There’s still time to catch big shows 

December and January usually signal the end of some big special exhibits in our major museums, and this year is no exception.

At the Museum of Modern Art, "Anselm Kiefer: Heaven and Earth" closes Jan. 21. This is a huge show, something curator Michael Auping characterized as "never to be seen again," as simple logistics would prevent the reassembling of these 50 large, major works in this first North American survey of Kiefer in more than 20 years.

In the rich, varied storehouse of contemporary German art, Kiefer occupies a special place. He is a Catholic haunted by images of the Old Testament; born in 1945, but obsessed with "the spiritual abyss in which we are confronted with the earthly presence of evil"; an artist leaving behind a long period of in-your-face installations ofrefuse, literally, to ascend to the status of a remarkable painter — albeit of three-dimensional canvases: big, dark paintings with objects "coming out" of them, suspended on wire or enbedded in the painting. There are both installations and paintings, the former "interesting," the latter most impressive. "The Sixth Trumpet," "Osiris und Isis," "The Hierarchy of Angels," and "Shulamite" are of special interest.

The Asian Art Museum is running "Hidden Meanings" through Dec. 31, and you don’t want to miss this fascinating exploration of symbolism in Chinese art.

A veritable Joseph Campbell of Chinese traditions, Terese Tse Bartholomew has spent 40 years pondering the meaning of a tiny jade figurine of three rams. When her exhibit opened, along with the publication of her "Hidden Meanings" book, she laughed: "If only I studied the I Ching sooner!" Turns out the three yang (collective name for sheep, goats, lambs) represent the tai hexagram, consisting of three firm male lines, symbolizing heaven.

"Hidden Meanings" is edutainment par excellence, and — true to the Cambell association — it makes one take notice, think, allow connections to emerge. Right off the bat, as you enter the exhibit, you may well walk by the main sign: the show’s name against a pumpkin background, with some smudges on top. You’d walk by, that is, unless you visit in Bartholomew’s company. She makes you pay attention. "What are those figures?" Hmmm. Bats? Pumpkin-color? Thanksgiving? Nope.

But they are bats all right, flying upside down. If you look in Bartholomew’s extraordinary book — a complete, luxuriously illustrated "dictionary" of symbols — the translation is simple: bat is "lu," which means blessing; upside-down is "dao," which also means to have arrived.

Those otherwise ignored blotches speak clearly and powerfully to the observant and educated: happiness is here, complete, welcome to thousands of years of layers of meaning and enriching synapses.

The exhibit is organized in three groups: Fu (blessings, personal happiness — romance, marriage, children), Lu (societal considerations — exams, rank, wealth), and Shou (longevity). Figuring out symbolism (or just getting the information spoonfed at this show) is both fun and enlightening. A circular Qing dynasty nephrite pendant, for example, shows four bats surrounding a coin. "Fu" you already know, but coin is "qian," which also stands for "before." The bats-and-coin rebus can be read as "blessings before your eyes" ... or do your own interpretation.

Without seeing the exhibit, a 17th-century plate is just a picture of dragons and fruit. After seeing the show, you know that the dragons represent "yang," the male principle, branches of citrons and pomegranates provide a combination of "xiangyuan" (citrons), "lianyuan" (remaining first), "shiliu" (pomegranates) — resulting in "duozi lianyuan" or "may you have many sons who will continuously reach first place in civil service examinations."

Before long, you may want to repair to the museum cafe to catch your breath. Just stay away from watching the tea leaves in the bottom of your cup — too much symbolism may drive you batty ... or fufu.

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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