Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 7 / 15 February 2018

Japanese immersion

Fine Arts

Tigers (detail) (1779) by Maruyama Okyo (Japanese, 1733-95). One of a pair of hanging scrolls; ink and light colors on paper. Larry Ellison Collection.
Photo: Courtesy Asian Art Museum
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Just in case you didn't know: cats big and small, puppy dogs and a dragon or two, which are always good to have around, are a few of Larry Ellison's favorite things, demonstrating that multi-million-dollar catamarans are not the Oracle mogul's sole obsession. These are among the choice tidbits gleaned from In the Moment: Japanese Art from the Larry Ellison Collection, a jewel of an exhibition at the Asian Art Museum that's a testament not only to this CEO's wealth but also to his exquisite taste in Japanese art.

Partially funded by Ellison, the show could justifiably be construed as a vanity project to feather the already substantial ego of one of the world's richest individuals, and its timing is not accidental: the dates of the exhibition coincide with the America's Cup races this summer. So you'll be forgiven if you find yourself struggling to keep your inner skeptic in check. The welcome news, though, is that the show is surprisingly good. Comprised of high-quality, carefully selected, pristine objects, a fraction of the acquisitions that decorate Ellison's Japanese-style Woodside mansion on a rotating basis, it includes folding screens, hanging scroll paintings, religious and secular sculptures, metal works, and a pair of wrestling puppies having a go at each other – some things never change. Carved out of lacquered wood, they're a prime example of Kamakura-period (1200s) realism, and incidentally, one of Ellison's prized possessions. The man loves his pups.

The museum's retired director Emily Sano, who's a private consultant to the collection, which is partial to flora and animal imagery, and Laura Allen, curator of Japanese art, contributed to the soothing minimalist aesthetic, especially apparent in a room designed as an immersive installation. Benches in the gallery allow visitors to kick back and relax in a serene, contemplative setting meant to mimic the passage of a day – from dawn to dusk concentrated in a three-minute cycle – inside a traditional Japanese home before the invention of electricity. Fluctuations in the lighting and sound affect one's perception of a pair of expansive, 6-by-12 ft., 17th-century folding screens by Hasegawa Togaku; adorned with reflective gold leaf, they depict a violent expressionistic scene of waves crashing on jagged rocks.

Auspicious Pine, Bamboo, Plum, Crane and Turtles, Edo period (1615-1868), ca. 1630-50, by Kano Sansetsu (Japanese, 1590-1651). One of a pair of six-panel folding screens. Ink and colors on gold. Larry Ellison Collection. Photo: Courtesy Asian Art Museum

The works of Maruyama Okyo, the great Edo-period artist known for his independence and his blending of Western realism with East Asian subject matter, are a highlight of the exhibition. Okyo, who sketched from life, injected a stirring naturalism and vibrancy into his numerous paintings of animals, an approach which represented a new wrinkle in Japanese painting of the time. In Ellison's favorite piece, a stunning pair of dramatic folding screens titled "Dragon and Tiger," Okyo positions wild beasts of the real and mythical variety on opposite sides of a sprawling shadowy netherworld defined by deftly applied, subtly shaded ink strokes. Sitting warily in the left corner, a tiger (the controller of earth, according to Taoist philosophy), with glowing ember eyes and heaving chest, props himself up on his massive haunches on the edge of a precipice and waits while the fire-breather on the right (commander of the heavens) descends from the sky, nostrils flared, to peer at his earthbound foe. One of two chums in "Tigers" (1779) looks quizzically at the viewer, his striped tail curling up between his back legs like a common house cat; his partner, meanwhile, has turned away and hunches over, its soft, thickly textured fur begging to be stroked, if anyone would dare.

The not-so-cuddly dragon, a recurring symbol of the heavens and imperial power, takes center stage in Katsushika Hokusai's ink-and-gold hanging scroll (1839), where a crusty, aging creature with a spiky, sinewy tail and ancient eyes, perhaps an avatar of the elderly artist who painted him, emerges grouchy and none-too-friendly from a dark, swirling cloud as if awakened from a deep sleep.

Ito Jakuchu, an 18th-century Kyoto-based member of an idiosyncratic cadre nicknamed "the eccentrics," gives us "Mynah Bird in a Persimmon Tree" (1763), a stark, abstract work with a poetic inscription and a dash of black suggesting a bird burrowing into itself to ward off the chill of autumn, its spindly feet perched on a bare branch. Spare, remarkably contemporary and humorous, Jakuchu's "White Elephant" (1768) is a lumbering creature so large and unsteady on its mammoth feet that its hulking mass threatens to burst the boundaries of the hanging scroll its cartoonish image appears on. According to Buddhist tradition, the elephant is a sacred emblem of wisdom and power, but this particular pachyderm bears a closer kinship to Horton Hears A Who. (June 28-Sept. 22)


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