By Tom Wachunas
“You can make anything by writing.” - C.S. Lewis
“Letters act as practical and useful signs, but also as pure and inner melody.” - Wassily Kandinsky
“Handwriting is a spiritual designing, even though it appears by means of a material instrument.” - Euclid
“Calligraphy is the most direct form of all artistic expression. Just as each movement of the dancer is absolute, so every gesture of the calligrapher is essential. It is not the meaning of the character but the writing–the movement of execution and the action itself–that is important.” - Tseng Yu-ho Ecke
EXHIBIT: John Chang: In Ink—Transformation of Calligraphy, THROUGH AUGUST 11, 2021, in STUDIO M at The Massillon Museum / 121 Lincoln Way East, downtown Massillon, Ohio / Phone: 330-833-4061 / The Massillon Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday 9:30am - 5:00pm, Sunday 2:00pm - 5:00pm
From Merriam-Webster: Definition of calligraphy / 1a: artistic, stylized, or elegant handwriting or lettering / b: the art of producing such writing /
2: PENMANSHIP / 3: an ornamental line in drawing or painting
Born and raised in Shanghai, China, John Chang is now based in Southern California. At one point in his statement for this solo exhibit, he writes: “…By invoking calligraphic forms, I am commenting on the distortion of language, but I am also reclaiming the energy of the written word. Tapping into my ancestral roots, I also use pigments for their symbolic power. For example, black and white are the colors of most ink painting but also represent yin and yang… I consider myself a 'spiritual escapist.’"
Escape from what, and into what? Frankly I’m not exactly sure. Not able to interpret the elegantly drawn Chinese characters/words floating throughout his paintings like so many ghosts, I can only guess. I’m reminded that one of the paintings in the show is called, interestingly enough, Beyond Interpretation. This is not to say that the process of interpretation can’t be intriguing. Here, it most certainly is.
For starters, remember that the traditional strictures of Chinese calligraphy require a mastery of brush (or pen) and ink. Chang’s arresting paintings are a departure from that ancient discipline. An escape? They regularly employ large, shiny textured shapes (or plains) rendered in the plastic patina of black acrylic paint. A nod to modern Western industrialism?
There’s plenty of ambiguity here. Visual tensions. Weight and counterweight. Yin and yang. Positive and negative. Are those precisely-edged black shapes - looking like so many puzzle pieces - macroscopic views of partially defined calligraphic letters? Or is that more what the white shapes are doing? Which is the positive shape, which is the negative ground? Indeed, both the black and white fields are transparent, revealing a variety of underlying as well as superimposed characters, marks, drips, scrapes, and textures. In some of the paintings, Chang has incorporated scraps of corrugated shipping boxes. The Amazon-delivered pleasures of American consumerism?
A synthesis of text, context, subtext. Abstractions. Gestures. Actions of the hand to set the mind traveling. Metaphors for a meeting of cultures, a hybridization of identities.
So as a viewer, maybe on one level you could commence your own inter-actions with these fascinating works by becoming a spiritual inquisitor. Think of them as (I can just about hear your groaning now)… guesstures.