Tibetan-Nepalese artist duo Tsherin Sherpa and Tulku Jamyang mix Buddhist philosophy and contemporary mass culture.
London-based gallery Rossi & Rossi holds “Active Blur” by brothers Tsherin Sherpa and Tulku Jamyang, exhibiting works that draw their aesthetics from thangka painting and themes from the Tibetan diaspora.
Running until 21 January 2016 at Rossi & Rossi in London, “Active Blur” features recent works by Tibetan-Nepalese artist brothers Tsherin Sherpa and Tulku Jamyang. The exhibition grapples with the tensions between traditional Buddhist philosophy and globalised mass culture in unique ways.
Brothers with Different Vantage Points
Sherpa and Jamyang’s practices share notable similarities – especially in the way each merges the sacred with the mundane – but also differ significantly in their media, motifs and processes. These differences stem from the brothers’ diverging religious, philosophical and artistic experiences despite their close kinship.
Sherpa is formally trained as a traditional thangka painter under his father, Urgyen Dorje, a renowned painter of these intricate works from Nyalam, near the Tibet-Nepal border. In his six-year traditional education, Sherpa was steeped in Buddhist philosophy and practice in addition to painting techniques.
After settling in California in 1998, Sherpa began exploring a unique artistic style using the traditional motifs, symbols and figures of thangka paintings (PDF download), creating thoroughly contemporary compositions that blur the boundaries between the Tibetan artistic tradition he is trained in and the internet-mediated mass culture he lives in.
Sherpa’s works reimagine sacred images by manipulating them in various ways, such as by distorting their forms and juxtaposing a vibrant colour palette with the use of gold leaf. He also breaks away from the strict grid-like structures that bind thangka paintings as he experiments with sacred motifs in formally unrestricted compositions and figurations.
Jamyang, on the other hand, was recognised as a tulku – or a reincarnation of a spiritual teacher (lama) of Tibetan Buddhism – at a very young age and began his monastic life as a young adult. From then on, he has travelled to Tibet, Nepal, Bhutan, India, Canada, Japan and the United States to teach philosophy before beginning to work as a visual artist a few years ago.
Jamyang’s works in the show are visibly inspired by his monastic background, his religious identity as a reincarnated lama, as well as his political vision of a free Tibet. Most notably, many of his works are created through the unique practice of burning holes on rice paper with incense, and then overlaying the resulting pockmarked paper on colourful paintings. The result is a visually stunning effect with only parts of the hidden paintings emerging through the surface.
Freed Protector Spirits
The asymmetrical composition of Sherpa’s Float Like a Butterfly (2015) features sharp reds, blues, greens and yellows prominently on three distinct layers: a background sprinkled with gold leaf, a middle layer of colourful swirling forms recalling the wings, feathers and scales of Tibetan protector spirits, and a foreground with three undistorted masked figures.
The contrasting colours between each of the identical foregrounded figures – protector spirits in human form – and between the different layers highlight the tension between the distinctly contemporary composition and its stylistic connections to traditional Tibetan art.
Swirling, Amorphous Forms
Sherpa’s paintings This is Not a Rorschach (HeyVajra) (2015) and Allomorph (2015) both feature traditional Tibetan motifs in a distorted, swirling vortex that render the original figures unidentifiable.
In referencing the Rorschach test used in psychoanalysis and a Buddhist ritual object denoting indestructibility and immense force, the title of the first work, painted on cotton, at once highlights the subjective associations and traditional connotations at play.
The shape of the predominately blue amorphous form at its centre, depicting distorted protector spirits, is irregular but at the same time structured around a rough oval pattern that is denser in the middle, drawing viewers into the eye of a disorienting whirlpool of colour.
Although they are traditionally wrathful figures that shield their charges from everything negative in the world, the protector figures seem to take on a less omnipotent and more vulnerable appearance in their warped state in the painting. As the artist puts it himself,
The work is an attempt to explore the subject of traditional values and modern influences. It is also a reminder to myself that Protectors may not be fully protected either.
Allomorph is a set of five circular paintings that depicts the gradual distortion of the same sacred image of a spirit riding a white elephant. In the first painting, the traditional iconography is rendered meticulously and induces an instinctive feeling of reverence from the viewer.
Starting from the second painting in the work, however, the figure becomes more distorted as it swirls in different directions. In the last painting, the original iconography becomes completely unrecognisable – but also unexpectedly takes on a new, balanced compositional symmetry. Sherpa says:
I’m interested to see how the viewer’s attitude towards an object changes, based on its appearance. This work was inspired by the popular Buddhist quote, ‘Form is emptiness, emptiness is Form.’
Celebration of the Tibetan Spirit
Sherpa’s works Twinkle Twinkle… Who You Are (Blue) and Contemplation (2015) both feature a prominent central figure. The painting surface in the first work is fully covered by gold leaf, and a red grid is superimposed on top, recalling the sketches of traditional thangka paintings with their precise measurements.
Centred on top of this grid is a sleeping baby figure with light blue skin, like that of Buddhist deities, depicted with the characteristic fine, delineated lines of traditional paintings. The snakes around his wrists, flowery bands radiating from his body and ornate decoration on his head also give the baby in peaceful slumber the aura of a god. According to Sherpa, the painting is a tribute to the Tibetan diaspora in the United States:
I am encountering this wave of newly born American Tibetan babies. This marks […] a new chapter in the Tibetan story. These works are a celebration of the new Tibetan Spirit.
Contemplation incorporates the techniques and imagery of street art and tattoo culture into the depiction of a squatting spirit, whose body features a black and white mélange of mass culture images that contrast the traditionally rendered figure.
[the work] is an attempt to smear the boundary between sacred art and street art […] to understand how the environment we live in, experiences we share and information we encounter influence the state of our being.
The Tibetan Diaspora
Tulku Jamyang’s paintings in the show – including Middle Path (Win-Win Situation), Diaspora, Transformation, Wish for Enlightenment and Yang-Si (Rebirth) (all from 2015) – are created with the unifying artistic process of burning holes in rice paper and overlaying it on top of colourful compositions. This is a simple yet exacting process that allows his vibrant colours to emerge in beautifully patterned bursts.
Jamyang has a philosophical fascination with the dichotomous tension that the simultaneously constructive and destructive action of burning paper brings forth: constructive as it creates an artwork, but destructive as it physically destroys parts of the support material.
In Diaspora, Jamyang deals with the loss of the Tibetan language both in Tibet and in the Tibetan community in exile, speaking to the increasing difficulty to preserve his native culture in the modern day. The Tibetan alphabet is randomly scattered in different colours on rice paper, then overlaid with the incense-burned rice paper with an intricate and interconnected pattern. Jamyang says:
The [work shows] that our Tibetan language, the key to our language, is getting lost – and [reminds] us to pay extra attention to it.
The Middle Way
The title of Middle Path (Win-Win Situation) refers to the vision of reconciliation between China and Tibet favoured by the current Dalai Lama, which proposes a democratic Tibet free to exercise sovereignty over its domestic affairs.
The burned holes on the rice paper form the pattern of a set of scales – representing the balance of this Middle Path – with the heads of a dragon (China) and of a snow lion (Tibet) on either end. Although one scale is slightly larger than the other to symbolise the respective size and power of China and Tibet, the two scales are in perfect balance.
The vibrant colours bursting forth through the incense-burnt holes are parts of an underlying painting with a mixture of Tibetan and Chinese characters. This partially visible symbolism further hints at the latent potential for a harmonious relationship between China and Tibet.
Tensions that Converge and Diverge
Tsherin Sherpa and Tulku Jamyang’s works in “Active Blur” showcase forms and concepts that converge through a unifying religious philosophy but diverge through different artistic visions and vantage points.
With their unique visual language and creative processes, the artists navigate the challenges and opportunities faced by the Tibetan diaspora today, while revealing new insights about the intersections between traditional Tibetan philosophy and contemporary mass culture.
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