Gu Gan’s Pioneering, Modernist Take on Traditional Chinese Calligraphy

The word for calligraphy in Chinese is Shūfǎ 書法, translated literally as “the way/method/law of writing.” For thousands of years, its practice has been continually refined, but with an emphasis on the development of expertise according to traditional forms. Artist Gu Gan, a pioneer of the the modernist calligraphy movement in China and author of the popular books The Formation of Modern Calligraphy and The Three Steps of Modern Calligraphy, is one of the first to have broken with these laws. His career trajectory led to a natural fusing of forms: trained in traditional Chinese painting, he practiced calligraphy while working as a printing industry laborer during the Cultural Revolution, before becoming an arts editor at the People’s Literature Publishing House, where he was exposed to the work of Kandinsky, Klee, and Miro. He was later inspired to relaunch his artistic practice with a new, innovative style that combined the influence of these artists with that of his own background.  

A selection of works from the past 25 years of his career is on view at Alisan Fine Arts in Hong Kong. While he has experimented with a range of non-traditional materials, “Calligraphic Art by Gu Gan” focuses on works in ink-and-paint-on-rice-paper or custom-made paper. These works are a distinct collision of abstract expressionism and traditional calligraphy, underlining the forms that they share while also expanding upon the qualities that are unique to each. While calligraphy is traditionally used to communicate language, Gu Gan instead uses it to aesthetically embody an idea, be it political or philosophical, treating script characters like narrative figures. Traditional characters—often switching between different script styles such as regular, grass, or seal, and rendered in bright color—are broken into abstract shapes to create new symbolic meanings. Lines are elongated or shortened, and elements are broken up into sections or juxtaposed with one another. His loose, expressionistic forms are placed against atmospheric backgrounds—landscapes created with quick gestures or washes that are enhanced by titles like Picking Chrysanthemum under the Eastern Fence, Perceive Leisurely the Southern Hill (2001) or White Horse, Autumn Wind in the Very North Cheery Flowers, Misty Rain in the South (1998).

In Autumn Sun, Distant Mountains (1998), thick, dark lines symbolize turmoil and strength in a changing season, while in Heart in the Grass (1994), wet paint partially absorbed into paper creates a corporeal effect that gives his characters the quality of flesh attached to bone. All of this is in service to Gu Gan’s narratives; the artist’s ultimate goal in his work is to communicate an allegory for life through diverse references, be they poetry, politics, or shared human emotions.

Calligraphic Art by Gu Gan” is on view at Alisan Fine Arts, Hong Kong, Nov. 26–Dec. 21, 2014.

Follow Alisan Fine Arts on Artsy.