Whenever I start feeling a little claustrophobic about the narrow definitions
of “art” that mark out the boundaries of most contemporary art-world exhibitions,
there are a handful of institutions that I can always rely on to jolt me out of
the familiar. Of course places like the Getty Research Institute and LACMA’s non-Western
collections often have remarkable and scholarly exhibitions, but they’re just
doing the job you expect them to do.

To get a truly novel mixture, the places to go are the repositories of “culture”
like Santa Ana’s Bowers Museum of Cultural Art, which recently augmented its successful
alternative-to-Tut “Mummies” exhibit (from sister institution The British Museum)
with “Evita: Up Close and Personal,” a collection of relics from the life of the
Argentine politico-diva, including a lovingly re-created version of the silver
death mask destroyed by the subsequent regime. Another oddball collection is the
Wende Museum’s usually appointment-only archive of Eastern European Cold War tchotckes
and ephemera (though you’ll have to wait until the fall to see their restored
section of the Berlin Wall), which is open to the public this Friday from noon–8

The most reliable place for a fix of the unexpected, though, remains UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History, which has hosted some of my favorite shows of the last few years, including exhibits about Senegalese Sufi saint Amadou Bamba, Inuit printmaker Jessie Oonark, associative neo-pagan thought-stylist and certified madman Aby Warburg, and the deliriously postmodern hand-painted movie posters of Ghana. There were already a couple of interesting shows at the Fowler, but with the recent opening of photo-documentarian Linda Butler’s “Yangtze Remembered: The River Beneath the Lake,” I knew I had to visit — with one stop, I could rack up enough cultural antibodies to see me through a dozen shows of deliberately incompetent landscape paintings (thank you again, Laura Owens) and narcissistic Photoshop noodlings.

The first Fowler (or should that be Fowlest?) show that had sparked
my interest was, in fact, a painting show. The only reason “Painting Ethiopia”
is “culture” instead of “art” is the racist Eurocentrism of the art world. The
show is devoted to the innovative lifework of a single, living contemporary artist:
painter Qes Adamu Tesfaw, who has been expanding and reinventing the iconographic
traditions of Orthodox Ethiopian Christianity (and the parallel secular traditions
of the souvenir marketplace) since leaving the priesthood in 1960. Actually he
had been apprenticed as a sort of artist-priest, and by all accounts painting
was his one true calling. Inspired by church murals in his childhood village,
he began drawing with whatever means came to hand, and hasn’t stopped since. In
addition to thousands of paintings (around 30 of which make up the Fowler exhibit),
he has painted icons, church murals, illuminated manuscripts and most of the walls
of his own house. He moved to the capital Addis Ababa and put up with unscrupulous
dealers and artist-mentors who would sign and sell his work as their own, all
so he could concentrate exclusively on his gift.

The visual art of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is similar to Coptic and Byzantine traditions, with bright, darkly outlined colors, flattened perspective and big-eyed frontal depictions of warrior saints, the crucifixion and other dramatic biblical scenes. The specific formal and iconographic vocabulary of these religious paintings is rigidly codified, and has changed little over the centuries. Qes Adamu Tesfaw’s devotion to his crea-tive instincts changed all that, compelling him to engage in ceaseless formal innovation, never copying himself but continually searching for new color palettes and dynamic compositions to con-vey the stories of Jesus, St. George and the Dragon, and Solomon and the Queen of Sheba — alleged founders of the ancient Ethiopian royal dynasty that ended with Haile Selassie’s ouster in 1974.

At the same time, Adamu has eschewed the commercial photorealist tendencies of the secular marketplace, producing images of social and historical events like Drought and Famine (2001) and Battle of Adwa (ca. 1980–1995) – imbued with the same luminosity and iconic presence as his religious paintings. The sampling offered in this show, while only scratching the surface of Adamu’s enormous oeuvre, is literally glowing testimony to the irrepressible spirituality at the heart of intuitive artmaking.

The second show, though hardly lacking in spiritual content, takes a more intellectual slant on enlightenment. “UCLA Collects! Bodies of Knowledge” draws from five different Bruin archives — the Fowler, the Hammer’s Grunwald Center for the Graphic Arts, the Young Research Library, the Darling Biomedical Library and the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology’s Rock Art Archive. The show takes as its model the renaissance Wunderkammern or cabinet of wonders, an historical concept that has been faddishly popular in academic circles for more than a decade. These wildly eclectic displays of exotic biological specimens, precious minerals, anthropological artifacts and religious relics have been resurrected as a paradigm of interdisciplinary scholarship, in this case to inspire “intellectual associations between objects rather than information about them.”

Hansaku Yoshimasu, Drawings
Showing Points for Acupuncture
(bottom): Evita Perón’s death mask

In spite of a committee of — count ’em — 11 curators, “Bodies of Knowledge” strikes a happy balance between eclecticism and concision. By confining the exhibit almost exclusively to the human body — the main exception being a quirky self-reflexive sidebar dedicated to ’60s UCLA Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy — the curators have managed to provide a sense of grounding and continuity that allows for an extravagant inclusiveness. Next to the generous selections of figurative sculptures and masks (the spectacular polka-dot Epa headdress from Nigeria is the most impressive) from various indigenous cultures of the southern hemisphere, gorgeously illustrated antiquarian anatomical charts and treatises, and photodocumentation of rock art (think Paleolithic pictographs, not Roger Dean), you’re likely to find germane examples of 20th-century art by everyone from Egon Schiele and Picasso to Vija Celmins and Robert Gober.

Among the most startling objects are medical instruments from the Darling Library, including a lovely teal-blue Staffordshire jar for storing leeches, a cupping set (one of the earliest Chinese medicinal practices imported to the West), and a 19th-century Ophthalmophantome: You know, a tilt-back cast-iron classical head with a metal bracket for mounting a pig eye, used to demonstrate and practice eye surgery. Curiously, it’s the information about such objects that I respond most strongly to, but that could be due to my own long-term addiction to free association.

Nevertheless, my intuition directs me to the variations between the various concurrent shows at the Fowler — having explored spiritual and intellectual models of artmaking, “Yangtze Remembered” makes a powerful case for art’s political impact. Discreetly slipping into China on tourist visas eight times from 2000–2003, photographer Linda Butler documented the devastation wrought on more than a million people from 1,500 cities and villages along the banks of the longest river in Asia by the construction of the enormous Three Gorges Dam. After establishing the physical beauty of the region and the traditional self-sufficiency of its communities, Butler depicts the scramble to evacuate before the rising waters and, in a starkly reportorial series of before-and-after vistas, the inhuman destructiveness of corrupt industrial bureaucracies. Like the weighty book from which it’s derived, the show is forthright in its sadness and anger, but couched in a redemptive capacity for beauty and compassion. We just need to figure out how to teach those capacities to governments and multinational corporations, and we’re home free.

I was enriched but a little bummed out after “Yangtze Remembered,” and decided to duck into the one show I hadn’t been particularly interested in seeing — the permanent installation of Mr. Fowler’s collection of silverware. There were plenty of beautiful luxury items on display, but none of it seemed particularly inspired, until I came across a 19th-century German four-foot scale model of a French battleship — on wheels. Made entirely of silver, down to the rigging and the tiny figures on the woodgrain-engraved deck, the piece was like an inexplicable decorative cherry topping off the spiritual/intellectual/political sundae I’d just devoured. I’m not sure where it fits in the big recipe — I’m still digesting.

| Through September
UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA campus, Sunset and Westwood boulevards,

EVITA: UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL | Through October 16| The Bowers Museum,
2002 N. Main St., Santa Ana

Suite E, Culver City| Open house July 29, noon–8 p.m.

LA Weekly