Calligraffiti Exhibit Captures Artistry but Distorts Culture

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Author: Chelsea Kellogg

Pasadena’s Pacific Asia Art Museum is currently hosting a bold new exhibition called “Calligraffiti,” which is set to run until Jan. 17, 2010. The premise of the exhibit is a fusion between the traditional art form of calligraphy and the newly appreciated art form of graffiti. The exhibit press release expresses this beautiful exhibit best, saying that “Layering languages, histories and philosophies, the assembled works collectively trace evolving paradigms of artistic thought and practice.”

Proponents of graffiti often make the argument that drawing on walls is an instinctive human desire to interact with one’s environment. “Historically, the Chinese people have drawn on walls, carved turtle shells and bones for divination and painted on bamboo . . . Even now poets carve poems into trees at Chinese parks,” Occidental Chinese and Arabic professor and renowned archaeologist Fanxi Xu said.

Calligraphy grew out of basic forms of writing, such as drawing on walls, so the argument that the exhibition makes use of a natural crossover between graffiti and its classical sister calligraphy seems plausible. Unfortunately, the works on display at the Pacific Asia Art Museum complicate the connection between cultures and art forms with a dysfunctional gallery layout and hyper-intellectual concept descriptions.

Language, and, most poignantly, Chinese characters, evolved from pictographs. Throughout time people drew and redrew characters until they settled in their current form. The distortions of characters in Calligraffiti are intended to be a fascinating real time observation of character metamorphosis.

The Calligraffiti exhibit begins with a vertical display of traditional calligraphy by Wenda Gu. Calligraphy is traditionally analyzed by the speed of strokes and the concentration of ink on the characters. These measurable observations provide a basis for interpretations of poems or the words in these poems. As one continues through the exhibit, a several-foot high rendition of a character constructed completely from human hair and glue stands tall at the end of the exhibit’s first room.

In the next room, the exhibit progresses from more traditional pieces to abstract work such as Chen Bin Zhong’s “Blot no. 1.” Chen toys with the traditional form of calligraphy by blurring the characters so they are unidentifiable blots in the traditional grid-like form that implies a poem or written work. In this room as well, the artist Gronk breaks characters apart into pieces as if noting that they are meaningless if separate. This commentary suggests that their meaning evolves depending on the other strokes they are paired with.

But the meat and potatoes of Calligraffiti reside in the third and final room of the exhibit. Here we find three large vinyl canvasses, which graffiti artists and calligraphers tagged during a workshop in 2003. On one canvas there is a jumbled yet cohesive union of several graffitiists’ styles. Another is slightly more piecemeal and it is clear the artists were working independent of each other.

The Pacific Asia Art Museum incorporates other mediums into the exhibit, including a video that chronicles the creation of the Calligraffiti murals. The video shows us slightly awkward footage of renowned calligraphy artist Xu Bing giving a calligraphy lesson to a handful of local graffiti artists and their subsequent incorporation of calligraphy into their graffiti. The video also addresses some of the issues facing graffiti’s plunge into the art world and pursuit of artistic appreciation. Many art patrons, the video suggests, are inhibited from the appreciation of graffiti by disgust of vandalism.

However, the thesis of the exhibit ultimately fails to grasp the inherent Dao, or philosophy of graffiti. Much like the sand mandalas that Buddhist monks create and destroy to illustrate impermanence, graffiti is intended to be created and subsequently destroyed. A particular work of graffiti’s permanence is unknown and that is part of its beauty. The three chipped and fading murals painted on vinyl in Calligraffiti only wear the guise of true graffiti.

The evolving language of graffiti melds pictures and words into a mural for everyone to appreciate. Museums and art galleries are trying more and more to embrace graffiti, but by bringing this art form into a clean, brightly lit and, most importantly, legal environment, part of the message is lost.

Graffiti was spawned in cities that were falling apart, and done so by kids who were disengaged from the education mechanism. They created an idea that words should be appreciated and toyed with by the masses for public consumption. Graffiti artists can beautify their neighborhoods and their patrons pay nothing but respect.

The Pacific Asia Art Museum can not convey the meaning of the graffiti it displays so long as it costs $10 to view it.

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