Is the canvas blank?

By Lucas Justinien Perez

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Blank Paper, 2017, hemp, cotton, and rice paper

A material apartheid exists in the contemporary art world. The traditional arts of the West, like canvas painting are neutralized with blankness, while those of the other are segregated into museological classification and hegemonic labeling. There are thriving Eastern calligraphy “art worlds,” with millions of practitioners engaged in discourses about modern mark-making, but their work is looked on with the orientalist gaze. For six years, from 2009-2015, I studied Nihonga (Japanese painting) and Shodo (Japanese Calligraphy) in Tokyo, Japan. In 2017 I became a Shihan, or Master-Teacher within the Shosenbu Calligraphy Group, the same year I become a Master of Fine Art at Parsons School of Design. At Parsons I observed how my own hybrid asemic calligraphy practice and its associated forms were restricted by facile notions of cultural appropriation and my position as a white-bodied man to this traditional art. But should the biography of an artist determine which form they use to explore issues of modernity? Furthermore should the “biography” of an object (its history) predicate its subject? Chris Kraus writes:

Whereas modernism believed that the artist’s life held all the magic keys to reading works of art, neo-conceputalism has cooled this off and corporatized it. The artist’s own biography doesn’t matter much at all. What life? The blanker the better…It is the biography of the institution that we want to read. (Chris Kraus, Chris Kraus on the Ambiguous Virtues of Art school, artspace.com, March 2, 2015)

The canvas has become blank while other alternative forms have not. I want to investigate how my own hybrid calligraphic expressionist practice can illicit fresh conversations about ownership and cultural appropriation within the institution. By using alternative “neutral” surfaces and a different approach to modernist mark-making I want to see how I can blur the lines between categories of time, race, culture. The in-betweeness of my art that straddles East and West, emulates my own ambiguous transnational background as a Mexican-American, cultural nomad and citizen of the world. Growing up among a multi-ethnic family with half British, half Japanese and half Saudi Arabian cousins I learned the ways in which culture hybridized, especially on the internet. In school I became obsessed with idealogical and formal intersections between global traditions and contemporariness and it always reflected in my art.

I describe my work as more asemic calligraphy than painting in which I use layered writing systems to come up with new mark-making abstractions. In past works I’ve mixed the Chinese “block style” with arabesques, Japanese kana writing with English cursive, illuminated manuscripts and “grass writing,” (tsao-shu) and blankness with writing. I use antique scrolls, folding screens and papers as contemporary surfaces with a history, and by marking these objects I feel I am making a proclamation of an ideological descent to the traditions from which my skill arose. Materially, I mix semi-precious mineral pigments like azurite, ver d’ gris, vermillion and conch shell with deer skin glue medium; sumi ink, metal foils on hemp, rice paper and silk, with modern materials like DayGlo pigments, marker, spray paint and vinyl.

Although Eastern calligraphy has inspired the expressionistic practices of de Kooning and Kline, the form its self is often relegated to a stagnant traditional “craft” status. I’m interested in a reversal, where the traditions of modernism inform contemporary calligraphic mark-making instead. In my painting and my writing I want to create hybridity that contributes to a greater global painting tradition, which has yet to be defined, freely and without restrictive categorization. The complexity of the flows of appropriation between cultures in a post-globalized world connected online, blurs authorship in a ways which have yet to be fully understood. I want to see the equal representation of not only a plurality of artists but of alternative traditional forms like scroll painting displayed beside the ubiquitous blank, white canvas, which has become the hegemonic symbol of a kind of artistic colonization of the art world.

Blankness of the form and blankness of the artist is what I am interested in investigating and at the heart of the recent explosive controversy surrounding Dana Schutz’s depiction of Emmet Till. While the image of Till’s face abstracted by the violence, carries a deeply painful historical charge, Schutz should have the right to its representation. Coco Fusco wrote of in her opinion piece for hyperalergenic.com on the controversy, “There is a deeply puritanical and anti-intellectual strain in American culture that expresses itself by putting moral judgment before aesthetic understanding.” (Coco Fusco, Censorship, Not the Painting, Must Go: On Dana Schutz’s Image of Emmett Till, hyperallergic.com, March, 2017). In my own work I have seen how quickly facile judgements are make because of the forms I employ and my relation to them. If accepted into the Whitney Independent Research program I want to investigate how a hybrid practice using alternative forms can be equally generative in the discourses of contemporary life.