To paraphrase an old rye bread ad, you don't have to be Buddhist to admire his holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, or at least that's so in the case of at least three Jewish artists, who lend their artistic voices to "The Missing Peace: Artists Consider the Dalai Lama," an exhibition currently at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
As the exiled leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama has a complex role. He is the unofficial leader of world Buddhism. Some people revere him as a living Buddha (not necessarily an act of avodah zara or idolatry, one might argue, because devotees describe "Buddha nature" as a universal attribute of all people). For his part, the Dalai Lama describes himself simply as a Buddhist monk.
At the same time, he is a political symbol of a nation currently under occupation, which seems to identify him with themes of peace and social justice. In choosing approximately 80 artworks in "The Missing Peace," curator Randy Rosenberg said she took a "universal" approach. "I am not a Buddhist, nor am I really well-versed in Buddhism," said Rosenberg, a freelance curator who lives in the Bay Area, "so I kept pushing the show toward concepts, such as compassion, impermanence, the nature of happiness and other things the Dalai Lama talks about, without [the show] being strictly a portrayal of Buddhism."
As one might expect, the works in the show vary enormously, both in approach and quality. Many artists seized upon traditional Buddhist imagery, of which a giant, inflatable sculpture of the sleeping Buddha, a familiar item in Buddhist iconography, is one of the most notable. Other artists responded with work with strong elements of politics and protest. Still others took on the near impossible task of finding artistic equivalents of both the ethical and esoteric ideas in Buddhism.
The three Jewish artists in "The Missing Peace," however, are less literal and more philosophical. Arlene Shechet is perhaps the one most attuned to Buddhism, as she has, in the past, used mandalas, stupas (shrines) and other religious imagery in her work. Here, however, she is represented by a rope of blue crystal that appears to loop in and out of the gallery wall like a piece of stitching.
According to her statement, the work, titled, "Out of the Blue," represents the Dalai Lama in conversation, who "honors the dialogue" by "creating connections, opening pauses and awareness."
Ken Aptekar uses a different set of symbols more particular to the Buddhist leader. His work often takes images of famous paintings as a point of departure, overlaying them with ironic or highly personal texts. In this show, Aptekar has taken a painting of a fire engine by early 20th century American modernist Charles Demuth, who intended the painting as a kind of indirect portrait -- a portrait without a face -- of his friend, the poet William Carlos Williams.
In Aptekar's version, the number "5" on the fire engine in Demuth's original painting is supplanted by "14." And in the places on the canvas where Demuth had scrawled nicknames for Williams, Aptekar follows suit, inscribing "Kundun," an affectionate nickname for the Dalai Lama.
Most ambiguous, perhaps, is a canvas by painter and photographer Michal Rovner, titled, "Spiral-Link." Rovner often manipulates photographs into painterly, quasi-abstract images. Here she appears to have transferred a manipulated image of a maze.
"Her work talks about interaction and reaction among people," Rosenberg said of Rovner. The Buddhist subtext, she added, is "the path to peace."
Rosenberg said many of the artists in the show were stimulated by the challenge of responding to the message of the Dalai Lama. "The artists were so enthusiastic," she said, that during the months she was putting the show together, "they wanted to do new work" beyond the pieces they had already contributed to the show.
She added that she is also pleased by what she described as "the eclectic mix" of different media," including a number of video works, large-scale installations and one piece involving videotaped interviews with various people played back on iPod Nanos.
Although a number of pieces "miss" in "The Missing Peace," the final impression is not one of evangelizing for Eastern religion, as much as a search for definitions of goodness and spirituality, whatever those things may be, amid the noise and confusion of present-day culture.
"The Missing Peace" runs through Sept. 10 at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History.