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Sound Investments

The museum shows off its newest purchases with an outstanding new exhibit.

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Several works come from Asia. These include a second-century sculpture of Buddha from Pakistan, a 19th-century opaque watercolor from Tibet and a contemporary work by Pakistani painter Shazia Sikander. But “Kalki Confronted” (2003), a small, radiantly colored gouache by the Indian miniature painter Gulammohammed Sheikh, is the gem of this group. In Hinduism, Kalki is a messianic incarnation of Vishnu who is supposed to save the world by ushering in a new age of justice and reason. In Sheikh’s painting, Kalki sits on a throne, as if triumphant, but is surrounded by chaos. Demonic faces leer at him, tiny fighter planes circle his head like a military mandala, and a miniscule figure of Gandhi — with sandals, glasses and walking stick — confronts him on foot like an Indian Dorothy approaching a Hindu Wizard. Most fascinatingly, tiny excerpts from Picasso’s “Guernica” — the zooming face, the screaming horse, the burning woman — float incongruously among the Indian imagery.

Understated but unsparing, “Kalki Confronted” is a surrealistic tour de force — a nightmare vision of war and intolerance crafted by an aging artist who has witnessed the world’s brutalities for too long.

Western art is also plentiful. A pre-modern highlight is “Venus and Cupid” (circa 1625-1630), a sensuous work by the great Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi. Best known for her harrowing, proto-feminist images of Judith slaying Holofernes, the artist here takes a gentler approach to a mythic subject. In a long, horizontal composition the goddess of love sleeps soundly on luxurious bedding while the impish archer cools her with a fan of peacock feathers. The nude body of Venus dominates the work and is rendered in luscious flesh tones with hardened, pink nipples that imply an erotic dream — perhaps provided by Cupid.

Modern art in the exhibit includes works by Harlem Renaissance photographer James VanDerZee, abstract sculptor Aleksandr Archipenko and minimalist artist Richard Serra. But more recent pieces steal their thunder. These include “Walking Man” (2000), an eerie print by South African artist William Kentridge; “Self-Portrait in Coral Bed” (2003), a neo-symbolist painting by Julie Heffernan; and “Blue Husk” (2001), a creepy video installation by sculptor Tony Oursler. But Inka Essenhigh’s “Green Wave” (2002) commands the most attention.

A triumph of postmodern picture making, “Green Wave” depicts a great curtain of water an instant before it crashes down on a semihuman, wooden figure braced for disaster beneath it. A tiny stylized hand from the heavens tries in vain to hold back the wave, while a huge, ominous eye watches the action from the shadows behind it. It’s a compelling, tragicomic image, but the work’s magic is in its form. Painted in a visually complex, idiosyncratic style characterized by curvy loops and biomorphic abstractions, “Green Wave” is indebted to surrealism, science fiction, cartoon animation and Peter Saul — but is derivative of none of them. Instead it’s pure Essenhigh — its crackpot scenario and quirky style a compelling argument for the supremacy of individual vision over all other artistic considerations.

As such it echoes much of the work in the exhibit. The visionary quality and emphasis on visual elegance, technical dexterity and narrative that characterize “Green Wave” and its contemporaries mirror the strengths of the non-Western art as well. Both redirect art to pre-modern conventions — to storytelling, to image aking, to craft. Since these qualities are likely to attract both the cognoscenti and the simply curious, one hopes this outstanding exhibit will get the audience it deserves. S

“The New VMFA: Collecting for the Future” runs through Jan. 4 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 2800 Grove Ave.

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