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.