Imagine for a moment that you were a polyglot -- that you could speak multiple important verbal and visual languages. Signs, symbols, colors, gestures, and images: imagine that you could read the surface of any culture perfectly.
It's Indiana Jones's superpower, and it's one we have a great deal of respect for ... provided it arises from deliberate study and not naturally from, say, migration or the diversity of your urban neighborhood. This is why connoisseurship of the traditional art of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy -- reserved to the educated -- is highly respected. This is why, despite years of mingling its aesthetics with those of "high art," graffiti art, often the province of products of bilingual education, is still underobserved.
So suppose that you were an polyglot by nurture AND by study. What kind of art would you make?
Yeah, it's a leading question. Obviously I'm trying to get you into the peculiar, headspace you need to be in to understand ProArts gallery's glowing exhibition CalliGRAFFitti, a collaboration between Asian American calligraphy artist Minette Mangahas, and nine graffiti muralists. The connection between the aesthetic of ideogrammatic calligraphy and the tagging-based lettering of graffiti is such an obvious one, it's astonishing that it's been made so seldom before, much less to such lovely effect.
In a series of experiments, Mangahas and her collaborators (Apex, Coby Kennedy, Zen One, Toons One, Amend, Desi W.O.M.E, Denz One, and Lucha) match materials and canvases to see how harmony and counterpoint influence the effectiveness of each art form. Wooden panels are acrylic and spray-painted. Paper mounted on Chinese scrolls is ink-painted and magic-markered. An installation of cinder-blocks nearly takes flight with its even covering of white and purple lettering.
The often remarkable result recalls the source aesthetics of both forms in the expected manner, yet presents an energetic and unpredictably graceful fusion. One enormous scroll features a flight of black characters by Mangahas entangled with red tags by Apex. The aerial perspective created by the differently sized characters makes the piece look like a dogfight between armies of flying fonts.
The heavy paint on a set of paper umbrellas and a pair of flattened take-out containers are less successful, underlining the airy and gestural nature of both calligraphy and tagging. This is a collaboration that has its aesthetic limits. But within those borders there's a nearly unlimited scope for typographic hybridity, and a melding of graph and image.
Broadening the theme of idiomatic syncretism are installations by Ken Lo and Ala Ebtekar, both local artists who combine orientalist images from their families' cultures of origin with the hip hop culture they grew up in. Lo's macho video fantasies about his legendary pick up game with Kobe Bryant and his reputation among a clutch of passive-aggressive friends are offset by his use of Chinese-style paper cut-outs and cardboard Chinese grille-work. Ebtekar's series of drawings is a continuous manuscript of dancing text, bordered by a strip of dead warriors wearing the costume and uniforms of different eras of Persian fighting.
Taken altogether, the works in this show are an excellent answer to my initial question. The artists present as a many-headed polyglot, pointing out the hybrid and multiethnic nature of hip hop, American hipster culture, and the very pursuit of the artistic leading edge.
CalliGRAFFitti runs through August 15 at ProArts Gallery in Oakland's Jack London Square.