He is steeped in the aesthetic and meditative traditions of Japanese and
Chinese calligraphy, in the rich Orthodox iconography of his native Romania,
and in the styles of Western abstract art. His work reveals the unifying
principles of these apparently disparate ways of seeing and saying with
brush and pen.
Myriam Sanchez Posada de Arteni, his wife, an award-winning painter in
her own right, brings to the books' design, printing, and binding a discerning
eye and practiced hand. She is as skilled in the execution of accordion
or Coptic bindings as she is in the Western codex format, an accomplishment
which allows her to display S. Arteni's tradition-bending Chinese and
Japanese calligraphic works in a traditional format. The handmade papers
from China, Japan, Mexico, the Philippines,
and her native Colombia, which she selects for S. Arteni's drawn and printed
images, unfailingly enhance them. She is also a bold experimenter, as
can be seen in her incorporation of wire mesh into the paper used for
the leaves of Cantique de Saint Jean (nos. 32, 33). Her playfully
dramatic sense of design is evident in the five-paneled folding front
for the wrapper of Laudes Creaturarum (no. 36). The ink-and-brush
symbol of the Chrismon (a circle containing the Greek initials of Jesus
Christ, I X) on the wrapper front, which closes in two facing panels,
opens upon an Ichthys (a fish within a circle). The folding panels themselves
become a metaphor for revelation.
S. Arteni, though trained thoroughly and rigorously in the East Asian
calligraphic arts, often employs them in a non-traditional fashion uniquely
his own. This is most obvious in the subjects of his compositions. Many
of them describe or are inspired by scenes and figures from the New Testament,
and many feature or include symbols from the Greek Orthodox tradition.
Other symbols have a Mediterranean or Native American source. Arteni's
interpretations of these symbols often use the Zen circle as their basic
structure. Tellingly, the lines themselves, regardless of subject matter
or Arteni's use of them in New Testament scenes with figures grouped according
to Western conventions, seem to form calligraphic characters. This results
in a reinterpretation of Orthodox iconography and of Western traditions
of New Testament representation. Image becomes character; that is to say,
Word, or Logos.
The two-dimensionality of these drawings, typical of Orthodox icon painting,
as well as of much Western abstract representation, is animated by the
spontaneity of brushwork found in Japanese and Chinese hand-drawn characters.
As in such characters, the
lines work together to form an organic whole, each of them equally important,
regardless of its size or position. Paradoxically, this does not lead
to a sense of confusion, if the viewer is willing to look with quiet attention.
When these images are seen without the interference of our conditioned
expectations of how artistic representation should function, the viewer
comes to apprehend the importance of each detail to the unity of the entire
The uniqueness of Arteni's calligraphic art is also apparent in his technical
innovations for monotype printing. A monotype is a single-copy print.
Unlike lithographic prints, which can be reproduced from a stone surface
a dozen or so times without appreciable change in line or tone, a monotype
image can be produced only once. The
ink is transferred from the plate to the paper almost in its entirety.
In order to produce the "same" image, it would have to be redrawn on the
plate after the first image had been printed. (Arteni uses a calligraphy
brush or bamboo stick to draw the image on a glass or plexiglass plate.)
But, of necessity, the second image would not be identical to the first.
The movement of arm and wrist, the pressure of the fingers, would be slightly
different each time. Even the proportions of the figure would change,
not only for physical reasons, but because in Zen calligraphy the movement
of the brush is not merely the result of learned technique, but emerges
from the artist's response to the moment. Each monotype, like each image
or character drawn directly on paper, is unique. Though Arteni has produced
entire books in which the images and characters are drawn directly upon
paper, he especially enjoys the textures and accidents resulting from
the transfer of brushstrokes from a plate.
An unorthodox form of monotype printing, which Arteni happened upon in
1996, is the use of damp clay as a printing surface. A friend of his had
recently discovered the technique and introduced him to it. Dyes or acrylic
paints are mixed in water with a fine clay powder and applied to a damp
clay slab. Arteni, however, radically transformed the technique, releasing
the full potential of the clay monotype by cutting into and shaping the
topography of the slab, thereby achieving a complex interaction of planographic,
relief , and intaglio effects. Occasionally, the furrows in the clay produce
rich effects akin to dry point etching. After transferring the image to
the paper, Arteni sprays it with a fixative to ensure that the clay pigments
will not crumble away after they have dried.
The monotype books are usually single-copy editions. When more than one
copy has been produced in this fashion, each is unique because of the
nature of the monotype process. Other books, like The Large Emerging
from the Small, are brush-and-ink manuscripts to which letterpress
leaves have sometimes been added. These, too, are produced as single-copy
editions. Intimately related to the Sol Invictus books, and represented
in the exhibition, are the drawings which often serve as studies for images
in the books, as well as the scrolls upon which Arteni employs his brush
directly. Some of the scrolls are purely calligraphic, employing Japanese
characters; others contain images.
A distinct genre of Sol Invictus Press is the books of stone-seal carvings
of Chinese and Japanese characters. These offer Arteni an opportunity
to present an ancient form of art which is today rarely executed with
such mastery anywhere in the world; among Western artists Arteni is probably
its sole expert practitioner. Here, too, Arteni has combined innovation
with tradition. In Casual Writings by a Window, a book of stone-seal
prints and calligraphy, Arteni has adopted for his seals the seal-script
style of ancient Chinese writing, invented at least as early as 600 B.C.,
and whose various forms had become standardized by 200 B.C. Now, it is
used only for seals. Arteni plays with the traditional seal-script forms
in Casual Writings, sometimes intentionally distorting them to
the point of illegibility, thereby transforming them into designs of pure
form. For the text, he has used a semi-cursive style of Chinese character.
However, instead of employing a brush, the traditional means of forming
these characters, he has used a bamboo stick.
Arteni's combination of tradition and innovation has made Sol Invictus
Press the vehicle not only for his and M. de Arteni's rare gifts, but
for a sacred art rooted in both Eastern and Western traditions. As the
leaves of a Sol Invictus book are turned and the characters/symbols/images
succeed each other in space and time, each seemingly the work of an inspired
moment which has flowed spontaneously from the artist's hand, the awareness
grows that an important message is being spoken to the eye and inscribed
in the mind.
Director of Special Collections
St. Mark's Library