When is an ant not just an ant? Or a lightning bolt more than just a crackle of electrostatic discharge? The answer is simple: when Iwasaki Tsuneo painted them.
Tsuneo, a research biologist who pursued art upon his retirement, found in his rigorous yet ornamental approach a way to blend his vocation with his devotion, melding science and spirituality into works that are, even for a jaded art critic like me, astonishingly original. “Painting Enlightenment: Experiencing Wisdom and Compassion Through Art and Science,” which opens Saturday at the Morikami, showcases around 30 Iwasaki paintings, from narrow Japanese scrolls to towering canvases that took years to complete. His subject matter ran a gamut from childlike scribbles to the origin of the universe, all painted with a consistency of form, vision and meaning. When I learned that the Dalai Lama had blessed these works, I wasn’t surprised.
Yet most of his works are not flashy from a distance; they might not stand out at a contemporary art fair. Colors in Iwasaki paintings are muted and minimal. He primarily used earth charcoal and ink pigments. They take on their hushed beauty upon close inspection, as you begin to understand their subtext.
A practicing Buddhist, Iwasaki embedded every painting with a sacred text of his religion, the Heart Sutra, in a variation on the devotional process known in Japan as shyakyō. Iwasaki took this practice to the next level, not simply writing the shorter, 35-line version of the Heart Sutra onto vertical woodblocks but making each individual Japanese character the very form of his art. Thus, in an immeasurably powerful work like “Pilgrimage to Pagoda,” a depiction of the oldest wooden structure in Japan, the entire five-story temple is comprised of tiny and recurring Heart Sutra text—to the tune of 8,280 characters.
In “Do Ants Have Buddha Nature?,” Heart Sutra text takes on the form of the title insects, following a circuitous, seemingly preordained path toward enlightenment. Skulls, a double helix of DNA, bolts of lightning and even the stars of the cosmos are also formed by Heart Sutra characters, suggesting that such fundamental text is baked into the building blocks of energy, of space-time, of life itself. For Iwasaki, this approach was far from a gimmick: He practiced what he preached in the most literal sense of the term, preparing to paint by meditating, chanting and lighting incense.
In some of his more profound pieces, the Sutra appears in unexpected ways. In “Candlelight,” the text encircles a radiant lit candle wick, as if imbuing it with protection. It offers a frame around “Mandala of Evolution,” an epic opus of the artist as pilgrim, which charts his family tree stretching to infinity, and includes the image of a golden dragon swallowing its tail, a metaphor for the circular endlessness of existence.
I was particularly taken with scrolls in which the Heart Sutra functions as a lifeline for his human subjects. In “Mother of Compassion,” a Buddha pours an elixir of Sutra characters down to a baby in the womb, as a kind of spiritual nutrition. In “Baby Buddha,” the title subject points toward the sun, the Sutra characters creating a kind of tether from the child’s gesture to the celestial body keeping us alive. And in “Climbing Out of Hell,” skeletal figures ascend a column of Sutra characters from the murky depths below—the Buddhist text as a ladder toward forgiveness and enlightenment.
Iwasaki died in 2002, so he did not live to see the success of this exhibition, which premiered in 2019 at the Louisiana State University Museum of Art. But, at least in the Morikami’s triumphant presentation of these works, I’m sure his spirit is present.
“Painting Enlightment” opens tomorrow, May 8, and runs through Sept. 19. It is included with museum admission ($15 adults, $13 seniors and military, $11 college students, $9 children). Call 561/495-0233 or visit morikami.org.