Calligrapahy Evokes Modern Aesthetic
On the muted orange wall facing the gallery’s entrance is a work by a contemporary Japanese artist, Monita Shiryu. It is a black lacquered panel covered by wispy yellow brushstrokes, shining with gold glitter. In another setting, this work would not seem to resemble calligraphy, but in this context the influence is clear. The panel, at once familiar and foreign, contemporary and historical, piques visitors’ interest and draws them into the show.
Inside the exhibit, the walls are painted dark blue, the space feels intimate, the atmosphere subdued, and the scrolls are older and more traditional. Buddhist scrolls from as far back at the eighth century are framed by layers of intricate fabrics and papers. The calligraphy itself is written in bold black and gold ink, and the centuries-old paper on which it is written often has its own subtle decoration. There are also personal letters and poetry; some of the texts are written out phonetically, in order for visitors to sound out the original cadences, and some are translated into English.
A room of Zen calligraphy houses bolder scrolls; here the Jiun Onko that was the collectors’ first acquisition hangs near several of his other scrolls. Onko’s works make the attraction of this genre especially clear. The Onkos are strikingly expressive. Even without knowing the characters’ meanings, visitors can read the expression in his brushstrokes; in Onko’s scroll entitled Bodhidharma (Daruma), for example, the mix of heavy and light marks made by the artist’s hand suggests the varying pressure he must have used to make them.
Anne Rose Kitagawa, the show’s curator, hopes that visitors will come away with a sense of the unique ability of calligraphy to blend text and art. Like handwriting in Western civilizations, calligraphy is a dying art, constantly replaced by typewritten text. The scrolls are testament to the fact that writers can survive centuries through the more personal brushstroke; here, all the details are evident, down to the way a line progresses from dark to light as ink runs off the brush.
Kitagawa also points out that “Marks of Enlightenment” is well-suited for casual observers, considering the collection’s origins. Barnet and Burto were initially attracted to Japanese calligraphy without knowing anything about it and have since made themselves experts. The goal of the exhibit is to have visitors reenact the process of the collectors, from unknowing, to curious, to potentially captivated.