The Luminous gate at the Seattle Art Museum. Photo credit: Seattle Art Museum.

Strolling into a museum, we see old and new art, ancient and contemporary. Juxtapose the two, then singular impressions reveal themselves for an audience.

In the “Luminous: The Art of Asia” exhibit, a Seated Guanyin from the Chinese Song Period (960-1279), carefree, one leg raised on the pedestal and the other leg dangling shows off-beat wisdom in meditation equal to the translucent gleam of a spotless white porcelain Moon Jar (2007), made by Korean artist Park Young-Sook. The Moon Jar emulates the ancient tradition of white porcelain in Korea, or “baekja.”

This exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum traverses ancient art and contemporary appreciation. Be prepared for an exploration of the old with the new eyes of the present day. Our ocular appreciation may not be trained expertly, but the exhibit informs us about art legacies that are prized today.

SAM’s renowned collection of art from Asia continues from the museum’s early years with its founding director, Richard Fuller. Formed from part of SAM’s collection, Luminous recently toured in Japan and marks its return to SAM. Japanese art historian Catherine Roche curates this 160-piece exhibit.

Objects in the exhibit span from stoneware, porcelain and ceramics from China, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, Vishnu and Krishna of Hindu paintings from India, to the must-mentioned Crows, the Japanese screen of much popularity with the SAM audiences.

Thoughts from contemporary Korean artist Do Ho Suh link together the exhibit from gallery to gallery. With Suh’s comments, the exhibit weaves together a fabric of displayed objects. Let Suh’s question linger, how would these objects removed from their original home be viewed distinctively at SAM?

Suh brings a multi-media installation to Luminous. A floor-to-ceiling fabric screen installation is punctuated by a non-virtual gate through which we can walk from one side of the screen to the other. Projected on this full-sized screen is the building to which this gate is connected, and the changing of hours in a day with crows finally crowding over the projection on the screen and night sets in. After night darkness, daylight comes again and the cycle of the hours of the day re-starts.

Luminous puts to work the process of restoring the art object from corrosion and the wear of time, and with technology, analyzing in details the making and changing of the object through time.

For restoration, Audubon-like drawings of “Dragonflies and Butterflies” (1843) dated to the Edo Period in Japan underwent remounting of the two scrolls, one of dragonflies and one of butterflies, on indigo, plain silk.

The other emphasis is on the technical analysis by radiograph imaging providing layers and cross-sections (using technology like CT scan in medicine) of pigments and other samples to tell a process in which an ancient Buddha was made and restored in earlier centuries. A history of red, blue and green paint pigments is coating the Seated Guanyin, as are gold markings. Pigments and markings in cross-sections resemble geological stratification of layers of substances (paint) on wood.

Come along into Luminous, what do artifacts, museum objects, tell us of ancient cultures? Were the ceramics, for instance, utensils and decorative? How did worshipers behold the Krishna story in a painting? What do the stone, porcelain and ceramic ware, the worshiped objects and the interiors express of these ancient cultures? And how does this ancient art influence artists of Asia today?

Whether it is a demanding throwback to run through a distance of time and the diversity of cultures, Luminous is teeming with excellent art from Asia.

“Luminous: The Art of Asia” exhibits at the Seattle Art Museum through Jan. 8, 2012. “Luminous – Throwing a Modern Light on The Ancient Arts of Asia,” Seattle Art Museum’s prestigious Asian art collection gets a new setting using the latest technology. SAM is located at 1300 First Ave., Seattle. Call (206) 654-3100 for more details.

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