It’s Asian Art Week this week and there are free talks and exhibitions on in museums, private galleries and auction houses across London. Many of the galleries are clustered around Mayfair, St James and Kensington Church Street, so that strolling down a single street you might come into contact with ancient Chinese ceramics, or a group of imagined Indian cityscapes. With European art still dominating so much of the art historical discourse in this country, it’s great to be able to explore many different areas of this eclectic field, as pieces old and new, and from across the continent are on display. ‘Asian art’ may be a broad term, but the exhibitions themselves are highly specialised, often focusing on a particular country or period, a certain set of objects, or perhaps the work of one artist. By looking in more depth at these individual artistic traditions, we can gain a better understanding of the richness and diversity of Asian art as a whole.
At Rossi & Rossi the exhibition Tibetan Spirit combines works by the contemporary artist Ang Tsherin Sherpa with traditional Thangka paintings. At first glance, Sherpa’s works appear very much grounded in the international milieu of the contemporary art scene; his flat, graphic style and use of pop culture images recalls the superflat movement, lead by Takeshi Murakami, whilst his inclusion of butterflies and polka dots is redolent of Damien Hirst.
However, Sherpa’s works are also steeped in the traditions of Tibetan art, as Sherpa himself trained as a Thangka painter. Thangkas are Tibetan scroll paintings, and they commonly depict Buddhist deities, often laid out in prescriptive geometric forms. Details such as hand movements are imbued with great spiritual significance, and must be replicated with precision by the Thangka artists. Works like Expression, 2012, betray Sherpa’s fluency with this symbolic language, as he highlights the communicative power of hands and feet, granting them their own autonomous power. The myriad of hand positions on display clearly have very potent meanings, and as an outsider their obscurity only contributes further to a sense of mysterious, magical power.
Thangka paintings continue to have great resonance for Tibetan Buddhists, and are still used for didactic and ritual purposes and, perhaps most importantly, as meditation aides. It is fascinating to see a contemporary artist drawing from a spiritual and artistic tradition that is both historical and ongoing, an idea highlighted by the older Thangka paintings included in the exhibition. Sherpa is not just drawing influence from Tibetan Buddhist art; as a trained Thangka painter, he is very much an active part of this institution. Such an idea is almost unimaginable in Western art, which broke from the church long ago. Contemporary artists may utilize the conventions of earlier Christian art (as Sherpa does with his gold leaf backgrounds, recalling the sacred space of gothic paintings) but there is no such sense of continuity. Sherpa imbues his work with the historical and religious weight of a visual culture that stretches back centuries, but he does so with a lightness and wit that is entirely his own.