By Courtney Crowder
2:30 PM EDT, May 11, 2013
Think calligraphy is simply that swirling script on nice wedding invitations?
Think, again — then check out the Newberry Library's newest exhibit, "Exploration 2013."
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Presented in partnership with the Chicago Calligraphy Collective, a group that promotes "the study, practice and appreciation of calligraphy," this juried exhibition features 34 calligraphic pieces that push the art form's boundaries. Items such as a painted three-panel fabric partition, words engraved on glass and a massive installation of calligraphy across three whole animal hides make one thing quite clear: This is not your mama's fancy handwriting.
"There is a perception out there that (calligraphy) is something little old ladies do and that it is this kind of amateur thing," said Paul F. Gehl, a Newberry curator. "It is clear that the club and all the artists working in the field are working against that" perception.
Gehl, whose official title is custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing, is a proselytizer for the calligraphic form and this annual exhibit, which is in its 27th year at the Newberry. At each piece, he took off his glasses and stared wide-eyed, his face millimeters from the work, at the minute details like a biologist peering down the barrel of a microscope.
He isn't fazed by the extreme variation in form, material or language used in the exhibition's pieces. Over the years he has seen the trend of abstraction in calligraphy grow into a full-fledged movement.
"My approach has always been simple-minded," he said. "I say, if the artist calls it calligraphy, then it's calligraphy. I have my own standards, which have to do with a sense of not so much the existence of a letter, but the feeling of a stroke or a movement" that looks like a letter form.
Legibility has also fallen away as orthodoxy in calligraphy, Gehl said. He pointed out a piece resembling works by Jackson Pollock, with black, white and green paints splattered and swooshed across paper.
"I am not sure whether there is text there or not, which tells you right away that it doesn't make any difference," he said. "To me, it is very calligraphic because of the strokes. … Even from across the room it has a calligraphic swing and movement to it."
One of the highlights of the annual exhibit, which continues through June 8, is the announcement of the winner of the $2,000 Newberry Library Purchase Prize, a piece selected by Gehl for inclusion in the library's permanent collection.
Like most of the displayed pieces, the work of this year's winner, "Evocation" by Maggie Mokrzycka, departs from traditional calligraphic forms. Her large, mostly black and white piece features loopy, seemingly unending script — Polish Bible verses — on overlapping pieces of specially treated rice paper backed by a black wooden board. The piece took about two years to complete.
Mokrzycka, 28, said she was inspired by her desire to "turn a plain thing into something that brings a lot of emotions to mind and evokes the question, 'How is that done?'"
The imagery and personal touches drew Julie Wildman, president of Chicago Calligraphy Collective, to Mokrzycka's piece.
"It looks like a personal journal page," Wildman said. "I view the running text — layered behind and above, going off the page, looking like it just continues ad infinitum — as a metaphor for someone's life. ... The layers speak to who we are as people, some parts obscured or hidden, other parts out in the open."
While the exhibit's unique, flashy pieces easily draw attention, Gehl believes there is still a place for more traditional forms of calligraphy such as invitations or broadsides of quotes from Shakespeare or Bible passages.
Those forms happen to be on display in the adjoining exhibit of beautifully decorated books, most of which are religious publications produced before 1800. Gehl sees the pairing — the books are on display through July 6 — as favorable placement.
"For the people who are mostly interested in antiquarian books, (this) is an opportunity to suggest to them that they look at something a bit more contemporary and a bit more radical and abstract," he said.
Courtney Crowder covers the Chicago literary scene.
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