Meditation as Sculpture”

At the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery to Sept. 15

Does Japanese art revere or fear nature? In his recent book, Dogs and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Japan, Alex Kerr notes that the traditional Japanese arts involving the natural world take “the opposite of a laissez-faire attitude toward nature. These arts were strongly influenced by the military caste that ruled Japan for many centuries, and they demand control over every branch and twig.”

There’s no reason to think that Jiro Okura is a latter-day militarist. Indeed, on the limited available evidence, it seems that the 60-ish artist is a spiritual tourist, not unlike many affluent Westerners. The three pieces in “Hamadryad: Meditation as Sculpture,” all of which Okura has donated to the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, could certainly be placed in the Japanese tradition: They depict natural forms—most notably, a grove of sacred trees—and are made primarily of wood. Okura leaves some of the surfaces unpainted to emphasize the natural appearance and imperfections of the material—a technique that expresses the Japanese aesthetic of wabi, the allure of imperfect or unfinished things.

But such ideas have passed into the international vocabulary of minimalism, of course, and attempts to fix Okura in a purely Japanese context quickly run up against the title of this show: “Hamadryad” is not a Japanese word. Hamadryads are Ionian tree spirits, the ancient-Greek equivalent of the kami of Shintoism, Japan’s animist native religion. In contemporary Japan, religion is a sort of spiritual buffet, and few people follow Shinto exclusively. So it’s unsurprising that Okura, who lives near Kyoto, studied Zen Buddhism at that city’s Manpukuji temple. Or that he achieved mu, the state of nothingness, not via Zen meditation but by driving through the deserts of the American Southwest. (When it comes to nothingness, the United States is far better endowed than Japan.) “I have found,” Okura writes, “that what I need to do is to clear away…the litter of precepts cluttering my soul.”

Ultimately, the artist decided to make his work process itself into meditation. He calls the cutting and chiseling of the aromatic camphor laurel he uses in his art a form of “chanting.” Thus the essence of Okura’s art is the process—another notion that’s familiar in international abstract-art circles. In many ways, Okura is an abstract expressionist who’s put that style’s principles and proclivities into three dimensions, not unlike Anne Truitt or post-canvas Frank Stella.

Still, it’s hard to resist connecting Okura to traditional Japanese aesthetics. The Sackler’s text argues that the show’s major work, the six-columned Hamadryad—Forest, suggests the “red pillars of a Japanese Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine”; the two wall-mounted pieces, Hamadryad 42 and Hamadryad 50 evoke, respectively, a Buddhist monk’s nine-squared silk surplice and a Japanese folding screen. (In fact, red isn’t all that common in Japanese Buddhist temples, although Shinto shrines tend to be more colorful.) Anyone can play this game: I’d say that Hamadryad 50, with its two planes jaggedly failing to meet, evokes tectonic plates, a fitting image for earthquake-plagued Japan. There’s also an ironic contemporary aspect to Okura’s strategy; the pieces are supported by steel infrastructures, much like the faux-traditional building of contemporary Japan.

Yet Okura’s fundamental method, which involves not shaping wood so much as deconstructing it, is scarcely harmonious with nature. And the artist’s best trick is an untraditional one: He uses painted surfaces to make the unpainted ones pop. The six pillars in his Forest are assembled from strips of wood, painted on one side. (Three are red, three black.) The unpainted planks face outward, showing their natural grain and hue. Against the dramatic reds and blacks, the light brown shimmers like gold. It’s minimalism with a glamorous edge—or series of edges.

On the two wall pieces—executed in 1994, a year before Forest—Okura actually dabbled bits of the unpainted slats with metallic paint or gold and silver leaf. The effect is very abstract-expressionist, like the squiggly chromatic asides in a color-field painting. But it’s also fussy and ineffective. The simpler technique has more power, both immediately and upon closer inspection.

Closer inspection seems necessary, if only to emulate the “chanting” that Okura says is the purpose of his work. Installed in the Sackler’s entrance pavilion, “Hamadryad” is not ideally sited for meditation. (On the day I was there, the place was full of kids doing calligraphy based on an inane nearby show, “Word Play: Contemporary Art by Xu Bing.”) But Okura seeks “to experience a reality that precedes language and material form,” so sympathetic viewers should try to join him in the quest. And those who fail to achieve mu can still note that Hamadryad—Forest’s physical form is pretty nifty. CP