ART REVIEW; Nature on a Tabletop, Perfect in Its Imperfection
The oddly shaped tabletop objects known as Chinese scholars' rocks rate barely a mention in most art history books, and then only as decorative accessories. But when the Asia Society presented an exhibition of them four years ago they caused a minor sensation and quickly became the pet rocks of the 1990's.
The show, drawn from the collection of Richard Rosenblum, who died last February, was pretty strange. It displayed dozens of rocks in a neutral setting like Western-style sculptures but it also ganged them together, large and small, like sale items in a boutique. The effect was freakish and theatrical, perhaps calculatedly so: it certainly gave a viewer unfamiliar with the big picture of Chinese art a dramatic point of entry.
A very different show, ''The World of Scholars' Rocks: Gardens, Studios and Paintings,'' now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is also built around Rosenblum stones, several of which are promised gifts to the museum. But as the title suggests, it places them within the larger Chinese cultural context, to which they belong, and offers a lot more art to look at.
The installation, organized by Maxwell K. Hearn, a curator in the Asian art department, follows chronological lines, beginning with the Northern Song dynasty (A.D. 960-1127). Although stones of various kinds had been revered in China from an early date, it was during the Song that scholars' rocks were widely collected.
The Song was the classical age of mountain-and-water landscape painting, in which a Daoist concept of nature as an organic play of interactive forces took definitive visual form. And rocks, harvested from riverbeds and caves, shaped by tides and rain, embodied this dynamic in miniature.
The rocks were first domesticated for use in gardens, their natural contours manually altered and exaggerated to imitate the mountains that appeared in paintings. Eventually smaller rocks, set in basins or on trays and wooden stands, were adopted as indoor objects, to be placed on desks or shelves for contemplation, like little nuggets of the cosmos.
Few ornamental stones can be securely dated to an early period. (Many incised inscriptions were rubbed out during the Cultural Revolution to prevent rocks from being destroyed as elitist artifacts.) But the styles favored during the Northern Song dynasty -- monumental shapes, ink-black color -- set a standard for what followed.
So it makes sense for the Met, near the front of the exhibition, to mix early paintings with rocks of a later date. The handscroll titled ''Summer Mountains'' and attributed to the 11th-century artist Qu Ding, for example, appears beside a stone from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) that neatly echoes its gnarly, toothlike peaks.
(The limestone Qing piece, incidentally, has been carefully hollowed out to function as an incense burner. Smoke emerging through perforations in its surface would have provided an illusion of rising and dissipating mist similar to that seen in painted images.)
In some paintings, ornamental rocks themselves are depicted. In ''Palace Banquet,'' thought to date from the 10th or 11th century, the entrance to a royal harem is flanked by dark stones that rear like guardian lions. And in Li Gonglin's renowned 11th-century illustrations for the ''Classic of Filial Piety,'' rocks and people seem to interact choreographically, as if to confirm a correspondence between nature and culture.
Color takes a central role in a section devoted to the Southern Song dynasty (1127-1279), where the succulent blue-green tints of a landscape scroll are picked up in a magnificent Qing-period stone. Titled ''Soaring Jade Peak,'' it looks like a cresting wave of gray-green ocean water.
With the rise of the highly stylized literati art in the Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), based on calligraphic rather than naturalistic principles, paintings and stones assumed a new relationship. Sometimes the connection was stylistic: a slinky tree trunk in an ink-and-brush hanging scroll by Wu Boli and a hip-slung stone on view nearby are equally Bob Fosse-eque in posture.
Elsewhere the link was more abstract and metaphorical. In his seminal painting ''Twin Pines, Level Distance,'' the calligrapher Zhao Mengfu transformed a landscape into a measured dance of solids and voids, rhythmic stops and starts, a new, conceptual, contradictory version of nature. A rock on display in the same gallery, riddled with perforations, looking as weighty as a cliff and as light as a sponge, might be read the same way.
The Ming period (1368-1644), the heyday of rock mania, was an avariciously consumerist age like our own. People were just mad for things: great things, pretty things, silly things, exotic things. Scholars' rocks qualified for all four categories, and appeared in every style and shape in paintings.
Some were actually celebrated as personalities and sat for their portraits, as in the case of a pink-washed painting by Lan Ying titled ''Red Friend.'' And sometimes attention paid to them took bizarrely intense forms. In a handscroll titled ''10 Views of a Fantastic Rock,'' by Wu Bin, the artist scrutinizes a single stone voyeuristically from every possible angle, pushing connoisseurship into the realm of erotic fetishism.
The succeeding Qing dynasty was forever looking over its shoulder to the past. It valued both rocks and an ancient mountain myth attached to them, including the idea that certain mountain caves were wellsprings of rejuvenating energy and even entrances to paradise.
A vivid handscroll titled ''Outing to Zhang Gong's Grotto,'' by the painter Shitao, done around 1700, depicts one such cave, which, with its fabulous stalactites and rainbow colors, might have come straight from William Blake's visionary illustrations for Dante. It is no wonder that even the humblest desktop rock provided rich terrain for imaginative journeying.
Travel takes a more prosaic form in an outsize 18th-century Qing handscroll documenting the progress of an imperial inspection tour of southern cities. Tucked among the shops and palaces in its minutely detailed aerial view of the city of Suzhou are pocket-parks filled with ornamental stones of exactly the kind seen in the Met's permanent Ming-style Astor Court garden, around which the Chinese galleries wrap.
''The World of Scholars' Rocks'' concludes, logically enough, in the late 20th century with a handsome 1964 hanging scroll titled ''Pine Cliff and Foggy Waterfall,'' by Liu Haisu (1896-1994). But the story could be extended to an even more contemporary work.
In the summer of 1997, the Chinese-born artist Cai Guo-Qiang, whose work appeared with great success in this year's Whitney Biennial, created an installation at the Queens Museum of Art titled ''Cultural Melting Bath.'' It included a set of traditional garden rocks from China surrounding a Western-style hot tub whose waters has been treated with medicinal herbs.
Was the piece a gentle burlesque of the West's blinkered view of Asian traditions, which become comprehensible only when turned into cartoons? Or was it an acknowledgment that there is no ''right'' way of approaching culture in a melting-pot world, leaving all kinds of treasures ripe for discovery? The recent enthusiasm for scholars' rocks in the West -- at a time when they appear to generate little interest in China itself -- poses similar questions. And the Met show provides a solid basis for arguing the case both ways.