The Jeweled Isle: Art from Sri Lanka, a landmark exhibition at LACMA, is the first major overview of this rich legacy to be presented by an American museum. The island is shaped like a pendant, and it was best-known in the colonial era for its gemstones. A display of these near the entry leads into a rich array of Buddhist and Hindu artworks spanning almost two millennia. Objects and photographs from the 400 years of Portuguese and British occupation complement the indigenous art from three ancient capitals: Anuradpura, Polonnaruwa, and Kandy. The challenge for LACMA’s curators, Dr. Robert L. Brown and Dr. Tushara Bindu Gude, was heightened when the Sri Lankan government decreed that no art can ever leave the island. Most of the great works are still there, but happily the two experts discovered a trove of unseen treasures in their own vaults and were able to borrow important pieces from other institutions.
Intricately crafted and vibrantly colored screens, statuary, paintings, metalwork, and textiles are dramatically lit, and displayed in interlocking galleries. Frederick Fisher reconfigured the Resnick Gallery last year, creating four complementary exhibition areas, to save the trouble and expense of constantly changing the drywall divisions. Another LA firm, Escher GuneWardena Architecture, installed this exhibition. They made good use of Fisher’s structure, painting it charcoal gray and complementing its angular geometry with plinths, mandalas, and segmented rectilinear columns. These articulate the space and evoke features of Sri Lankan art and ruins, enriching the viewers’ experience. An inflatable reclining Buddha by contemporary artist Lewis de Soto is modeled on a 12th-century stone figure. This is the latest in a long series of architect-designed exhibitions mounted at LACMA; a practice that other museums would be wise to adopt.
The Jeweled Isle is a must-see, and it runs through June 23rd.
Author: Michael Webb
Michael Webb Hon. AIA/LA has authored more than twenty books on architecture and design, most recently Moving Around: A Lifetime of Wandering, Architects’ Houses, and Building Community: New Apartment Architecture, while contributing essays to many more. He is also a regular contributor to leading journals in the United States and Europe. Growing up in London, he was an editor at The Times and Country Life, before moving to the US, where he directed film programs for the AFI and curated a Smithsonian exhibition on Hollywood.