Clark Center's Japanese Art Graces Berkeley Art Museum

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Somewhere in the small San Joaquin Valley town of Hanford, Calif. reside three grotesque weather-related deities: "The Gods of Wind, Thunder, and Rain." They rode in from Japan on clouds lined with silver, and their way was paved with bull semen. Mythically speaking, anyway.

"This is what always makes people laugh ... but I wanted to travel more so I started a business to sell frozen bull semen for the artificial insemination of cattle," explained Willard G. "Bill" Clark, founder of Hanford's Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture.

Thus, a Central Valley native (and one-time Berkeley student's) childhood fascination with Japan was allowed to blossom into one of the United States' most extensive collections of Japanese art. Though Mano Gyotei's early Meiji period pair of folding screens featuring the aforementioned gods make their home in rural Kings County, you can worship them right now in the Berkeley Art Museum's exhibition, "Flowers of the Four Seasons: Ten Centuries of Art from the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture."

The exhibit, which opened last week, is comprised mostly of pieces from an exhibition of Clark's collection that traveled through Japan in 2002 called "Delightful Pursuits," but the show at BAM also includes contemporary sculpture. It's a unique chance for Berkeley to get up close and personal with a wide variety of Japanese painting and sculpture, from 14th century Buddhist paintings to bamboo sculpture created in the past half-decade.

"You don't have - even in the entire Bay Area - this kind of high quality Japanese art often," said Clark Center Director Andreas Marks, who is co-curating the exhibit with BAM's Julia M. White. "I think it's a great opportunity in the Berkeley area to see art from Japan and to see art that is still very highly valued ... directly."

Wander through the exhibit and you'll see what he means. While the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco keeps its Japanese art in a series of smaller galleries, usually behind glass, almost all of the pieces in "Flowers of the Four Seasons" are out in the open.

Ink-painted branches spring off life-sized folding screens displayed at their full 3-D potential in the middle of the airy galleries, and the finest brushwork on the smallest hanging scrolls feels near enough to be properly admired.

But what really lends the exhibit an extra sense of continuity is the ever-present eye of the collector - and Bill Clark's has a twinkle in it.

"I say that we have two collections within the collection - one is what I call the serious art ... and then we have what I call a fun collection ... " said Clark. "They have such a wonderful, playful sense of humor so I buy art that I think will bring smiles to people's faces - at least to my own."

The line between the two, though, often seems to be charmingly blurred. While Mori Shuho's Edo painting "Frogs in Sumo Match" clearly falls into the latter category sometimes the whimsy catches you off-guard.

One Muromachi period fan painting on a hanging scroll called "Ha Ha Birds Screeching at Baby Owl" is ostensibly an ink work depicting avian life with a degree of anatomical detail, but look again and you might find yourself giggling at the owl's bewildered eyes as a crowd of "Ha Ha birds" taunt him like schoolyard bullies. It's simultaneously goofy and aesthetically refined.

And if the various depictions of majestic bulls are any indication, that same description could probably apply to Bill Clark.


Wrestle an amphibian sumo wrestler with Jill at [email protected]

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