Chinese Calligrapher Mike Mei

I attended a lecture at Wellesley College on Tuesday night by Chinese Calligrapher Mike Mei.  My mother has studied Chinese calligraphy with him, so I know him through her and invited him to do a lecture and demonstration at Wellesley. I’ve had a long term interest in Chinese calligraphy because I think there are many strong correlations between Chinese calligraphy and drawing that are surprisingly similar despite how different they can seem at times.  The lecture was great to attend, as it filled in a lot of blanks for me about how Chinese calligraphy works.

Mike’s lecture centered around comparisons between ancient traditions of Chinese calligraphy and the innovations he has made himself based on these traditions as a contemporary calligrapher. He explained that there are 5 generations of Chinese calligraphy, each with its own distinct look and set of (or lack of) rules. For example, in the first generation of Chinese calligraphy, the characters all fit perfectly within a verticle rectangle and are comprised of strokes which lack emotion due to the consistency of each stroke.

Chinese Calligrapher Mike Mei

Mike Mei shows a slide which demonstrates 4 styles of Chinese calligraphy for each character.

The generation that he discussed which I was most fascinated by was the 5th generation, or the cursive style of Chinese calligraphy. In the cursive style, one continuous brush stroke is applied to write either a many stroke character or to even write many characters all at once. He explained that many people see Chinese calligraphy as Chinese abstraction: the cursive style is so free and extreme that the majority of the time the characters become completely illegible, even to someone who reads Chinese fluently. This was such an interesting idea to me- the entire purpose of characters is to communicate language, and yet here is an art form which denies you that ability.

After the lecture, I requested to Mike to do a demonstration of the cursive style, and I was astounded by the extraordinary balance of complete, uninhibited spontaneity and absolute control and focus.  Watching his brush move across the page, every kind of rhythm was there: soft, slow, fast, bold, etc.

Chinese Calligrapher Mike Mei

Mike Mei demonstrates the cursive style of Chinese calligraphy; he uses 2 continuous brush strokes to write 10 characters.

Some concepts he discussed which I found really interesting was about  the rhythms that happen during the act of writing: the brush moves slow, then fast, and then becomes dramatically heavy. I asked him about what kind of preparations he does to create a piece, and he talked about creating a feeling of strength within yourself and investing in a specific feeling or emotion. Both of these concepts have their correlations in drawing; the idea of rhythm can be see in terms of gesture and making marks while having a strong and confident mindset is essential to creating an effective drawing.


Drawing: Scrolls

The scroll format is one concept that keeps returning to me. I had considered this when I was doing ink drawings with sumi ink on rice paper, but didn’t follow through at the time.  What I keep returning to is this idea that such an extremely long composition dictates that only a small portion of the image is revealed at a time, making the image feel more infinite and enigmatic at the same time. I also like the allusion to Chinese painting and calligraphy, two art forms that greatly influenced the direction of this project.


Display & Format Concepts in Drawing

I started my day by conceptualizing some ideas for large scale works that I want to eventually work on. I knew that I was going to finish up the final monotype today, so I wanted to start developing ideas for how to bring the work in this series into a grander scale.

I went back to thinking about a Chinese calligraphy exhibition I saw at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston last spring. At the exhibition, they had a wide variety of different kinds of scrolls. There were many of the typical scrolls that you expect to see: tall and vertical, and hanging on the wall. The scrolls that really got me going were two scrolls in the back of the exhibition. They were horizontal scrolls that were insanely long; each scroll showed at least 20 feet or so, and there had to be many more feet of image because only a portion was being displayed. Today, thinking about those scrolls got me wondering how I could translate the extreme horizontal format for some ink drawings.

I started considering extremely long, horizontal ink drawings that would dominate and cut across a gallery space with their length. The scrolls at the MFA exhibition were on flat tables, approximately waist high, encased in glass for protection. In the end, I saw that there were essentially three different formats, and of course variations on each of those formats: 1) having the drawings lie flat on long tables like the MFA exhibition, 2) hang the drawings with invisible wiring from the ceiling, which would make them behave more like three-dimensional objects, and 3) hang the drawings on the wall, at eye level in a continual line across all of the walls to create a drawing that never ends. Of these three options, I got really excited about the third option, and did a very quick sketch of how it might look. It might still be a while before I get around to actually executing the idea, but I find that the longer I have to ponder and simmer on a thought while I’m working on other parts of the project, the stronger the idea will be when the time comes.

Display Sketch

For this last monotype, I went back to a single figure format. I made a concerted effort to work more intensively with the very thin brush strokes towards the end of the process. A few months back, I had tried the opposite approach, attempting to make the compositions as sparse as possible with just a few large brush strokes. I think the results are a little fuller and there’s a greater range of variety in the different brush strokes.

Submerge XXa

Submerge XX

The Weng Collection at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston

Yesterday afternoon I finally got over to the Museum of Fine Arts to see the Weng Collection exhibition of Chinese Painting and Calligraphy. The exhibition was relatively small, but it was incredible what the Weng family was able to collect over six generations.

One aspect of the exhibition which I found particularly engaging was how distinctive each individual person’s calligraphy was. In the exhibition, they had several very long, horizontal scrolls which had been written on by multiple people, and it was amazing how distinctive each person’s hand was in the calligraphy. Some of the calligraphy was so small and delicate, whereas I saw some passages that were boldly written so that they almost looked like they could have been written by a child, despite their sophistication.

Left: Weng Tonghe, 1830-1904
Right: Wan-go Weng, his wife Virginia Dzung Weng, and their daughter Ssu in Shanghai in 1948

The other feature I noticed in this exhibition was the incredibly long, horizontal scrolls that were prominent throughout. I’m really used to seeing the long, vertical scrolls all over the place, but this was the first time I had seen the reverse format. There was one scroll that was so long that it must have been at least 20 feet long, and in the case you could see that they weren’t even featuring the whole image, and that there had to have been at least a few more feet rolled up on the scroll.

This got me thinking again about format for the Wading Series. Back in January I had initially started off considering scrolls and other ways of presenting the work, but then I became distracted by the painting itself and so I left the format issues aside temporarily. I was really taken by the long, horizontal scrolls that I think it’s a format I’d like to try out in my ink drawings. In the past, I haven’t been someone who has done anything that unusual or out of the ordinary in terms of format. For the most part, I’ve generally stayed within the traditions of the medium I’m working with, like in printmaking and painting. I think this might be the time to try out a very specific format and see if it does anything for my compositions and overall style and look. I think I’d like to focus on the horizontal format more than the scroll format. The scroll might make the connection to Chinese calligraphy a little too blatant, so it may be something I want to avoid. Either way, I think the extreme horizontal format is quite conducive to the kind of landscape that I’m trying to fabricate through the water.

Ink Drawing: Brush Work

I’m excited about the potential behind the half black ink half wash technique I was working with yesterday. This technique allows individual brush strokes to have much more presence on their own, and I like that many of the strokes I was making yesterday seemed new and unfamiliar to me.

Another aspect of this approach is that the individual brush strokes seem to be able to hold more unusual shapes, rather than looking like they came directly from the bristles of a brush. It’s amazing to me that within a single brush stroke, one is able to achieve harsh prickly edges in conjunction with a watery, fluid look. In that sense the simple design of a Chinese Calligraphy brush is really quite incredible; the brushes look so simple and plain, and yet they are capable of infinite possibilities if you are able to discover them.

A detail of some strokes from yesterday’s drawings that I think are headed in the right direction. Next time I’m in the studio I want to to try drawings that have as few brush strokes as humanly possible, just to experiment and see where it leads me. I’m thinking as few as two or three strokes, to see what I can get away with.

Antony Gormley, Kara Walker, and Julie Mehretu

I’ve always had a bulletin board where I post images that are somehow related to the work that I’m doing. I completely cleared the entire bulletin board and have been slowly posting images as I’ve developed the work and found new resources for inspiration. I think in a lot of ways doing this as I create the work has made the images on the board much more pertinent to what I’m trying to achieve in the work.

The result is that the board has been able to actively participate in the process much more than when the board was full of images before I even made any work. So far I have an Antony Gormley installation of life size iron figures installed at a beach, an image by Kara Walker, Chinese calligraphy, and a painting by Julie Mehretu. I think all the images have contributed tremendously to my ability to narrowing in on how I want to the work to look.

“Another Place”, by Antony Gormley

“Camptown Ladies” by Kara Walker

“Congress” by Julie Mehretu

Ink Drawings: Scrolls

I’m now leaning towards not using the scroll format for the drawings. Although I was initially intrigued by the technical process of putting together a scroll, now that I’ve had some time to let that format simmer for a bit I think it may not point the work in the direction that I’m looking for. I like the references and similarities to Chinese calligraphy that the ink drawings are taking on, but my concern is that the scroll format would make that reference way too obvious and simply end up being a distraction from the more contemporary issues in the work. I think the connection is enough simply between the ink, rice paper, and the kind of brush strokes I’m making and that the scroll would put the drawings into a very specific category of work that might be detrimental to the way its received.

Two Chinese scrolls that hang in my house.