Brushed Voices: Calligraphy in Contemporary China

April 15–June 6, 1998

Given the rapid modernization of China in the late 20th century, the traditional art of calligraphy might today seem irrelevant. Yet among the arts, calligraphy alone has experienced an unprecedented boom during the past two decades and is presently enjoying immense popularity in China. It is practiced by an ever-increasing number of artists, both amateur and professional, who are expanding the traditional art form in new and unexpected ways. Once a preserve of the literati, calligraphy today has been democratized.

This important and current cultural phenomenon will be explored in the exhibition Brushed Voices: Calligraphy in Contemporary China, an unprecedented gathering in the United States of 64 recent works by more than 20 leading calligraphers from the People's Republic of China.

The exhibition was conceived and is being curated by Yiguo Zhang. Mr. Zhang is the author of Calligraphy: The Art of Heart and Soul (Beijing, 1991; Taipei, 1992) and is an accomplished calligrapher himself. The exhibiting artists are Bai Di, Han Tianheng, He Yinghui, Liang Yang, Liu Bingsen, Liu Tianwei, Liu Wenhua, Liu Zhengcheng, Luo Qi, Ouyang Zhongshi, Shao Yan, Shen Peng, Sun Boxiang, Sun Xiaoyun, Wang Dongling, Wang Xuezhong, Wang Yong, Wang Youyi, Zhang Daoxing, Zhang Qiang, and Zhou Huijun.

The exhibition will include a broad range of works exemplifying both traditional and experimental styles. Works that adopt traditional script types show the persistence and viability of earlier scripts and provide a context for approaching the more experimental and provocative works. The latter encompass a wide variety of practices, challenging both tradition and the semantic function of calligraphy. Such experimental practices include using text from nontraditional sources, such as slang and popular song lyrics, dramatically varying the formal columnar sequence and the relative size of characters combining characters taken from historically different script types, manipulating the quality of line and structure of traditional characters in order to play with the meaning of the character, and using traditional lines to create nonsemantic forms. Further, recognizing the continued importance of seals within calligraphic practice, the exhibition will include several contemporary examples of seal impressions.

In playing with semantic function, contemporary practices call into question the very nature of calligraphy: is it nonrepresentational in the sense of being an assemblage of lines making up semantic signs or is it representational in the sense of being picture-like? If lines taken from traditional script types constitute characters that cannot be read, a parallel may be drawn with the practice of abstract painting.

In conjunction with the exhibition, the gallery will publish a fully illustrated catalogue with an introductory essay by Yiguo Zhang; an interview with the celebrated American artist Brice Marden, exploring the relationship between his own work and Chinese calligraphy; and a foreword by professor David Rosand. The gallery will also host a day-long roundtable discussion and a calligraphic demonstration/workshop in early May, 1998. Participants include Mr. Zhang, Professors Rosand and Robert Harrist Jr. of Columbia University, and Professor David Sensabaugh, curator of Asian Art at the Yale University Art Gallery.

This exhibition and the accompanying catalogue have been made possible through the generosity of anonymous donors, Gordon Bennett, the Lam Foundation, H. Christopher Luce, the Parnassus Foundation, the Eugene V. and Clare E. Thaw Foundation, and others.