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Hong Bian: Abstract Calligrapher

Hong Bian, a Chinese artist who has been living for more than a decade in America, is best described as an abstract calligrapher. Calligraphy, a major art in Asia, does not occupy a similar position of considerable regard in the West. So, as an artist now residing on the edge of Chinatown in New York City, Hong Bian may also be regarded as someone whose practice is on the margins of New York, whose artworld is given to theory and politics in major ways. Indeed, our emphasis on the social and the conceptual in art couldn’t be farther from Hong Bian’s way of thinking, which is traditional, even as her abstract interpretation moves her art away from historical Chinese calligraphy toward a stylistic presentation that, at least on the surface, suggests the influence of American expressionist abstraction. The surface similarity between the artist’s traditional training--she studied calligraphy with her father and for a while at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing--and her intelligent use of certain American brush influences may not be as close as it seems. There are times in fine art when one style may look like another without necessarily intimating a similar motive or method. Still, it must be acknowledged that Bian Hong herself has drawn attention to New York contemporary art in her own work--in one piece, the portrait of Andy Warhol figures prominently in a composition, although her use of Warhol is an anomaly, being unique in her body of work.


It is important to realize that these questions of tradition and outside influence are not in any way new. In the Tang Dynasty, arguably China’s greatest period in poetry and painting, we see figures from cultures outside of China--merchants from Persia, for example, who are rendered with energetic curiosity. The kind of curiosity exampled in work such as this finds a distant later relative in the calligraphy of Bian Hong, whose long stay in New York and its environs has made her open to stylistic and intellectual developments at a great distance from what she grew up with and how she was trained. Calligraphy is a greatly traditional art; its practice spans millennia. There is hardly any place, though, for it to be effectively practiced in a place like New York, where the new is sought for its own sake. Solving Hong Bian’s dilemma then is dependent not so much on a merger of opposites as a wary recognition that her calligraphy may incorporate Western elements without being severely changed in the heart of its practice.


The question is, To what extent can the incorporation of Western stylistic effects influence an ancient art like Chinese calligraphy? First of all, in both Asia and the West, calligraphy is an art based upon language. But unlike the West, China is a brush culture--children learn to write by practicing their character strokes with a brush. (Learning to write is an entirely different endeavor in the West.) So calligraphy in both worlds is essentially a matter of denotation--the forms mean something literary, and are accessible as legible writing. This is true to some degree in some work by Hong Bian, but usually her style moves in the direction of an abstract reality, rendered traditionally with black ink on paper. The trick for the Westerner, indeed for anyone at all, is to read the art on its own terms, without relegating it to cultures it does not necessarily belong to. This is a genuine problem for a Western viewer because the artist has been here for more than a decade and has in fact internalized, in some ways that are recognizable, the abstract painting style that New York originated in the middle of the last century and that remains alive in our artworld now. Still, we must acknowledge that Hong Bian is a Chinese artist, not a Western one.


It is the argument of this paper that Hong Bian’s art remains deeply rooted in a Chinese matrix. Her work is nothing short of revolutionary in her willingness to abstract the calligraph--to the point where its literary content is lost. Why would she do this? It is, I think, a way of escaping the sometimes stifling constraints of the very long history of Chinese traditional art. Art culture in China recognizes this. In fact, there is at the Central Academy today an experimental arts department, in which students are encouraged to find their way outside traditional studio arts. It is impossible to return to the past, even as great a past as China’s, without losing energy in a current sense. But neither can an artist like Hong Bian, working with a legacy in calligraphy she will be able to fully transcend, walk away from her precedents and establish an entirely new calligraphic language. The aura of precedent is as important as the atmosphere of deliberate experimentation. This means that the artist, in her attempt to stay aware of and at the same time move beyond the traditional calligraphic paradigm, finds herself a bit between a rock and a hard place. It is quite difficult to move into an open space for someone with her direction; she must look to the past as the basis of her visual considerations even as she seeks to pass beyond it.


But maybe that is exactly the reason why Bian Hong’s work is so successful. Sometimes the willingness to work with historical constraints in fine art can act as a release for a freely determined insight. If we look at the examples of Bian Hong’s art accompanying the article, most Westerners would easily place the work within an abstract tradition. I am not absolutely sure that a Chinese audience would read the body of work in the same fashion; they might see the rudiments of characters where we would only understand what we came upon as brushwork without literary meaning. Being an abstract calligrapher is to be given to doing something inherently paradoxical, and while Hong Bian has successfully worked out a language determined both by characters and abstraction, she is aware, as someone working in the 21st century, of the need to make it new. But the situation is difficult; the great era of calligraphy ended hundreds of years ago. It is not so different in her other influence: abstract expressionism, whose major achievements occurred several generations earlier. Like any good artist, Hong Bian is searching for an idiom that would do justice not only to earlier examples of her genre; she is also seeking ways of creation that would exemplify her experience with art, Asian and Western, today.


If we think about abstraction and the traditional role of calligraphy in Chinese culture, we are slightly amazed at the paradox between the nonobjective style and the art genre. As I have written, Hong Bian has created a special set of circumstances by producing work that seems to be at a great distance from the traditional role of calligraphy, namely, its closeness to literary meaning. If you look at some of the freer examples of historical Chinese calligraphy, their remove from so-called “proper” literary meaning does in fact occur, but our ability to read the calligraphic text is usually (more or less) unimpeded. In Hong Bian’s art, the writing is usually completely submerged within abstract effects--brilliant brushwork that is resolutely non-literary, presenting a sharp understanding of ink’s ability to register nonobjective realities. The problem for a Western audience is that we would tend to disassociate the abstraction from any legibility or literary meaningfulness, which is simply not the case. It is hard to conceive of an avant-garde calligrapher--its practice is deeply rooted in legacies established centuries ago--but it is fair to call Hong Bian exactly that. Her artwork brings forth a wide-ranging set of references, not the least of which is abstract expressionism. This gives her an unusual reach, on both a technical and cultural level.


When we look at Hong Bian’s remarkable art, we can see how deeply concerned she is in making a surface of depth and intrigue. One particularly powerful image looks like a cliff with a person at the top, but one can only wonder if the reading is accurate in regard to the artist’s intentions. This is not only a visual challenge in Bian Hong’s art generally and in particular, it is also a difficulty generally in art--we can only speculate on the meaningfulness of the painter’s intentions, that is, unless we have something the artist has said directly about the artwork. In Hong Bian’s case, the surface of the painting is dry, with darker passages overlapping slightly lighter, earlier ones. The seeming figure on top could be an actual person, or an abstract flourish, or both. The point is that the two readings need to be merged. It is certainly hard to see the piece as calligraphy, yet Bian Hong insists that it is so, and we must take her at her word. Whatever the image is meant to be, it is a powerful ink work that alludes both to figurative and nonobjective thinking. Very good art always remains open in the face of its background and influence, and this work is no exception.


The very idea of abstracting so specifically literary an art genre as calligraphy is revolutionary. But no matter how innovative the idea may seem, at the same time, Hong Bian cannot utterly escape the constraints of her chosen medium. While contemporary Chinese art has become more colorful and is using Western materials such as oil and acrylic (the former for more than one hundred years now), painting with ink remains an important if no longer completely dominant way of working. In sticking to an approach with black ink, Bian Hong is asserting her identity as a Chinese artist. This may well be necessary in America, whose eclecticism and anti-classical stance operate in opposition to the artist’s upbringing and training. Thus, Bian Hong needs to remain herself even as she incorporates in limited ways her experience of American art and life into her calligraphy. Only once has she done something so radically American as to incorporate into an artwork a portrait of Andy Warhol, the quintessential artist of our (not her) material desire and fascination with celebrity and popular culture. The rest of the time in her art, she remains given to an unusual revision of tradition--but a revision that demonstrates her ties to the past as well as her innovatory attempts to develop a future in calligraphy.


One particularly successful work is divided roughly into halves; the left side is mostly white with a bit of inspired brushwork, while the right side is painted the darker, dry surface we have become used to in Hong Bian’s art. On the left side, viewers find curving lines ending in nodes that are rounded black spheres. On the right side, we see the brushy black surface of ink that is a trademark of Bian Hong’s style. Together, the two very different halves of the composition bring about a sense of exquisite contrast, in which a differing sense of light and dark, along with contrasting kinds of brushwork, are pulled together in an entirety that transcends its elemental differences. This writer can see no trace of a written character at all in the image, but we cannot read Hong Bian’s mind--it may be she was in fact consciously thinking of a particular character when she made the work. But it is very, very difficult for a Westerner to see the artist’s effort as anything but an abstract presentation. Are we shifting from one way of seeing to another in experiencing the art as an abstraction? It may be so, but Bian Hong must take some responsibility for our reading. Whatever her motivation, the result is a finely tuned, profoundly attractive, painterly piece of calligraphy.


Other works by Bian Hong really do move into the realm of expressionist abstraction, at least on the surface level. Now that the artist has been here for more than a decade, it seems inevitable that she would at least partly embrace a kind of art that allowed her to recognize her visual experience in America. In some cases, she has put up her abstract imagery on vertical or horizontal scrolls, so that the overall experience of her art is framed by the direct use of a Chinese visual construction. This kind of exchange is not without precedent in America; Mark Tobey, the outstanding abstract painter, used his white writing to cover the canvas. His curvilinear brush marks derived from marks made in Asian calligraphy; Tobey himself spent a good deal of time in Asia. So in a small number of cases, the Asian influence has established itself visually among Western painters; certainly, the art of Franz Kline can be linked to the brushwork that is the basis of art in the East. We need to remember, though, that Asian calligraphy occupies a monolithic part of its visual culture, requiring an artist like Hong Bian to participate deeply in her heritage even as a fully contemporary artist. Without such an involvement, her work would lack structure, but she also faces a dilemma: if she should adhere too closely to the past, she would seem scholarly rather than original. Yet one never feels that Hong Bian’s art is merely looking back; instead, we have the sense that she is creating a balance, in which the old is translated into something quite new.


No one interested in Chinese art forgets its historical greatness. But many contemporary artists in China are embracing a broad array of internationally established visual languages that have nothing to do with their country’s tradition. Hong Bian cannot escape this reality anymore than anyone else. She leads a life of voluntary exile and enjoys New York’s broad array of cultures. Her work inevitably moves in the direction of a merger, in which aspects of Western late modernist and contemporary painting and culture are brought into view. This joining of very different backgrounds begins with a paradox and ends in an outlook that can best be described as eclectic--but with a sense of the past. In New York, we regularly reject the past in favor of the current moment. There is considerable fear of repetition, although in abstract painting today, the sense of repetition is almost immediately visible. Bian Hong is doing something different; she looks to her precedents primarily to move beyond them. There is no contradiction in her doing so; rather, it is a matter of inspired quotation. If we think about it, the very idea of an abstract calligraphy seems paradoxical, but maybe this merger is an accurate conception of an art that Hong Bian wants very much to be of her time. There may be too much art history in China, and perhaps not enough in America. What truly matters is a sense of original vision that does not forget what preceded it (nothing is entirely original in art, especially today). Hong Bian’s outstanding practice stands in a very particular place, in which her memory vies, successfully, with her outlook toward the future. The only site where this can be effectively addressed is in the present, which is where she offers her promise of an inspired art.


Jonathan Goodman

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