Chaco Ter­ada

Be­tween Wa­ter & Sky at Photo-eye Gallery


Since about the year 600, cal­lig­ra­phy has been in prac­tice in Ja­pan, hav­ing first been in­tro­duced by the Chi­nese. To­day, the time-hon­ored tra­di­tion shows the in­flu­ence of Ja­panese Zen Bud­dhist thought: clear­ing one’s mind to al­low each char­ac­ter to spon­ta­neously arise on its own, and com­mit­ting it to pa­per in con­fi­dent, fluid mo­tions. Yho­hei Ter­ada, a mas­ter prac­ti­tioner of the art of cal­lig­ra­phy who taught the sub­ject at the Univer­sity of Toyama in Ja­pan, be­gan im­part­ing his knowl­edge to his daugh­ter Chaco when she was just four years old. It was the late 1960s. She was fas­ci­nated by how the lines of the cal­lig­ra­phy pa­per, folded like origami, showed through the thin pulp when the pa­per was held up to the light. Decades later, af­ter com­ing to the United States in her twen­ties to teach cal­lig­ra­phy, she dis­cov­ered a way of com­bin­ing that prac­tice with a new­found love for pho­tog­ra­phy, in­spired by meet­ing pho­tog­ra­pher David H. Gib­son. “My part­ner, David — he’s the door to my pho­tog­ra­phy,” she told Pasatiempo. “When I met him, he in­tro­duced me to it. Be­fore I met him, I pur­chased a poetry book in Ja­pan that had pho­tog­ra­phy be­hind the writ­ing. The writ­ing was over the pho­to­graphs and I told him, ‘I want to make my art some­thing like that,’ and asked him to help me achieve that goal.”

The process she de­vel­oped was to layer black-and-white pho­to­graphic im­ages printed on sheer silk and com­bine them with cal­li­graphic mark­mak­ing us­ing sumi inks. Ter­ada’s ex­hi­bi­tion Be­tween Wa­ter & Sky opens on Fri­day, Dec. 11, at Photo-eye Gallery and in­cludes a small se­lec­tion of Gib­son’s pho­to­graphs. Both pho­tog­ra­phers are rep­re­sented by the gallery.

Ter­ada’s mark-making isn’t writ­ing, per se, and she works in a non­tra­di­tional way, com­bin­ing dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters into new forms that sug­gest writ­ing but are more about the aes­thetic qual­i­ties of the lines. Her sub­jects in­clude interiors, por­traits, hands, land­scapes, pro­files, and flow­ers. The im­agery is shrouded, ob­scured — its de­tails blurred be­cause it is be­ing seen through a sec­ond layer of silk. The cal­lig­ra­phy is of­ten painted on both lay­ers, but those on the top ap­pear sus­pended, like freefloat­ing thoughts in the at­mos­phere. The lay­ers of silk are spaced about a quar­ter of an inch apart, adding depth to the im­ages, and a lentic­u­lar ef­fect oc­curs if you ex­am­ine them from var­i­ous an­gles. The lay­ered silk adds gauzy at­mo­spheric qual­i­ties not oth­er­wise present in the pho­tos — ef­fects nor­mally achieved in-cam­era or in a darkroom.

The cal­lig­ra­phy brush­strokes are de­rived from char­ac­ters with mul­ti­ple in­ter­pre­ta­tions, and no one mean­ing can be in­ferred from any given photo. “The writer makes the choice of how a char­ac­ter is used in a sen­tence,” she said. “For ex­am­ple, the ti­tle of my show is Be­tween Wa­ter & Sky. The Photo-eye peo­ple asked me to do the cal­lig­ra­phy for that ti­tle, and I used the char­ac­ters for wa­ter and sky. Sky, es­pe­cially, has many dif­fer­ent mean­ings. I let peo­ple read that char­ac­ter not as sky but more as air. It’s a very com­mon char­ac­ter in Zen. It can be any­thing. In my heart that char­ac­ter rep­re­sents not just the sky but the world, the at­mos­phere, and also pos­si­bil­i­ties.” Ter­ada creates not words, but im­pres­sion­is­tic takes on mood and feel­ing — in the white pe­tals of a flower, for in­stance, its de­tails soft­ened, its sur­face over­laid with traces of ver­ti­cal cal­lig­ra­phy, or in the sil­hou­ette of a face in pro­file, merg­ing with its sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment, the cal­lig­ra­phy like whis­pers made vis­i­ble.

In Zen cal­lig­ra­phy prac­tice, an artist can­not sim­ply go back and fix a mis­take. Ev­ery stroke is done by hand, and each of Ter­ada’s cal­lig­ra­phy pho­tos is one of a kind. But not all her pho­to­graphs em­ploy such mark-making, and some, while still printed on silk, are purely pho­to­graphic. Some selections from her

Flower Dust se­ries are in­cluded, for ex­am­ple, and are made with­out the use of ad­di­tional paint­ing. “I used to do a lot of brush­work on silk, but one day I was work­ing on an im­age and kept adding the lines, and it never really looked good, and I was dis­ap­pointed. When I printed the im­age by it­self, I saw the flower was al­ready beau­ti­ful with­out my lines. I was a lit­tle up­set. I felt like I had lost a gain, but they were so pre­cious I de­cided to save them.”

Gib­son is a self-taught land­scape pho­tog­ra­pher whose work has vis­ual cor­re­spon­dences with Ter­ada’s: lu­mi­nous ef­fects and stark, even min­i­mal­ist im­agery. Where they dif­fer is in the scale of their sub­jects. Gib­son creates vast, awe-in­spir­ing panora­mas, of­ten shoot­ing in the same vicin­ity for years to cap­ture the nu­ances wrought by sea­sonal changes. Ter­ada’s work is more in­ti­mate in scale and be­cause of the soft fo­cus, her sub­jects seem more spec­tral. She of­ten shoots in close-up. The com­bi­na­tion of cal­lig­ra­phy and pho­tog­ra­phy sug­gests an as­so­ci­a­tion; one re­flects the other, the way a word calls up re­lated im­ages. This idea is in keep­ing with an as­pect of tra­di­tion. Cal­lig­ra­phy is a vis­ual form of lan­guage, as much an art as paint­ing and em­ploy­ing sim­i­lar tools. Its forms are aes­thetic, but us­ing her cal­lig­ra­phy prac­tice in the ser­vice of con­tem­po­rary art en­sures that the genre re­mains open to new ideas and in­flu­ences.

Chaco Ter­ada: History of Time II, 2015, pig­ment and sumi ink on silk; op­po­site page, A Poetry of Life I, 2012, pig­ment and sumi ink on silk

The im­agery is shrouded, ob­scured — its de­tails blurred be­cause it is be­ing seen through a sec­ond layer of silk. The cal­lig­ra­phy is of­ten painted on both lay­ers but those on the top ap­pear sus­pended, like free-float­ing thoughts in the at­mos­phere.

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