Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Roger L. Weston Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago

Nishikawa Sukenobu

The Roger L. Weston Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago

The incredible collection of Roger L. Weston takes center stage in the premier exhibition of the newly remodeled Japanese galleries that bear his name. For the first time in recent memory, there’s a roomful of Japanese hanging scrolls and lacquer boxes, mostly made by the top names in 18th and 19th C. Japanese art: Shibata Zeshin, Ogata Korin, Chobunsai Eishi, Nishikawa Sukenobu, and even Utamaro. With 55% more floor space,

there’s also enough room now to show a large selection of tea ceremony ceramics

and ingenious bamboo baskets.

But where did this additional gallery space come from? Unfortunately, these are galleries that recently held Korean ceramics/calligraphy and Chinese painting, so unlike the South Asian, Pre-Columbian, and African displays, the far-eastern collection is not going to benefit from the all the gallery space freed up by the building of the Modern Wing. Most of the Korean ceramics (but none of the calligraphy) have been moved to the small gallery that flanks the entrance to Alsdorf Hall, but all of the Chinese paintings have been taken off view, and will not reappear until the Chinese galleries are remodeled at some unspecified date in the future. And, unhappily, certain questionable changes have been made to the older rooms of Japanese art. In order to make the Ando Gallery feel more accessible, the heavy glass entrance doors were removed, so now it also feels less intimate.

But more dramatically, the new display of medieval Buddhist sculpture reminds us just how effective the 1992 design by Cleo Nichols used to be. Fierce guardian figures once flanked the small entrance room that opened up into a dark, quiet chamber, at the center of which a Bodhisattva sat upon a raised platform, protected by a railing instead of a glass box, free to measure and control the space of the entire room, while other Buddhist statuary were dramatically lit within boxes embedded into the surrounding walls. The effect of the whole was spiritual and meditative. Like a Buddhist shrine should be – and it was quite a feat to achieve that using the disparate artifacts at hand; each originating from a different temple, province, cult, and century. Now they feel jumbled together in their glass cases, like ethnographic artifacts on display at the Field Museum. What once felt sacred, now feels clinical. But, thankfully, every museum display is built to be demolished, and we can be sure that in twenty years these rooms will be changed yet again.

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