By the time I reached the opening of Wang Dongling’s exhibition at Chambers Fine Art, the artist had finished his performance. Two large sheets of clear polyvinyl lay on the floor covered with slowly drying Chinese characters in glossy white acrylic paint. Thus displayed, Wang’s energetic cursive calligraphy attracted a string of viewers who attempted to read the work as a piece of writing, character by character and line by line. Even for a viewer with the specialized training required to read cursive Chinese, this was not an easy task, and many of those who tried walked away in frustration. Indeed, Wang’s use of text is anything but straightforward; his characters come tantalizingly close to legibility while ultimately evading any definitive meaning.
The works I saw drying are part of a larger piece titled In the Realm of Zen, which ultimately comprised eight painted polyvinyl sheets hung from the gallery ceiling in succession, a few inches apart. When fully installed, the translucent sheets resembled a palimpsest, with characters written on top of one another. A mirror-finished stainless steel floor beneath the piece heightened the effect of a cascade of writing.
Wang has described his previous works—such as those on view in the 2013 exhibition “Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York—as “calligraphic paintings”: abstract pieces that retain the quality of line and performative aspects of traditional calligraphy but are not transcriptions of specific characters and cannot be read as texts. The current show included a handful of works on traditional rice paper that recall, at least in form, these previous calligraphic paintings. Bold lines of ink create a visual rhythm that summons an image of the artist’s movements with the brush.
Despite these superficial similarities, the nature of Wang’s calligraphic practice has evolved, a fact underscored by a documentary video on display. In one of several performances shown in the video, Wang is seen creating a sheet from In the Realm of Zen. In one hand, he holds a large brush; tellingly, in the other, he holds a model text written in a clear standard script. In his new pieces, Wang is not separating line from meaning. Instead, he is turning calligraphic practice upon itself, using the qualities of ink and paper as well as the accretion of words upon words to force a viewer to hover between beholding pure form and reading text.
The video also shows the artist working on paper with a loaded brush, producing lines of connected characters that begin in deep, inky black and end in dry strokes of “flying white”—a technique with a long history in Chinese art. Stylistically, the tense, unbroken lines recall calligraphy from the late Ming period, especially work by such figures as Wang Duo (1592-1652) and Fu Shan (1607-1684). But in a departure from these classical models, Wang collapses the boundary between columns of text, layering one atop another to form frenetic jumbles. The results are works based in explicit meaning but ultimately divorced from it.
Wang’s new paintings thus achieve a playful hybridity. They tease a viewer approaching them as abstraction while hinting at greater depths. And they baffle a connoisseur that tries to read them. Ultimately, this is Chinese calligraphy for a global audience: works that are legible as Chinese ink but illegible as Chinese characters. These Chinese whispers allow each viewer to construct his or her own interpretation, confident that any absolute meaning has been unmoored through the artist’s practice.