- Brushed Voices: Calligraphy in Contemporary China
Although many Americans are privileged to have access to museums housing fine examples of Chinese calligraphy from various dynastic periods, examples by modern calligraphers are not readily available or frequently exhibited. The diversity of artistic developments in China's contemporary calligraphy is particularly fascinating, for many of these artists continue to practice a very old art form that was, for about fifteen hundred years, the hallmark of elite members of society. There are those, however, who challenge its conventions or reinterpret this ancient art form. We are unable to chart the developments in this flourishing practice from abroad, and so it is fortunate that Yiguo Zhang, a citizen of China and practicing calligrapher, has endeavored to celebrate and discuss China's recent calligraphic history through this book.
Brushed Voices is a catalog of an exhibition that was held at the Wallach Art Gallery, Columbia University, in 1998. The exhibition was organized by Yiguo Zhang with the help of others and includes twenty-one prominent and well-established calligraphers. Many of them hold very important and influential positions in universities, calligraphy associations, and journals on calligraphy, and there are some artists who have studied Western art, including a few who have studied abroad.
Zhang's introductory essay discusses the burgeoning interest in the art of calligraphy by citizens of all ages and backgrounds. Equally diverse are the artistic directions this art form has taken in recent years. They range from traditional interpretations of ancient scripts and styles to questioning the very heart of the art form itself—asking, for example, whether or not Chinese characters are even necessary. Sun Xiaoyun, one of two female calligraphers included in the catalog, maintains a traditional approach, modeling her writing on esteemed masters of the past, remaining within the boundaries that have traditionally demarcated conventional Chinese writing, such as balanced character composition and correct stroke order. In contrast, Bai Di's work titled Noncharacter Calligraphy is a [End Page 571] playful piece that challenges traditional practices. In this work, forms that appear to be characters are in fact assemblages of calligraphic strokes that are illegible, yet they are arranged in columns as though they are readable text. Another artist, Luo Qi, defies accepted conventions in a more controversial manner. In some of his works he denies traditional calligraphic strokes and characters entirely, adopting instead a "universal line" that forms abstract images. The strong Western abstract-painting quality of Luo Qi's work differs from other works that explore the relationship between traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy that has had a long history in China. Several artists investigate the art of the calligraphic line through landscape or figure painting. For instance, in Liu Zhengcheng's Magnolias, the brushstrokes that describe a profusion of buds exhibit qualities shared by calligraphic strokes.
The sixty-four works included in this catalog are all illustrated in black and white, with eleven reproduced a second time in color toward the end of the book. Each artist is briefly introduced and his or her works are all translated and discussed in varying detail. Some descriptions of the calligraphy are entirely formal while others consider the artistic development and context that define a calligrapher's work. Conveniently appended to the back of the book are transcriptions of each work of art in traditional Chinese characters. The brief descriptions of each artist are also provided in Chinese. Zhang has, moreover, included a bibliography of superb English and Chinese books and articles that may interest those who wish to read more about Chinese calligraphy.
An interview with the American artist Brice Marden is appended to the end of the catalog. Unfortunately, the artist is not given an introduction. Marden, who lives in New York, was born in 1938 and is an abstract painter who has been influenced by Chinese and Japanese calligraphy. During the years 1988 to 1992 he worked on a series of paintings called Cold Mountain, which draws on his study...