or even live in New York City—I have to recommend a trip to the Asia Society as a rejuvenating summer tonic. The conditions suited for aesthetic experience—peace, quiet and solitude—are in ample supply at Images of the Divine, a modestly scaled and stunning array of Hindu and Buddhist sculptures from South and Southeast Asia culled from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller III. On a recent Saturday afternoon, I practically had the run of the entire exhibition—the only other people there were a lone security guard and a gratifyingly chatty student of Asian art.
It’s little wonder that attendance to the show is sparse: The Asia Society is a small, specialized venue, a block or two off the beaten path, with none of the flashy, brand-name allure of the Met or (God help us) the Guggenheim. And religious art from locales like Indonesia, Afghanistan and Tibet can’t vie for attention the way the Impressionists or Robert Mapplethorpe do. Despite the supposed broad-mindedness of our globalist age, artifacts of culture radically different from our own can be a tough sell, and exoticism can often be intimidating. Why set yourself adrift upon unfamiliar seas when it’s hard enough staying afloat in native waters?
Images of the Divine won’t appeal to those who think of art as a vehicle for self-ratification. The exhibition does, however, contain plenty to interest New Yorkers who consider it a means of self-abnegation. Humility is a prerequisite if the world is to be made a bigger place. (That is, after all, the job description of art.) In fact, humility is among the defining characteristics of Hindu and Buddhist art, although the accompanying social objectives may not always be so pure—a wall label trumpets the unspectacular insight that “religious representation” has been exploited to consolidate political power. That doesn’t detract from the sculptural élan behind these works: The grace, will and potency of Buddha, Shiva and Ganesha are apparent within the peculiar elisions of form typical of the genre. Symbolism is intrinsic to the vitality and authority of the work. Just as a painting of the Crucifixion is never merely a sum of pictorial tropes, so Shiva as Lord of the Dance (Shiva Nataraja), a copper alloy piece dating from around 970, is more than an accumulation of theatrical tics and sinuous gestures. Balanced precariously on his right foot, surrounded by what appears to be a ring of flames, Shiva radiates contentment. The elaborate gestures of his four hands provide delightful focal points, as does the quietly insistent equanimity of his expression.
Yet what determines the sculpture’s gravitas is not Shiva, but the stumpy figure of indeterminate sex and species upon which he is perched. Shiva’s florid pose all but obscures this part of the sculpture. Once you notice it, however, you can’t take your eyes from the small, anguished creature, particularly after realizing that it’s engaged in a staring contest with a cobra. What at first seems a sculptural addendum turns out to be a symbolic and dramatic lynchpin. Though meaning is present, it isn’t specified. The aforementioned student I bumped into couldn’t attach a narrative to the sculpture, but suggested that it might concern the suppression of base and worldly woes. That seems about right.
In depicting these gods and personages, the sculptors employed stylistic conventions meant to separate their subjects from the earthly realm. Sloping, languid lines, serpentine rhythms and overripe forms subsume individualities of character and affect. Representation is streamlined rather than emphasized, and craft is motivated by a sensuality firmly yet barely restrained. There are exceptions to the rule, chief among them a Buddha’s head carved from phyllite, dated between the second and third century A.D. The curators laud its “supernormal nature,” but I was most struck by the distinctive arched nose, the plush lips and the uncanny sense that a touch would meet with the warmth and, perhaps, the gratitude of living flesh. Here, grace is a coefficient of humanity rather than its transcendence. I dare you to resist the urge to run your hand alongside this Buddha’s cheek.
The exhibition has some difficulty sustaining intensity after the unnerving beauty of Head of Buddha establishes its high point—so much so that a separate gallery dedicated to depictions of Bodhisattvas, supernatural beings dedicated to helping the rest of us reach enlightenment, is something of a letdown. On the whole, these pieces seem stiffer, the sense of movement less refined and the workmanship not as meticulously felt. A wall label informs us that certain Bodhisattva images were produced more than those of any other deity. Maybe the show’s anticlimax has as much to do with the aesthetic numbing spurred by mass production (or something like it, anyway) as it does with curatorial emphasis. Never mind. Images of the Divine sparkles all the same.
Images of the Divine: South and Southeast Asian Sculpture from the Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller 3rd Collection is at the Asia Society, 725 Park Avenue, until Sept. 18.