Animal Matter: Get Close to ROA and Chinese Calligraphy

In this golden age of street art, where JR and Banksy are embraced from the slums of Brazil to the Hollywood Hills, we've gotten spoiled by the sheer volume of indelible imagery that's popped up on buildings, sidewalks, and other public vistas around the world. ROA, an artist from Belgium who specializes in intricately drawn animals, has contributed to this embarrassment of riches with his pastiche of birds, rabbits, squirrels and other wide-eyed creatures that stare down from urban canvases across the globe. “Dominant Species,” ROA's exhibit at 941Geary, is a rare chance to see his work at an indoor venue, where he's created a Darwinian world of life and death that features actual animal parts (feathers, skeletal remains, a severed bird's foot), scattered gun casings, and bull's-eyes, revealing animals' interior lives and the exterior lives of humans who kill them.

It's one part anthropology and one part street art as wry provocation. “Dominant Species” continues the artist's careful examination of the circle of life and the forced coexistence between people and animals, which compete with each other for habitat and resources.

Instead of ROA's usual one-off — a single image on a single outdoor wall — he presents us with an entire world. Science cabinets full of test tubes contain the bloody, severed bodies of a spray-painted rat, deer, and bear. A metal contraption shows off a spray-painted owl that seems agitated and ready to pounce. There's even a makeshift house of wood and iron scraps, its multiple rooms and patio space filled with furniture, books, globes, beer bottles, an upside-down shopping cart, and a crocodile baring its teeth.

Outside, ROA's etchings — which can cover as much as five stories of a building's façade — are thrilling to see, especially in progress. Within hours, he creates animal skins that seem real, giving his work the artistry and detail of a Manet painting.

For “Dominant Species,” ROA made his metal and wood pieces from material he found or purchased during a recent visit to San Francisco. Among the works is Tenderloin Pigeon, a bird drawn on a canvas made of old, connected clipboards and depicted tied to a line. Some pieces, like Arizona Armadillo, take on different appearances depending on where you stand. From one angle, the armadillo's guts are spilling out of its stomach, the apparent casualty of a speeding automobile. From another angle, the animal seems perfectly fine. This ambiguity — are the animals asleep or dead, content or disturbed? — is one of ROA's trademarks.

Street art is still in its infancy compared to millennia-old Chinese calligraphy. “Out of Character: Decoding Chinese Calligraphy,” which opened last week at the Asian Art Museum, spotlights manuscripts that date as far back as the 14th century, letting visitors closely examine writing that was done with obsessive precision. How precise? In China, only an elite cadre of people could call themselves expert calligraphers. Vetted by masters, they had to train for years to prove their draftsmanship and ability to use exact wrist movements to execute the characters. A single letter might require 25 brush strokes.

Exhibit highlights include a 700-year-old handscroll of 10,000 characters, The Sutra on the Lotus of the Sublime Dharma, by Zhao Mengfu, and a handscroll from 1553, Zongbo Has Invited Master Tang (and Myself) on a New Excursion to Tiger Hill, by Wen Zhengming, who completed the piece at age 83. Both calligraphers were also acclaimed painters, and “Out of Character” — among its many strengths — connects the historic dots among Chinese calligraphy, Chinese painting, and Western abstract painting. Especially moving is Brice Marden's Etchings to Rexroth, a collection of 25 etchings inspired by Chinese calligraphy.

The exhibit's coda is a 10-minute animated film, The Character of Characters, by MacArthur “genius grant” recipient Xu Bing. The film tells the story of Chinese calligraphy through landscapes, religious worship, calligraphic writing, and the ancestral hunting of animals. In the story of calligraphy, too, animals and the circle of life play a vital role.

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