Water & Clouds: East Meets West

at Zen Buddhist Temple, through September 7

Joel Rendon

at Workshop Print Gallery, through August 31

By Fred Camper

The Art Institute’s magnificent “Splendors of Imperial China” exhibit is very much the “imperial” museum show: with hundreds of objects from the collections of many emperors shipped halfway around the world and displayed for a limited time under glass, it has some of the “booty of the world” quality common to museum blockbusters. Though its finest objects have an ecstatic beauty that speaks across centuries, they’ve been ripped from the contexts in which they were produced and used, and no one can fully comprehend the meanings they had for those who first encountered them.

Two small exhibits reminded me of key differences between a big museum show and a neighborhood gallery. While “Splendors of Imperial China” wasn’t overcrowded, it was certainly full of people whenever I went, mostly serious viewers but also some bawling babies and tourists who paraded past without stopping, heads bobbing to left and right. But on my visits to the Zen Buddhist Temple and Workshop Print Gallery, there was rarely more than one other visitor. Of course the work in these shows, much of it very good, lacks the extreme, rarefied delicacy of the greatest “Splendors” pieces. But the most crucial difference is that these small exhibits don’t offer historical surveys but living art forms, presented in the contexts from which they emerged.

The Zen Temple, for example, follows Korean Zen traditions, and most of the ink drawings on rice paper in “Water & Clouds: East Meets West” were made by living Korean monks. Most of the art is for sale, with the proceeds to benefit the temple’s building fund. The show will be seen by Buddhists and those interested in Buddhism: one of the two rooms displaying the art is also used for worship services, while the other sometimes serves as a dining hall. And the temple residents, who open the door for you, are pleased to discuss Buddhism if you inquire. They’ll also leave you alone if you don’t inquire, but it seems that stimulating interest in Buddhism is one purpose of this exhibit.

Which is not to say that appreciating the dozens of works on view requires specialized knowledge. Perhaps most striking are the works of Jung Kwang, who calls himself the “Dirty Mop” but is sometimes referred to as the “Mad Monk.” As the books about him, available in the gallery, make clear, he willingly tells interviewers in detail about his apparently quite varied sex life, among other things. And in some ways his works seemed the expressions of a strong personality. In one series each work is titled Innocent Dharma Child Inherent in Everyone, and each consists of simple brush strokes delineating a stick-figure face, with a tiny red dot in watercolor apparently representing the mouth. Each seems vaguely off balance: with the mouth too high in the head and a large “chin,” they seem assertively absurd. Though their childlike simplicity is consistent with the exhibition booklet’s description of Zen painting as the “spontaneous visual expression of an awakened heart,” the brush strokes have a forceful off-centeredness that also seems a bit aggressive. The longer I looked at them, however, the more any aggression or particular “personality” faded away; the blank parts of the paper began to seem as important as the ink.

Many of these works present what seems to be the manifestation of a moment–a feeling, an appearance–that is then revealed to be arbitrary and fleeting. This places them in the long tradition of Eastern art, in which the surface appearances of things are presented with a kind of emptiness, also sensed as a oneness that underlies everything one sees. But in many of these Zen works, unlike the pieces in “Splendors of Imperial China,” the path to oneness leads through the seemingly absurd.

Sokchong Sunim, a monk who was born and raised in a Korean monastery, is more of a traditionalist than Jung Kwang. In Events in Bodhidharma’s Life: Sitting, Standing, Walking & Wall Gazing, he’s made ten drawings on a folding screen showing the fifth-century monk who founded Zen. In each drawing a body is delineated in only a few broad brush strokes, generally forming an arc or orb, with a somewhat more defined head with distinct features–intense eyes, a sharp nose. All these lines are somewhat calligraphic, connecting the drawing to the Zen poem written on each. But viewing these ten depictions together, the slight differences in facial expression began to seem arbitrary, and the different body positions more arbitrary still; the different life moments they represent seem momentary variations, mere surface appearances. The head that pokes up from the largely empty body has some of the qualities of Jung Kwang’s faces: strong at first, its strength becomes that of an arbitrary instant of drawing or looking, unimportant in itself but significant as a pathway to something else, something that can be felt but not fully shown. This impression is even stronger in Suan Sunim’s Ecologica Buddhista: Land, Heron & Clouds, whose abstraction and spontaneity evoke both the impermanence and the unity of nature.

Acala Jeff LeGro, an American-born temple member, is represented by three large paintings, Walking Meditations, that are part of the life of this temple even more than the Korean drawings: these Buddhists often alternate sitting and walking meditations, and in these paintings LeGro produced a record of the patterns of walking by dipping his feet in acrylic paint and then stepping on the paper. These don’t have the delicate beauty of the smaller drawings; they’re more akin to conceptual and performance art. But they still have a certain expressiveness. Though they reveal various patterns–in Walking Meditation #3 the footprints make rectangular paths along the edges of the paper, while in Walking Meditation #2 a particularly dense area of superimposed footprints suggests walking in place–one senses that the idea of repetition is more important: one is reminded that the way one uses one’s body is an essential part of Zen practice.

While the Mexican etcher Joel Rendon was in residence at the Art Institute in 1994, he found his way to the Chicago Printmakers Collaborative, the printmaking studio that also houses Workshop Print Gallery, where 20 of his linocuts are now on view. Printmaking isn’t a religion, but this exhibit resembles the Zen show in the sense that both demonstrate the potential of a technique that can be learned on the premises. The gallery’s director, Deborah Lader, will sometimes allow visitors to gouge out grooves in a linoleum block as Rendon did, which produces white lines when the block is printed.

In some ways Rendon’s prints create very different effects than the Zen drawings. Influenced by Mexican folk-art traditions, he produces dense, almost decorative designs that also, in the claustrophobic way they merge lines and figures, seem to show the influence of expressionist artists like Max Beckmann. The best are quite small; dark-lined borders separate these miniatures from the rest of the paper, confining and enhancing the energy and rhythms of Rendon’s lines. If Buddhist art tends to be expansive, with a few lines in an empty background creating openness and a reaching outward, these concentrated views suggest particular emotions or narratives, which are often named in the titles.

El escape (“The Escape”) is particularly small and intense, its two diagonal, mostly dark figures apparently running, arms flailing, but in different directions. The thick black rectangle surrounding the composition traps them, while the lighter background is a dense, enclosing network of black lines. Even more than the border, the white of the linocut’s white lines separates the composition from the surrounding blank paper, because it’s smoother and more intense. At first I thought these lines might have been painted, but Lader explained, and eventually demonstrated, that their whiteness comes from the press, which flattens the paper’s fibers into a smooth surface.

Rendon has a taste for the almost amusingly surreal, as in his Lluvia de maiz (“Rain of Corn”), in which an adult figure seems to arch over a child while the background is filled with diagonal ears and stalks. The iconography of Las agallas (“The Courageous”) is more mysterious: a white-ribbed, thin-legged figure with a halo above his head stands over what seems to be the head of a bird; the triangular border comes to a point over his head and halo, focusing on his vision by walling it off from the white paper around it.

Rendon is at his strongest in Las musicos (“The Musicians”). Five figures oriented in all directions–upside down, diagonally–play instruments from keyboard to drums to guitar; another appears to be singing. Diagonal black-and-white bands parallel the lines of their bodies, colliding at varying angles. There’s no single focal point in this picture; the composition never comes to rest.

Las musicos, like most of these prints, is about evenly divided between black and white. The figures may have more black and the background more white, but each area has plenty of both, and the particular intensity of the white makes it as powerful as the ink is black. The longer I looked at these prints, the more their expressions of emotion seemed counterweighted by this careful compositional balance, and the more the intense blacks and whites began to seem complementary: opposite sides of the same coin. The borders, by focusing one’s attention on dense detail, also encourage a kind of meditative viewing. Rendon hardly appears to be Buddhist, but his work isn’t quite as opposed to the Zen drawings as it first seems.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Pictured: “Innocent Dharma Child Inherent in Everyone” by Jun Kwang; and woodcut: “Law Musicos” by Joel Rendon.