Tradition and Change in East Asian Art

To my eye, there is at least one major obstacle to curating an exhibition of non-Western traditional artists: striking a balance between educating viewers about the artistic traditions of a foreign culture and letting the art just speak for itself. The Herbert F. Johnson Museum’s new exhibition — Tradition, Transmission and Transformation in East Asian Art — ultimately teeters over to the former side of that conundrum, though it also certainly serves as a thorough exploration of and initiation to East Asian ink painting for a lay audience. That is, the works of art which TTT presents — regal, sprawling, ascetic or harmonious and almost invariably gorgeous — oftentimes seem threatened, in their ability to paint a variegated and brimming East Asian artistic history, by the wall’s expository blurbs which seek to do it for them. The exhibition’s purported goal, as stated on the wall of the Moak Gallery at its immediate entrance, is to explore “how cultural images and artistic styles that originated in China were adopted and adapted in Korea and Japan.” By capitalizing on the sheer mass and breadth of the Johnson’s collection, TTT makes impressive strides towards doing just that. Spanning three rooms and comprised of what must approach (if not more than) 40 different papers and scrolls, the exhibition certainly serves as an adequate compendium of a region’s shared, almost 600-year artistic tradition.