A little help from another culture

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CROSS-cultural influences have been of crucial importance to the development of recent art. Modernism, for one thing, would probably not have evolved quite as it did if Manet, Degas, Cassatt, and Van Gogh had not been influenced by Japanese art, and if Gauguin, Picasso, and Matisse had not been enchanted by the art of Tahiti, Africa, and the Near East. Twentieth-century art, in particular, has benefited from the creative genius of many peoples, and has absorbed ideas, styles, forms, and techniques from cultures as diverse as those of ancient Egypt, China, Persia, India, and Japan, as well as from the older civilizations of Mexico and Peru. It has drawn inspiration from the tribal arts of New Guinea, the Pacific Northwest, Australia, and numerous other places around the world. And it has made it clear that never again will art be produced on this planet that hasn't been influenced in one way or another by work painted, drawn, or carved by ancient or foreign colleagues.

A significant number of contemporary Western artists have looked long and hard at the paintings of the Far East and have adjusted their ideas and methods to accommodate what they saw. These influences have generally been technical and formal, limited to such matters as freer brushwork, dramatic combinations of wash and line, and implied rather than defined spatial constructions. But Eastern philosophical and cultural ideals and attitudes have also played a part.

And Eastern sensibilities regarding subject matter, material, design, and color have exerted a subtle but pervasive influence upon a number of living European and American artists, many of whom have incorporated Chinese or Japanese motifs, patterned effects, or decorative devices into their art. These elements, while generally thoroughly assimilated, have added a mildly exotic flavor to work that otherwise remains purely Western.

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This quality is discernible in the watercolors of Stella Dobbins, an American artist whose involvement with the ideas and forms of Eastern painting has been intense and deep. Her interest in this kind of art was heightened during her travels throughout the Far East, India, and the Near East and assumed a central role during a stay in Malaysia from 1973 to 1975. While there, she studied Eastern painting techniques at the Malaysian Institute of Art, met with a number of master painters of the Chinese style, and discussed with them not only their individual philosophies, but the ideas formulated in the classic 17th-century ``Mustard Seed Manual of Painting,'' as well as in more specifically Taoist texts.

She was especially impressed by these painters' ability to relate to the natural world through their art and by the swiftness with which they arrived at the essentials of what they wanted to depict or convey with only a few strokes of the brush. Admiration quickly turned to serious study on her part, and before long she had not only learned the basic techniques but mastered the more subtle aspects of ancient Chinese painting.

A move to San Francisco in 1975 in no way diminished her interest in or dedication to Eastern-style brushwork, thanks partly to the presence there of a few excellent Chinese masters, but mostly to her increasing control over this art form. Her ability to express herself through a few quickly dashed-off lines and washes, and in a manner that became more and more authentically Asian, was quite phenomenal. She decided to try her hand at teaching this approach to art, discovering she was good at that as well.

It was only after she had settled in Texas in 1977 that the primary focus of her art moved from Eastern sources to those of the West. Her sparse, essentially calligraphic approach to painting, using traditional Chinese subjects and techniques, was gradually replaced by a more solidly representational, colorful, and precisely delineated still-life format that emphasized allover patterning and crisply defined detail. What had been largely monochromatic or dramatically black and white now became sumptuously colored, and her dependence on another culture's art was rapidly replaced by a flair for a very original form of American watercolor painting.

Even so, what she had learned from and had liked about Chinese art was not so much eliminated as transformed and assimilated. The objects in her still lifes might now be depicted in realistic, three-dimensional Western fashion, but their placement, thematic allusions, and sources were often specifically Eastern. Asian textiles, fans, jewelry boxes, baskets, and other items collected during her trips abroad began to dominate her composition and to give them a subtly lyrical and somewhat exotic flavor.

More important, her sensibilities in regard to pictorial space, design, texture, and line remained as close to the art of the Far East as to that of the West. Her recent paintings represent a fusion of dramatically divergent cultural attitudes, styles, and sensibilities that is as remarkable as it is handsome.

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