"In the Company of Spirits," Mar. 16-Apr. 17, 1999, at Kaikodo, 164 East 64th Street, New York, N.Y.
Raging, fierce and so, so beautiful. That's the impression given by the pair of Chinese painted terracotta guardian figures featured in the exhibition "In the Company of Spirits" at the Kaikodo gallery in New York. Standing about three feet high, these early 8th-century Tang spirit-warriors sport sumptuous garments, boldly colored armor and helmets. A Chinese version of the lokopala, Buddhist guardians of the four cardinal points from India, this remarkably well-preserved pair once defended the tomb of an extremely important person. Their cruel and determined expressions and vigorous sculpting are leavened by the delicate patterns of wind-blown peonies on their garments.
Even more blood-curdling is another pair of supernatural lion-bodied and snarling guardian figures tucked away behind a Chinese screen on the third floor of the Kaikodo townhouse. Also Tang and about three feet tall, this pair is decorated not in painted pigment but with lavishly applied sancai or "three-color" glaze. Rich cascades of many colors flow from the horrific antlers to the talons of one beast, while a human face does little to ameliorate the anger expressed in the visage of the other with its feathered head and hooves.
Not everything is supernatural and terror-inducing. A green-glazed watchtower from the Eastern Han dynasty (1st-2nd century), also probably made for a tomb, seems to rise straight up, all four feet of it. Atop the roof, a bird spreads its wings, while several other animals scamper amid the beams. Another handsome terracotta, smaller and unglazed, of a Han-style house from Vietnam shows how the expansionist Han influenced domestic architecture in that part of the world.
Just over half of the 70-plus pieces at Kaikodo are Chinese or Japanese scroll paintings or calligraphy. Blossoming Plum, a single branch that "grows" on a hanging scroll in ink by the obscure Chinese artist Wen-chi, is as startlingly fresh today as when it was painted in the mid-14th century. Whoever the artist was, his syncopated use of lights and darks and positioning of buds along branches has a lyrical swing that approximates the best jazz.
Completely different is the moment of sensuous perfection captured in Huang Piao's 16th-century hanging scroll Scholarly Pleasures on the River. Spare additions of blue and green pigment cement the scholar, already bracketed by a flute-player and oarsman-servant, into the surrounding flora, hills and peaks. He is truly at one with natural and man-made beauty.
The selection of Japanese paintings is, if possible, even more diverse. There is a very funny horizontal scroll, the Procession of the Frogs (18th century), probably a satire on a local warlord's visit to a shrine, a pair of hanging scrolls depicting a lively cock fight (19th century), and a Standing Beauty (second quarter of the 18th century) related to ukiyo-e prints, but painted on silk and intended for wealthier eyes.
The most spectacular ceramics in the show are two Neolithic Japanese earthenware jars, related but unique. These Middle Jomon or "cord-marked" vessels (c. 2500-1500 BC) are muscularly worked yet mellifluently flowing. They epitomize an appreciation of asymmetry, the unbalanced or eccentric in Japanese art, at an early date.
Far from the elegant selection of Song pottery on view is a Vietnamese wide-mouthed jar with robustly incised, ocher-and-brown glazed decoration from somewhere during the 12th to 14th centuries. Beside the more common floral and cloud motifs is a central band with oddly proportioned nude human figures perhaps performing some ritual. Several brandish weapons at dragon-like serpents, while two others play musical instruments. What it all means awaits further discoveries and research.
These pieces stand out amid an impressive array of calligraphy, paintings, sculpture, metalwork, stone implements, other ceramics, a set of small lacquered boxes and one rare, reddish zitan-wood painting table from the 18th century. And that is saying a lot.
N.F. KARLINS is a New York writer and art historian.