It's been nearly 20 years since Washington's Sheila Isham, then studying in Hong Kong, first began combining the poetry of China with the sort of absract painting then the common in New York. The pictures she produced in that unlikley effort go on view at the National Museum of American Art. Her calligraphic paintings, like so many knicknacks sold nearby in Chinatown, look like new antiques.
It is not that they are ugly: Some are lovely. But the spirit of these pictures -- done in Chinese rubbing inkon sheets of modern paper shot through with threads of plastic -- is incuraby conflicted. They're part Chinese, part American, part abastact and part wordy, part traditional, part trendy. Kipling warned us of such blendings: "Never the twain shall meet." Isham proves his point.
"East and West: Painting/Poems by Sheila Isham" is twice-bifurcated title of the show. It is not a retrospective, and it does not do full justice to her art. She is a vastly bette painter now than she was in the '60s when there works were made.
The museum has installed them in its "Discover" gallery, where it often hangs its educational exhibits. Barbara Shissler Nosanow, the museum's curator of education, who put them there, says her department "is terribly interested in meeting the needs of Washington's Chinese community." China and I," a program of films and lectures "exploring Chinese culture and its influence on America," has been organized to coincide with Isham's exhibition. A motive perhaps more socila than esthetic lies behind this show. e
Of course, Sheila Isham is far from the first Westerner to draw important lessons from the art of the East. Whistler was much moved by the Orient; so were Van Gogh and Mark Toby and California's John McLaughlin, to name a few. But until the 1950's it was the painting of the East -- rather than its script -- that most influenced the West. It began to change after World War II. "The tendency in painting popularly called abstract expressionism," writes Joshua C. Taylor, the museum's director, "made clear to all the expressive power that could be concentrated in the mark of a brush."
Isham, it is clear, already had immersed herself in the art of Kline, Pollock and Hoffmann before she went to China. One sees that in the backgrounds on which her characters are brushed. Her brushwork is impressive, to Western eyes at least -- but she does not read Chinese. All the fragmentary poems employed in her paintings were freely copied from examples by more learned hands.
It is not that she ignores the meaning of the words. Frequently her backgrounds illustrate her texts. There is obvious intent in the way she places "the northern grasses are like emerald threads," a phrase by Li Po, on a background that resembles a sheaf of blues and greens. In "Between the vast mountains -- wild torrents," a fragment of Ma Tai's, what seems to be a waterfall appears to occupy the space between the columns of her text.
But these visual connections are tenuous at best. In most of the pictures here two quite different things are going on at once: Isham, in her backgrounds, is moving from the splashes and the drips of late abstact-expressionist painting to the discs and floating squares of the cooler color painting then coming into fashion. But in her foregrounds, she seems less a painter than a student, assiduously practicing a not-yet mastered skill. This is exercise-book art.
The show will travel to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. after closing at the National Museum of American art, formerly the Nation Collection of Fine Arts, on April 5.