Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Calligraphy Out of Character at Asian Art Museum

Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy was on view at the Asian Art Museum (SF) Oct 3, 2012 – Jan 13, 2013.  Based on the extensive classical calligraphy collection of Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang, this show filled the Asian’s two main exhibition galleries on the first floor, and the lobby between them.

I was up and down about this show. It was amazing to see all these pieces, many of which have never publicly displayed. I thought the curators did a pretty good job of explaining calligraphy techniques and the importance of calligraphy for an audience that may have had no prior exposure to this kind of work. Most classical calligraphy utilizes poetry as its subject matter, and the museum provided helpful translations (there is a good video about this on the AAM’s site). After close scrutiny, I was awed by the way the writing was both fluid and precise, brush and ink on paper or silk which allows few corrections. Included in the show were several acknowledged masterpieces, like one of the seven hand scrolls of The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322).

The Asian Art Museum's Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy gives most of the public a first look at one of the finest private collections. Photo: Stephen Lam, Special To The Chronicle. Read Kenneth Baker's review in the SF Chronicle at

I was fascinated by the animation The Character of Characters by Xu Bing, which took Mengfu’s piece as his starting point (Video excerpt here). Throughout his career, Xu Bing has explored calligraphy, the written word in general, and how we make meaning out of these symbols. He has presented large installation of books that turned out to be meaningless gibberish (Book from the Sky, 1987-91) and has attempted to organize the icons from all over the world into one universally understood language (Book from the Ground, on-going since 2003). In Character of Characters, he deals with topics ranging from the history and techniques of calligraphy to the modern veneration of logos on luxury goods. My personal favorite was his visualization of how the brain processes writing, which looked like some type of organic Rube Goldberg machine.

A show on a topic of this magnitude can’t cover everything, but there were some things that disappointed me. For one, I didn’t feel enough of the presence of the literati/civil servant. While there was a wall panel explaining the importance of the civil servant’s exams and the idea of the gentleman scholar, this concept is so essential to the meaning, interpretation and purpose of this work that I didn’t think the curators emphasized it enough. A section of the exhibition featuring modern Western art by Mark Tobey, Franz Kline, and Brice Marden, which was meant to stand for Chinese calligraphy's infiltration of modernist aesthetics felt tacked on and didn’t really work. The movement of modern art theory and techniques into Chinese calligraphy itself is such an interesting story, with so many intriguing and impressive works, that I was extremely disappointed none of it was included.

I have written and presented frequently on modern calligraphy in China, and hoped to do an exhibition of the collection of Gordon Barrass, currently archived at the British Museum. See my slideshow embedded below.