Liao Zengbao

at Walsh Gallery, through

November 16

Entre el cielo y la tierra

at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, through November 24

By Fred Camper

In the 1960s Liao Zengbao began to paint copies of Buddhist “cave paintings” at Kizil in northwest China. Located in man-made rooms in hillsides, they had been damaged by vandals and by time–the earliest were almost two millennia old. As Islam spread into the area, in about the tenth century, the invaders desecrated some of the art, blotting out the figures’ eyes; much later, Europeans stole some of the paintings for export. Thirty years ago Liao was worried about the attack on all things old during the Cultural Revolution; he hid his painted copies on rice paper for decades.

Now China has changed, and Liao is 51, living in Beijing, and an editor of China Today magazine. In his first U.S. show at Walsh Gallery, he’s exhibiting 24 of these copies along with 23 of his original paintings. Of course it’s impossible to judge the fidelity of the copies–the cave paintings have long been closed to the public–but judged simply on their own, many are amazing. The multiple figures of a large painting on the main gallery’s south wall give it an almost encyclopedic inclusiveness. Patterns of figures, a leaf design (based on the leaf of the tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment), circles, and birds and animals are continuously but not systematically repeated. A number of small scenes from Buddhist texts are included; though the figures are somewhat similar, there’s a tension throughout between repetition and variation. The figures’ poses and the simulated cracked paint (achieved by rubbing the rice paper) give some variety to the whole, while the many similar designs and figures suggest that all is part of the same plan. The repetition of a few basic colors–blue, green, gray, brown, black–also gives the work a schematic, almost abstract feel. Overall the painting seems an exhaustive inventory of human possibility; I was reminded of the huge, often abstract designs of some pre-Columbian textiles of about the same period, which were apparently meant as maps of the world.

While several other of the large Kizil copies are similarly encyclopedic and powerful, and many of the smaller ones have their own fascinations, none has quite the power of the few related originals I’ve seen–the fierce, almost terrifying 13th-century Buddhist wall paintings at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, for example. Liao’s copies (of admittedly very different work) seem a bit bright, almost childlike, by comparison. But he puts childlike playfulness to good use in his original paintings, also on rice paper: these lively, imaginative, almost humorous works take the evolution of written Chinese as their theme.

Sixteen mounted together in a grid are called “Wenzi”; each represents the evolution of a different Chinese pictograph and plays with the relation between symbol and background. Yu (“fish”) reveals fish shapes in heavy black calligraphic lines against paper that seems water stained. The fish vary from almost realistic to schematic; an old form of the fish pictograph at the lower right seems abstracted from the fish drawings. Jiang (“frontier”) sets an old version of the pictograph against patches of color resembling an aerial view of a landscape–green, blue, and yellow “fields.” This painting reveals how two parts of the pictograph–rounded shapes divided into four equal parts by a cross–represent fields while a third stands for the border between them. The shape in Chun (“spring”) looks like a growing green plant, while the variegated background resembles lichens.

The pictographs–often present here in multiple versions linking them to their referents–have a living vibrancy; one experiences them almost as growing forms, and many seem to be literally sprouting. The birth of written language is thus likened to an event in nature or to children’s playful drawings while the backgrounds are almost postmodern in their changing symbolic functions: some represent other parts of the scenes suggested by the pictographs–the fields in the “frontier” painting–and others are metaphoric. In Zhong (“masses”) the figures of slaves are set against stains of yellow and red; it’s hard not to see the red as blood. Some of the abstract backgrounds reminded me of paintings by Paul Klee.

As much as I liked Liao’s work, I’m not sure that he’s struck a wholly successful balance between old and new. The copies don’t quite have the feel of ancient art, while the “Wenzi” are an uneasy mix of calligraphy and fancy. But Liao’s work is still new to me; perhaps I’m too accustomed to thinking of calligraphic shapes in older Chinese art as almost sacred.

Miriam Ladron de Guevara is another artist who seeks to balance old and new elements in her first U.S. exhibit. “Entre el cielo y la tierra” (“Between Heaven and Earth”), at the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, is part of “Sor Juana: A Tribute to Mexican Women Festival.” Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz was a well-known 17th-century nun, playwright, and poet, and Ladron de Guevara pays homage to her in 3 of the 12 mixed-media assemblages in this exhibit.

Like many of the other nine pieces, each of these (each titled Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz) takes the form of a small, shallow box hung on the wall; at the center is the imposing three-dimensional figure of Sor Juana clad in red and white. In one she sits reading a large book called Confessions; two crosses made of nails rest at her feet, and fragments of her poems are written on the mirrors that form the insides of the box. The more extravagant Virgen del Monte Calvario has a five-sided interior with multiple mirrors of different shapes separated by a binding agent painted with gold glitter. It recalls old religious paintings–except that the gold is irregularly applied, leaving the reddish ground visible. A piece of scrap wood at the center reveals the faint image of a woman.

Ladron de Guevara, 38, lives and exhibits her work in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her assemblages of mirrors, natural materials, and cutout images (often used for Virgins and saints) would be at home in any contemporary gallery, as would the almost playful excess of accrued details. But as I wondered whether the three crosses atop the box in Virgen del Monte Calvario represented another joke on excess, I noticed that the central cross was larger than the others, thought of the many paintings of the three crosses at Golgotha, and began to feel that these were works by a person of faith. At the center of Virgen del Carmen, for example, is a statue of Virgin and Child. We see no faces, the statue is very tiny, but the yellowish, almost gold sand that covers it is different in color from most of the background, also covered with sand. At first glance the statue might seem another instance of pomo kitsch, but it has an odd solidity and presence. It seems to glow, the sand covering the faces adds to its mysterious allure, and its small scale makes it stand out from, rather than become lost in, the background.

I was wrong, however, in reading this as work by a Christian. Ladron de Guevara, a clinical psychologist specializing in art therapy for the mentally ill, told me that she doesn’t accept Christian dogma. “I have my own religion,” she says, involving an abstract energy closer to pantheism, and she’s hostile to the church in Mexico: “I think it’s an insult for believers who don’t have money to pay to the church.” But she allowed that my reading wasn’t completely off. “I have a total respect for the mystery of religion–I want to rescue its mystic energy.” Part of that effort involves using found materials–wood and metal scraps, tree leaves, dried plants–because she believes that “what’s essential to religion doesn’t depend on money.”

Even after speaking with the artist, though, I kept noticing that the “mystic energy” of her work usually revolves around centrally placed images of Virgins and saints, surrounded by carefully positioned details. The cutout image at the center of La Virgen de Fatima has a tiny, three-dimensional halo of twisted metal hovering above her head; below her a glowing lightbulb surrounded by a paper cylinder with an image of Christ serves as a votive candle. Carefully placed dried plants seem to grow from the ground. Clearly this is a shrine, a warm sanctuary in earthy shades of red, tan, and brown; even the lightbulb filament is a warm yellow. The cutout virgin, in shades of only moderately brighter reds, is linked with the natural materials of the scene; her image, like that of the pale “Virgen del Monte Calvario” on wood, seems to grow from nature.

The background of La Virgen de Fatima is made of tiny mirror fragments, irregularly placed and angled so that they often reflect pieces of the work itself. But rather than serve the self-referential or fragmenting functions they often do in recent art, these mirrors–too small to reflect much of anything–seem like openings, passageways, windows. Rather than breaking up the work, they seem to extend it: just as the figures seem linked to nature, so these openings amplify the work’s mysticism. Ladron de Guevara twists the rhetoric of postmodernism to serve an end opposed to pomo relativism, to express her faith.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Yu” by Liao Zengbao.