Calligraffiti: Crossing the Divide

By November 30, 2009 No Comments

A new show at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, California showcases the interplay between calligraphy and street graffiti, blending Chinese and Latino artistic traditions.

There is a veiled message in the characters on the wall. Carefully cloaked in the guise of rigid Chinese calligraphy lies a simple but poignant phrase in English: “Across the Divide.” Two traditions, one long venerated while the other sometimes castigated, are brought together in the Pacific Asia Museum’s most recent exhibition, Calligraffiti: Writing in Contemporary Chinese and Latino Art.

The exhibit features a variety of pieces that focus on the essential idea of writing within art, exploring the similarities between traditional Chinese calligraphy and graffiti. The Museum brought together several prominent modern Chinese and Latino artists who collaborated on the show’s hallmark pieces.

“High calligraphy and graffiti are usually looked at as two very different paradigms,” said Collette Chattopadhyay, guest curator for the exhibit. “But what is being posited in this exhibition is that they are two sides of the same coin.”

The path through the exhibition is carefully crafted to show the evolution of artistic idea and form as they approach cultural boundaries. The work is divided into separate rooms, each of which represents a new step in this thematic development.

Chinese artists Gu Wenda and Xu Bing are featured at the gallery’s entrance. Visitors are first greeted by an oversized hanging scroll, which Chattopadhyay explained as, “a kind of radical Chinese calligraphy that introduces gesture and motion in ways that are out of control in a traditional sense…they stand at that nexus between calligraphy and graffiti and serve as a marker of introduction to the theme of what is instrumental to this exhibition.

The second room centers on a controversial installation piece by Xu Bing. Chattopadhyay explained that Xu, “created manuscripts or works that look like some ancient Chinese script, but are not.” Xu, who studied at the Beijing Academy of Fine Art, left China in 1989 when he came under criticism for his artistic parodies of the Chinese attachment to ancient relics, cultures and civilizations, Chattopadhyay added. The art highlights the often oppressive atmosphere that modern Chinese artists must work within. However, times are changing. “Ironically he has recently been given a very high position at the Academy of Art in Bejing,” Chattopadhyay said. “These works stand at the beginning of interrogation of the relationship between elevated calligraphy and its assumed opposite; the work is not really one or the other, but a combination thereof.”

The third room in the exhibition displays collaborative pieces by Latino graffiti artists and Chinese American artists, taking the final step in the exhibition’s themed progression. One of the more striking installation pieces, an untitled series of parasols, is a joint statement from San Francisco Bay Area artists Minette Lee Mangahas and Apex.

“I found pieces of my language that are parallel and synchronistic with another language: the language of street writers and graffiti artists,” Mangahas said. “It’s about dialogue, it’s about play, it’s about speaking across differences and similarities, it’s about discovery and experimentation; we spoke the same language even though one is 4,000 years old and one is 60 years old.”

Other notable works in this room include three large-scale murals that blend Latino street tagging with Chinese calligraphic-style graffiti, created by artists Xu Bing, Vince Cavallo, Chad Bojorquez, Scud, Duce, and Sano. “It’s based on a sense of pride,” Bojorquez said, referring to the artists’ names scrawled across the collaborative pieces. “We do what’s called roll call. We are very inclusive, trying to include everyone’s name.”

“When we got together and did something on paper, we found the parallels go beyond just what you would see in line and rhythm to how the art forms evolved in history,” Mangahas added. “They study with masters, calligraphers study with masters. We have a lineage, they have a lineage; we use our whole bodies to create line and they do as well.”

Los Angeles native Gronk also created a site-specific piece for the exhibition influenced by early Chinese movable type that will only exist for the duration of the show.

Calligraffiti conveys an important cross-cultural message within its historically pivotal and cutting-edge body of work, challenging its audience to rethink conventional views of both calligraphy and graffiti. By combining their distinctive talents and backgrounds, these Latino and Chinese artists have made a definitive statement on the beauty of both traditions and the shared elements between seemingly different traditions.

Andrew Gerber graduated from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, majoring in Business & Marketing.