From the other side of the planet, Japanese art can seem terrifically democratic. We know that there are extremely formal media, such as calligraphy and brush painting, that descend from centuries-old royal indulgences. One can imagine hallowed rituals of performance and patronage and perhaps, in the case of shame or disappointment, something like sepuku with the pointy end of a paintbrush. And we also know that there is Hello Kitty and manga and anime. By extension we know that Western art has all of that in common with Japanese art: There is high and low and good and bad, and the wise man takes what he can from all of them.
For the month of June, the University of Tennessee will play host to the Japan International Artists Society. More than 300 works by different artists will be on display at the Ewing Gallery, the annex, sometimes referred to as the reading room, directly across the atrium from the Ewing, and the Downtown Gallery near the Emporium on Gay Street. There are works of all sorts, from traditional brushwork to modern oils and abstracts to sculpture. Some of the pieces, especially those by artists who appear to navigate by something like tradition, are breathtakingly beautiful and seem almost sacred. Others, at a glance anyway, look like they might have been included by clerical error. There is at least one piece executed in glue and glitter. And in this way—this generous and big-hearted inclusiveness—the exhibition provides a lively, functional introduction to a culture. Let us each strive to be worthy of depiction as a crane in multi-colored twinkles.
The exhibition is organized more or less by style. Modern paintings are in the Ewing, sculpture is in the annex, and calligraphy and ceramics are downtown. But do your best to see it all, and take it in as a group. The overwhelming nature of so much that is so different is one of the show’s great pleasures. Landscapes and monochrome prints of Buddhist temples and photorealistic koi and nightmarish oils of souls in torment and antique fans and allegorical battles between good and evil blend and blur and lend each other power. There are a lot of European scenes and Caucasian faces and figures. (The show was organized by the French/Japanese partnership Club des Amis de l’Europe et des Art.) So the unfamiliar finds footing in the familiar: Japanese gardens in Impressionistic colors and shapes, solar systems with planets outlined as O’Keefe lilies, Chagall villages nestled into some indeterminate time and continent.
Along with the works themselves, a diplomatic contingent of the Artists Society will be in Knoxville to open the show. There will be demonstrations of calligraphy and traditional Japanese pottery-making. Having the artists near their art promises to be a blast. Even while the show was going up on campus and downtown, the art was as much catalyst as object of attention. The students, educators, and gallery professionals working with the art clearly didn’t always know what to make of it. One piece would provoke awe and the next comic mystification.
If you need to have art explained to you, it might as well be in a foreign language.