Chinese Garden's new art gallery makes its debut with an inaugural exhibition featuring contemporary calligraphy

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Chinese Garden's new art gallery makes its debut with an inaugural exhibition featuring contemporary calligraphy
View of the Chinese Garden, where the new art gallery will showcase an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy. The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Martha Benedict.

SAN MARINO, CA.- Postponed for more than a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the highly anticipated opening of the Chinese Garden’s new art gallery is now taking place this summer at The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, with an exhibition of Chinese calligraphy as its inaugural installation. “A Garden of Words: The Calligraphy of Liu Fang Yuan” 書苑——流芳園典藏書法作品 opened Aug. 28, 2021, in the Studio for Lodging the Mind 寓意齋. The exhibition will be presented in two rotations of 20 works each; the first installation continues through Dec. 13, 2021, and the second runs from Jan. 29 through May 16, 2022.

Words are everywhere in the Chinese Garden—known as Liu Fang Yuan, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance. Names for the garden’s various features adorn rocks and buildings; poetic couplets frame entryways and vistas. Their purpose is to enhance the visitor’s experience of the garden through the lenses of literature and art. Since 2007, The Huntington has commissioned contemporary artists to create the original works of calligraphy—artful brush writings in ink on paper—that served as the models for these inscriptions. It is a selection of these that is being exhibited.

The work of 21 contemporary ink artists is being featured, including Bai Qianshen, Michael Cherney, Grace Chu, Fu Shen, Lo Ch’ing, Tang Qingnian, Wang Mansheng, Wan-go Weng, Zhu Chengjun, and Terry Yuan, among others.

“Calligraphy is fundamental to a Chinese garden, but it is a feature that often goes overlooked by visitors, especially those who do not read Chinese,” said Phillip E. Bloom, the June and Simon K.C. Li Curator of the Chinese Garden and Director of the Center for East Asian Garden Studies. “This exhibition fosters deeper appreciation for the artistry behind these inscriptions by introducing the content, materials, forms, and futures of calligraphy.”

The new Studio for Lodging the Mind, located at the north end of the garden, is a 1,720-sq.-ft., light- and climate-controlled gallery space suitable for the display of works of art on paper or silk. An adjacent pavilion, known as the Flowery Brush Library 筆花書房, is designed in the style of a 17th-century Chinese scholar’s studio—a garden retreat traditionally used for painting, poetry, and calligraphy. Its name is inspired by the tale of a scholar who dreamed that a flower grew from the tip of his writing brush, a metaphor for literary and artistic talent. Calligraphy demonstrations are planned for this latter space; including a presentation by Terry Yuan on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, at 2:30 p.m., and a demonstration by Tang Qingnian on Saturday, April 9, 2022, at 2:30 p.m. Both programs are free with Huntington admission.

“Chinese calligraphy is an art of seeming contradictions,” explained Bloom. “Though crafted with simple materials—brush, ink, and paper—its visual forms are myriad. Though written according to rigid rules, it also encourages sophisticated forms of personal expression. And while it is ubiquitous in the Chinese-reading world, calligraphy nevertheless can remain difficult even for the erudite to appreciate. Through this exhibition, we hope to help make it more accessible and to make a significant contribution to public engagement with the art form.”

“A Garden of Words” will offer four perspectives through which to consider calligraphy: its content, materials, forms, and futures. Visitors will first investigate the ways in which the content of calligraphy—its written characters—conveys meaning and sound by following specific structural rules.

The second section of the exhibition will focus on calligraphy as a material object, with an inscription introducing the format of a calligraphic work—its mounting, main text, and framing inscriptions. A selection of the tools of calligraphy will be displayed, and a pair of calligraphic works will illustrate the different effects that can be achieved by varying materials.

Next, visitors will explore the diverse visual forms of calligraphy through the five conventional script types: seal, clerical, regular, running, and cursive. Each has its own visual features, cultural connotations, and appropriate contexts of use. For instance, regular script would traditionally be used for formal inscriptions on imposing buildings, such as governmental or religious sites, while cursive is often associated with freer forms of expression. Two or three works of each type will demonstrate the range of visual effects that can be achieved within a single script. An accompanying video in the gallery will show a calligrapher at work, capturing the subtle movements of both body and brush.

The exhibition will conclude with a look at the innovations contemporary calligraphers are bringing to the medium. Some artists take a pictographic approach, returning writing to its mythic origins; others excavate forgotten scripts to imbue their work with eccentricity. A short video of interviews with artists discussing their work will shed light on their creative processes.

A gallery guide, in English and in Chinese, will be available, and an exhibition webpage will provide additional resources, including an interactive map of calligraphy locations within the garden, with translations of the inscriptions and information on the artists.

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