Important Art by Liu Dan
Beyond the Window is a page from a book collage series Liu Dan was developing in the mid 1980s, painted when Liu was 32 years old after settling in Honolulu with his wife. It depicts a traditional wooden shuttered window, realistically drawn in a Western style. The open window reveals an expansive open landscape rendered with scattered washes of gray and orange that defines rolling hills under a moody sky. The window is collaged on top of a dark black abstract form, possibly the frame of a bed or chair, that sits on the middle of the page, and in the far left corner, a portrait of a woman, drawn from an unusual perspective, is looking down into the viewer's eyes very attentively.
For Liu, this was a time defined by artistic exploration. Alexandra Munroe, art scholar and critic, explains that "During his first years in Honolulu, Liu Dan experimented with fusing abstract brush-and-ink painting with realist drawing in a series of portraits and landscapes," of which this work is a prime example. Although, she adds, he hadn't yet solved the task of integrating "Chinese and Western, traditional and modern modes of expression on a deeper level, beyond surface imagery."
The artist's choice of media and technique derived from his years of learning traditional Chinese calligraphy with his grandfather and studying historic painting styles at the Jiangsu Painting Academy. On the other hand, the incorporation of Western-style realism and use of linear perspective, reveal his intricate studies of the Renaissance drawings. The end result, with the odd combination of imagery and disjointed narrative is a slightly surreal composition, but clearly exemplifies his desire to reinterpret tradition and achieve a new visual language.
Ink Handscroll, is a nearly 60-foot-long painting, depicting abstracted landscape forms, intertwined and unfolding across a traditional handscroll format. It is an example of the mature style that Liu first developed in the large-scale, multi-panel hanging scroll, titled Aceldama, completed a few years prior in 1987. The opening view into this formidable scene is dominated by red cinnabar hues bisected with a horizontal, cloud-like form suggesting a horizon line between the earth and heavens. The cacophony of forms, according to the artist, represents the "fiery origins of the universe." As the scroll opens, the red tones fade into grays and blacks, as Liu refines the palette to the archetypal monochromatic style of Chinese landscape painting. The brushwork, however, is anything but traditional; instead of using identifiable classical cun, or brushstrokes, the artist creates simplified shapes that suggest the influence of early 20th-century modernist experimentations, including the reductive forms of Cubism.
The primordial landscape also departs from convention in the complete lack of any human presence throughout the composition. There are none of the typical signs of humanity, no recluse scholars, travelers, simple dwellings nor hidden temples residing in the lofty mountain peaks. Instead, the landscape is primal with abstract forms that merely suggest rather than resemble any natural settings. If, on the one hand, it can create associations with the creation of the world, on the other, the intricate details appeal to a more specific ongoing development of humanity, appearing to capture the movement of life itself.
Tracing Liu's artistic lineage is difficult, as the artist is not limited to the powerful influences of guohua, but represents a multi-national dialogue between generations of monumental visionary landscape paintings from Asia, Europe and America. References can be made between Liu's Ink Handscroll to the twisting landscapes of Gou Xi, the famous Song Dynasty court painter, or the eccentric style of Ming loyalist Gong Xian, of the 16th century, who looked to nature rather than past masters as his guide. On this regard, Munroe suggests "Liu's refined brush technique creates a structurally ambiguous realm of light and dark, flat and refracted spaces which describe a majestic presence that is simultaneously solid and void." Equally compelling is the reductive simplification of form, suggesting the influence Georgia O'Keeffe, and the mannerist style of Thomas Hart Benton.
Liu began work on the painting in 1989, a few months after the student-led demonstrations in Tiananmen Square were crushed by military intervention. In a public lecture at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the artist recalled a moment of helplessness, staring in the light of a flickering candle, "Something magical happened. I saw that surrounding the light, the reality started moving, probably because of the heat, the light, but I caught that moment ... I caught the landscape combination. I was ready for new things, but I didn't know what until that moment happened." After a year of meticulous work, an all consuming process, the final result can be read as the artist's way to reckon with the violence of his own past and contribute through artistic tradition to instill beauty back into the world.
While much of Liu Dan's oeuvre consists of large-scale paintings, the intimate drawing, titled Portrait of a Man, reveals much about the artist's Western influences. The paper upon which the drawing is crafted is less than five-by-seven inches, bringing the viewer into a close proximity with the subject: a close-up portrait, in profile, of a well-dressed man with clearly defined facial features, staring beyond the picture plane with an intense gaze. Although seeming to be drawn from life, the work is based on an old photograph of a Chinese-born, New York-based artist, Mu Xin then in his seventies, taken 20 years before the drawing was made.
The style heralds back to the artist's youth, first learning to draw in the Western style from photographs taken of books destined to be consumed by flames in the rampant destruction of literature and historical texts during the Cultural Revolution. He learned to draw in the Western style from such photos, in a manner similar to which he created this work. Directly inspired by Renaissance red-chalk portrait drawings, Liu emulates the technique and materials with terracotta red chalk on worn ivory-toned paper. The marks on the pages, derived from the fact that it is a page from an old notebook, add to the overall vintage feel of the work. In this sense, a connection can be defined to a copied portrait of Leonardo da Vinci by an unknown artist from this period, similarly titled Portrait of a Man, which used similar materials and intensity of subject. The two gazes could meet, conceptually, as Mu Xin looks to the right and Leonardo looks left.
On this regard, art writer and curator Michele Lim describes, "By transforming the likeness from photograph to sketch, the drawing has become an abstraction of the photograph, instead of the more conventional relationship where the photograph limits itself to a traditional handmaiden's role as the artist's visual notepad for an eventual painting." The use of a photograph as a reference point is also a stark contradiction from the techniques associated with traditional Chinese painting and reminds the viewer of the fundamentally different approach Liu takes, first blocking out his composition with an under drawing before the brush touches the paper.