Chinese writing was established around 2000 B.C. and evolved into its present forms by the mid-Tang Dynasty (Eighth Century). At that time, theorists first proposed that calligraphy could only be appreciated as an art form if its formal and aesthetic dimensions are separated from its linguistic message. Meaning was less relevant than how the forms were presented and only important for the style of the calligraphy to relate to the characters’ meaning. Even today, only the most literate of Chinese can decipher cursive script character-by-character. To lessen the importance of the character’s meaning versus the aesthetic act, calligraphers through the ages have chosen well-known literary passages. Thus, the educated viewer immediately recognizes the passage and can then concentrate on the aesthetic value of the piece. We have provided translations on the labels for this exhibition for those viewers not literate in Chinese.
In more recent times, art theorists regard the “lyric” aesthetic of calligraphy in contrast to the “narrative” aesthetic. Just as musicians interpret a musical score, so calligraphers celebrate the execution of the characters. Calligraphy is a personal record of the artist’s spirit expressed through the action of an ink-filled brush. Calligraphers regularly attempt dozens of versions of the same text before they settle on one work deemed worthy of keeping and usually destroy the rest. Both calligraphers featured, Hsu Kuo-huang and Huang I-ming, have remarked separately their best works come from when they are “in the zone,” with optimal conditions for creative success. Further, certain moods produce better cursive script as other moods give rise to more studied styles, such as seal or clerical script.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, the Western art world was dominated by the “new” art form of Abstract Expressionism. Wen Fong, of the Metropolitan Museum and Princeton University once wrote, “Effects of speed, energy, and force, as well as the sense of physical movement and gestural expression in calligraphy (and Chinese painting brushwork) seemed remarkably similar to phenomena in abstract paintings by Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning, Franz Joseph Kline and others.” Western viewers take note: the Chinese developed this sensibility back in the Tang Dynasty, over a thousand years earlier.
Hsu Kuo-huang, an accomplished painter and calligrapher, distilled his personal style over thirty years of study and work at the National Palace Museum. Hsu’s cursive script channels the great Song Dynasty cursive master, Huang Tingjian, through the Ming virtuoso artist, Wen Zhengming. For the works in this exhibition, Hsu chose a number of quotations from another Song literary great, Su Shi (Su Dongpo). Hsu also has a particular interest in brushing ancient script styles, such as seal script. In one work he mixes the ancient seal script style characters with a freely brushed branch of plum blossoms.
Just as Hsu’s calligraphy embodies a distinctive personal style closely linked to past masters, Huang I-ming has chosen a different path. Huang is also interested in ancient traditions, shown in his work brushed in squat, squared-off clerical script. Huang has a particular hankering for the clerical script of the ancients, a style which commands considerable skill very few contemporary calligraphers attain. While earning a doctorate in calligraphy theory and practice at the Central Art Academy in Beijing, Huang began experimenting with cursive calligraphy, breaking out of what he calls the “linearity” of character forms. When brushing “Daybreak,” Huang was most interested in portraying the “restless commotion associated with the beginning of life.” The largest piece in the exhibition, “Quiet,” is more rooted in the feeling of steadfast calm and unyielding patience in the face of adversity. In “Auspicious,” Huang has gone one step further to divorce the character’s form with an evocation of calligraphy’s meaning through deconstructed impressions. With this bold step, the meaning now becomes the catalyst to expressive form, rather than the action of brushing a specific character as the creative medium of expression.
Hsu Kuo-huang will be turning sixty this year; Huang is a little more than a year younger. True to Chinese tradition, Hsu and Huang are both hitting their creative stride. We expect that just as the ancients, their best years will continue for years to come. M. Sutherland is proud to exhibit these two exciting calligraphers for the 2010 Asia Week Spring Exhibition.