It’s not unusual for a Chinese artist to interpret or integrate the principal of yin-yang. After all, it is a philosophical belief in a duality of opposite but interdependent forces endemic to Asian culture in all forms.
Nor is it out of the ordinary for yin-yang to be a major motif in Western art, including recent exhibits in the Metro area. That would include the two-person husband-and-wife show, Machine/Man/Air/Land at the RNG Gallery by Jody Boyer and Russ Nordman, who believe that “every aspect of our lives is a balance of yin-yang.” Their show continues through August at the Council Bluffs space.
But what is unusual is when East meets West in a similar vein as two individual artists from different cultures collaborate in an exhibit whose only sole American venue is here in Omaha.
The Big Black Project, currently on view until October 3 at the Garden of the Zodiac in the Old Market Passageway, features ink drawings by modern Chinese calligrapher Master Yu Jihan and the prints, paintings and drawings of Italian artist Paolo Dolzan. The exhibit is curated by photographer Fulvio de Pellegrin and organized by the Moving Gallery. Dolzan, an artist and art historian based in Trento, Italy, has been especially involved in organizing cross-cultural artistic exchanges. Master Yu, a native of Shanghai, China, is widely regarded as a premier practitioner of calligraphy, adapting this ancient art to a contemporary aesthetic.
The exhibit began with a visit by Dolzan who, along with del Pellegrin have both shown in Omaha in the past, first visited China in 2011 as a participant in a contemporary Italian art exposition. Whereupon he met Master Yu and soon formed a cross-cultural union. Dolzan invited the latter to his hometown in Trento, Italy, where the calligrapher exhibited and lectured. A year later China beckoned and hosted the first showing of their collaboration, truly a work in progress, the latest version we see her in Omaha.
Overall, The Big Black Project “grew out of a similar interest in black and white graphic imagery with its emphasis on fluidity and pressure, spontaneity and control as well as a love of gestural mark-making as a means of personal expression. But there the similarity ends as each exhibits their own content, materials and set of influences.
Master Yu’s materials are black ink, brush and white paper, and his drawings are the result of his dualistic use of historic calligraphic language to create a contemporary balance of iconic text and abstract human natural forms. Dolzan’s métier is also doubly influenced as his printing and charcoal on paper and painting on canvas invoke the Renaissance while referencing certain modern masters.
Even more significant is their point of view and interpretation of yin-yang’s duality. Simply put, the yin-yang principle recognizes the co-existence of opposing forces in nature: beauty and ugliness, shadow and light, change and constant, black and white, life and death and so on. One cannot exist without the other. Their art reflects these oppositions culturally within this show itself but within their own individual pieces also.
For example, consider their take on the palette of black and white. The I Ching says black is the color of “Heaven” as in an ideal or immortal existence. Consequently, Master Yu’s abstract, calligraphic ink drawings evoke certain states of mind or being. At times, then, titles such as “Shower of Virtue” and “Strength” are direct while others, as with “Emulation” and “Dreaming” are only deliberately suggestive of their concept.
Master Yu’s ink drawings share a similarity to the stark abstraction of Franz Kline or Pierre Soulages, though his work is more nuanced with subtle references to animals, bodies of water and atmosphere. The imagery oozes, drips and pulsates with a transcendent life of its own as if the artist were having an out of body experience as he creates. As hyperbolic as this sounds, during a recent demonstration of his talent at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Master Yu seemed to watch his hand in a trance as it flowed rapidly right to left across rice paper, “writing” one visual poem after another.
Conversely, Dolzan doesn’t title his bold, expressionistic series of heads or animal figures. These darkly wicked caricatures may remind some of the portraits of Georges Rouault with their gestural contouring and carved facial features. But other viewers may reference the recent portraits of patients who underwent facial surgery by Scottish artist Mark Gilbert who exhibited Saving Faces at UNO. Both series share a certain grotesquerie and harshness, but unlike Gilbert’s humanistic portrayals, the angst in Dolzan’s unnamed portraits is darkly psychological and menacing.
Perhaps Dolzan’s demons are his own, the manifestations of a troubled and conflicted spirit, the bane of any artist struggling to exist and for recognition. Others may see these portraits as hideous masks of mythical and historical figures—in one a distorted Hitler appears to grimace back at us—guilty of some inner moral decay. Think of Oscar Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray.
But despite the suggestion of being one’s doppelganger or serving as an exemplum, one cannot deny the innate beauty of Dolzan’s cast of characters in his theater of the macabre. In his own yin-yang variation, the artist achieves resolution of sorts by finding beauty in death and decay. By creating something in the face of the inevitable, this is his outlet, his existential moment to relieve the anxiety.
“I create from the stomach,” Dolzan says. “Master Yu from the head.” To that similar end, it can be said that the work of the former is transformative and the latter, transcendent.
The Big Black Project continues through Oct. 3 at the Garden of the Zodiac Gallery in the Old Market Passageway, 1042 Howard St. For more information call 402-517-8719 or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.