The Noh Masks Exhibit at the Asia Society May Give You Goose-bumps

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Noh masks? No way. Not interested even a little bit. Or so I thought, which is why I put off for weeks going to see "Traditions Transfigured: The Noh Masks of Bidou Yamaguchi" at Asia Society Texas Center. Boy, was I wrong.

Finally, on a cold, rainy post-Christmas Saturday, when all the galleries I'd planned to visit had Closed For The Holidays signs taped to their doors (why, I wonder, had they not bothered to post the closing announcements on their websites?), I had a couple of gallery-going hours to kill and no galleries to kill them in, so I decided at last to check out the Noh exhibit. It turned out that I was interested a lot. "Traditions Transfigured" was about the only goose-bump gallery visit I had all year.

When you start out knowing nothing about a thing, it's easy to learn something from an exhibition about it -- sometimes quite a lot -- -especially if the exhibition is well thought out and well presented, which this one is. I learned, for instance, that Noh theater became a dis-tinctive form in 14th-century Japan, its con-ventions, which are legion and can seem in-scrut-able to non-Japanese, codified by Zeami (1363-1443) and his father, Kan'ami Kiyotsugu (1333-1384). It's always been an aristocratic musical ritual, in contrast to the more popular Kabuki, which is slightly later in origin but no less baffling to foreigners -- a sort of opera-versus-operetta or musical-comedy-versus-vaudeville duality, perhaps.

One of the fundamental elements of Noh is the use of masks to convey the identities and characteristics of a panoply of conventional characters. As a form, Noh and its masks have been subtly but continually transformed -- always within strict parameters -- from its beginning down to the present. Which is what this show is all about: This is how one carver, now named Bidou Yamaguchi, who changed his name as he changed his life by joining the flow of a centuries-old art, uses the conventions and traditions of Noh to make an ancient art relevant in the modern world. All this I learned from the wall text in the exhibition, with a video assist from a film of actual Noh performances and another of mask carving tools and techniques.

I always forget between my rare visits to Asia Society how fine the gallery space is and how good shows look there. The visits are rare because my Eurocentric predilection when it comes to art convinces me that I'm not going to find a lot of the shows appealing, judging from titles alone. And since I'm not very knowledgeable about Asia, absorbing them sometimes seems like work. Though reading and looking at this show made for a little work, what I found out gave me enough foundation for the fun that was to come.

First there's a gallery of history, with the performance video, a couple of elaborate, embroidered robes such as Noh performers might wear, and a suite of prints depicting Noh scenes and characters by Tsukioka Kogyo (1869-1927). Very nice.

Next follows a gallery of Bidou's masks of traditional Noh characters, mounted beside prints of each character so that we can compare his reproductions to the conventions. The goal of all Noh participants is reproduction, according to the wall text, though inevitably elements of interpretation enter in over time -- which is what makes it art. Here also is the how-it's-done video, beside a case in which a mask emerges from a block of wood step-by-step. Most interesting.

And then a gallery of Bidou masks based on Kabuki characters -- each again mounted beside a print of the character that inspired it -- the prints this time by Toshusai Sharaku (active 1794-1795). These aren't traditional Noh masks but rather an application of Noh techniques to create a new form -- the first evidence of the "Traditions Transfigured" from the show's title. It's with this group that the real fun starts. These are "low" characters, with heavy makeup and contorted features, unlike the high-toned characters of Noh. Since Bidou is working from prints, in which the faces are flat, he has to reconceive them with the three-dimensional contours of sculpture. The resulting masks are delightful, with delicate half-mouths, protruding foreheads and jutting cheekbones -- some literally tongue-in-cheek. What fun.

But it's the last gallery in the string where the mind blowing happens. Here, in his European Portrait Series, Bidou takes as inspiration female faces from iconic European paintings -- the Mona Lisa, Botticelli's Venus, Vermeer's Girl With a Pearl Earring, Madonna by Edvard Munch -- and, as with the Kabuki masks, transposes them from two to three dimensions using traditional Noh mask-carving techniques.

The resulting sculptures waver between kitsch and stunning, but to my eye end up on the stunning side. These are, after all, images that have been used in a million takeoffs to the point that even the originals seem almost stale. Making something fresh of them might seem impossible, but Bidou does.

Though the face is in each case central to its painting, and though I've looked at reproductions (sometimes originals) of them all many times, I realized looking at Bidou's masks that I'd never really looked at the faces at all. The gazes of these women, in their paintings, seem directed toward us; what a shock to realize that none of them are actually really looking at us at all. How could I possibly have missed seeing that? And if not us and our world, then what are they looking at? Are they looking, maybe, at other worlds? Suddenly these women have for me an inner life that I'd never given them credit for before. And my perception of the women and the paintings they inhabit is transformed by way of Noh.

Part of their power undoubtedly flows from the way they're displayed in the gallery. Though we might not like to admit it, the way art is shown is hugely important in determining its impact. There's a reason why altar pieces in cathedrals move us more deeply and more profoundly than they do in museums. I'd be interested to know if this show, in its other venues, was displayed in the same way.

These masks are spotlighted in individual Plexi-covered cases, either against the walls or across the floor of the somewhat darkened gallery, and they glisten like jewels. Part of the ritual of Noh has the actor donning his mask before a mirror so that he sees himself becoming his character. The cases for these European portrait masks serve as the mirrors for their occupants, so that they see their own reflections -- sometimes many times -- and the reflections of masks around them. The effect is stunning, multiplying the dozen or so masks into scores of ghostly, hologram-like images throughout the gallery, looking at their own reflections, glimpsing their neighbors, glancing at us. After the reflection disaster I found at "Monet and the Seine," currently on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, I could never have imagined that reflection could be used to such brilliant effect.

Former Warhol Factory denizen Rene Ricard, who died last year, supposedly said that it's easy to pan art you don't like; what's hard is praising art you love without sounding like a PR shill (or something to that effect). That's probably what I sound like here. Because I love this show. Even down to the artist's self-portrait mask near the exit. In fact, I want to own them one and all, except for Angelina Jolie in horns, which I can do without. Starting with no knowledge of Noh, about which I'm still pretty sketchy, I've come to a deeper understanding of paintings I've been looking at for decades. What a cross-cultural transformation from a show in which I had no interest at all.

As I look back through the listing of past Asia Society exhibitions, I realize that the only two I've seen were "Treasures of Asian Art: A Rockefeller Legacy" (absolutely splendid) and "Weavers' Stories From Island Southeast Asia" (interesting and beautiful, but not my thing). From now on I won't miss a one -- just in case. "Traditions Transfigured" runs through February 15, so there's still plenty of time to see it if you haven't already. You may even run into me when you're there, because I'm definitely going back.

"Traditions Transfigured: The Noh Masks of Bidou Yamaguchi" Through February 15. Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore, 713‑496‑9901, asiasociety.org/texas.

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