“The Essence of Sho”


Off to the Peppercanister Gallery in Dublin last night to see the new show of one of my favourite painters. Bert Irvin was there, gently exuding the joy so evident in his work. At 85, he described himself, and the pleasure of painting, as “unextinguishable.”

I’m pretty sure that ancient Oriental calligraphy masters would have related to his honest, vibrant energy and his intention-filled marks. In the early 1980’s, when my own work moved towards a “calligraphy of the spirit”, I was fascinated by a study by Omori Sogen and Terayama Katsujo entitled Zen and the Art of Calligraphy, the Essence of Sho. The trial and error approach of my own work seemed to bear out their findings: that “good” and “bad” calligraphy might be discernable under a microscope.

Why? Because great intention, or the lack of it, can be seen in the molecular make up of the ink. The masters exhibited marks which showed a vibrant, vigorous, yet soft configuration, composed of solid ink particles. The poor quality or forged examples of calligraphy were clearly muddy, with incomplete molecules, and a shriveled and dispersed appearance. Marks don’t lie.

Albert Irvin Memory, 2007. Acrylic on canvas | 61 x 61cm. Photo: Peppercanister Gallery