Of art's many subjective roles, purposes, and functions, one truism is that each piece, even those hailing from centuries ago, possesses a thread, one that runs through the present day (whenever the present day happens to be).
These subtle yet strong threads connecting we modern viewers to the long-ago past are a pronounced feature in the nature-filled artworks currently on exhibition in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's Resnick Pavilion.
"Alternative Dreams: 17th-Century Chinese Paintings from the Tsao Family Collection," which includes dozens of stately scrolls, as well as painted fans and album leaves, features pieces by masters such as Dong Qichang, Bada Shanren, Luo Mu, and Wu Weiye.
Jung Ying Tsao was both an art dealer and a passionate collector and connoisseur of the period, compiling the many works on view over a number of decades.
Mr. Tsao passed away in 2011, but his dedication to saving and sharing the pieces created in "one of the most turbulent and creative eras in the history of Chinese art" finds a powerful legacy in "Alternative Dreams." (Disclosure: This writer is a friend to the Tsao family.)
That turmoil arose from the abutting of two dynasties, the Ming (which came to a dramatic end in 1644) and the Qing (China's final imperial dynasty, which reigned into the early 20th century). The artists witnessing these major shifts found inspiration in the ripples, and often huge waves, caused by the changes in power and ultimately society as a whole, as so often happens in times of upheaval.
The answer to that change, for the many masters featured in the show, was nature and its enduring elements, the mountains and rivers that ably weather human affairs. Birds, berries, blossoms, and towering trees are also seen throughout the scrolls and fans, while people, too, make appearances in the wondrous settings.
Above all, the landscape dominates, offering serenity and light. Poetry further enriches many of the works, as does calligraphy (the museum offers a helpful primer on the five types of Chinese calligraphy near the entrance).
Monks and scholars are among the artists featured in the exhibit, which brings a reflective, inner-looking/inner-knowing quality to the collection as a whole.
Perhaps the strongest thread of all, in an artwork fashioned centuries back, is that of nature, something that's intimately known by both artist and contemporary viewer. Trees and mountains and birds are a connective thread, as is our current knowledge of what the artists were encountering, and finding inspiration in, during their lifetimes.
"Alternative Dreams: 17th-Century Chinese Paintings from the Tsao Family Collection" is on view at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art through Dec. 4, 2016.
Pictured: Dong Qichang 1555-1636, "Winter Landscape in the style of Li Cheng & Calligraphy, Ming Dynasty, Wanli reign, 1613. Handscroll; ink on silk. 26.4 x 257.8 cm (10 3/8 x 101 1/2 in.) The Tsao Family Collection, photo by Michael Tropea