SAN FRANCISCO — When learning Chinese, it’s often difficult to appreciate the subtle beauty of each character. In the mist of trying to hammer each one into memory, a Chinese learner rarely pauses to admire the carefully crafted order of strokes and hidden meanings.
Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy, which closes this weekend at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, is a sprawling, gorgeous arrangement of fine historic Chinese calligraphy from. To set the tone, it starts with a quote from calligrapher Sun Guoting’s Treatise on Calligraphy (687 ACE):
Truly, [fine calligraphy] may be called the result of wisdom and skill achieving joint excellent, of mind and hand acting in harmony. The brush never moves without purpose; when it comes down, there must be direction.
What makes the show stand out is that, amidst collections of traditional Chinese calligraphic works centered around themes such as The Ancient and Relationships, the exhibition also provides a scroll-length projected animation by contemporary artist Xu Bing. His The Character of Characters explores the history of Chinese writing, from its beginnings in bone to its modern interactions with Louis Vuitton logos.
Also of interest are contemporary Western artists’ responses to seeing calligraphy, such as Brice Marden’s “Etchings to Rexroth.” Not educated in Chinese, he is quoted as saying that “I think of Chinese calligraphy as simply the way I see it, not knowing the language … But if someone translates a piece for me, and I hear the relationships I am affected by that.”
That said, what’s missing from the show is two things. First, the audience could have benefited more from translations of the existing work, which is difficult even for contemporary Chinese to understand (think of English speakers trying to read Beowulf or Chaucer in the original). And secondly, the show gets tantalizingly close with Xu Bing’s animation, but it totally ignores contemporary Chinese designers’ attempts to bring the writing into the 21st century through type design.
It’s these missing pieces that, in my mind, could have completed an already lovely show. But as it stands, it’s still a thought-provoking, expansive view of Chinese script, a celebration both of its formal qualities and its content. It’s well worth a look.
Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy closes January 13 at the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin Street, Civic Center, San Francisco).