Whether painting a scholar stone, flower or landscape, Liu Dan attempts to express a truth beyond the painted image in his art. A key to understanding the breadth of his artistic vision is rooted in his lifelong dialogue with the ink medium and an affinity for European master drawings and paintings. It is rare to come across a wide selection of paintings from the artist’s limited oeuvre and the works presented in this sale form an unusual grouping that represent his known painting motifs in various periods of his career.
The earliest work is dated to the period of Liu Dan’s formal training at the Jiangsu Academy of Chinese Painting from 1978 to 1981. As a student of traditional Chinese painting, Liu visited the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang, Gansu province, where early Buddhist murals, sculptures and sutras were preserved. Avalokiteshvara (Lot 556) is an extremely rare and largest example of Liu’s depiction of Buddhist figures based on his trip to the ancient site. Through his mastery of fine line and ink wash, Liu initiates a personal conversation with the past, transcending time and space, while adding cultural and historical dimension to his faithful representation.
For the next two decades after moving to the United States in 1981, Liu Dan explored various painting subjects, ranging from figures to landscapes and still-lives, whilst applying a microscopic observation to each subject using various mediums – ink, watercolor, and pencil. In 1991, the book subject marks a turning point in his career when Liu began to explore painting with watercolor.1 His few renderings of an open Chinese dictionary (Figure 1) are monumental in scale and profoundly mesmerizing in their attention to detail. Prayer Book (Lot 510) represents an attempt to move away from the Chinese dictionary subject and introduce another form of book that holds the same life-changing power on human ideology.
From the 1990s to early 2000s, Liu Dan produced a series of paintings dedicated to the poppy flower, a culturally and historically meaningful icon in Chinese civilization. In addition to the otherworldly beauty of the flower that suits his artistic inspiration, Liu sees these paintings as an homage to and remembrance of the soldiers who gave their lives in the war.2 The present two colored poppy paintings (Lots 524 & 553), together with the others in this series, capture the vitality and strength of the flower in its different life stages, from different angles and with different compositions, as if deciphering its multi-layered meaning step by step.
The scholar’s stone is perhaps one of Liu Dan’s favorite and most frequently revisited subjects, which in Chinese history is the focus of passionate connoisseurship in both the imperial court and literatus circles since the Tang dynasty.3 Admired for its complex patterns and organic textures that suggest infinite natural forms, the rock serves as a microcosmic symbol of the forms in the universe. Fascinated by the ever-changing facets of scholar’s stones and their embrace of Daoist philosophy, Liu Dan pursued their study in his paintings since the 1980s in exploration of the structure of Chinese landscape paintings.4 While his painting techniques refer to a mastery of traditional painting and his subjects are seemingly representational, his works are meant to be viewed as interpretations of how one judges and understands information. Curator Liu Yang remarks that, “Often, Liu Dan’s creative imitation of masterworks is a freehand interpretation, and his copy alludes to a compositional structure that is implicit in the earlier painting but unexploited by its creator.”5 In Airy Mountains, Rushy Glen after Li Tang (Lot 531), the landscape is united by the overall spiritual resonance (qi yun) as an organic body in which rocks are a “stem cell,”6 growing themselves into the finished composition. Removing the ‘stem cell’ from its original context, Liu Dan creates portraits of scholar’s rocks an individual study of observation. With his dry and textured brushstrokes, he gradually reveals the layers the multi-faceted surfaces as if re-sculpturing the three-dimensional stone onto the two-dimensional paper. As seen in Yu Yuan Stone (Lot 511), the dynamic inner movement created from the object is always balanced by his elegant kaishu inscriptions, which demands absolute poise and concentration. In a later example of the rock subject as seen in Scholar's Rock in the Jiansongge Collection (Lot 530), the same visual strength is maximized by its large scale and the degree of expressive details presented. This painting also pays tribute to the shared passion for scholar’s rocks between Liu Dan and the collector, whose notable collection of scholarly objects can be seen in the sale from these rooms titled Tao: The Jiansongge Collection in 2008.
Throughout his artistic career, Liu Dan never stops seeking the ultimate truth in his own spiritual world. No matter the subject he chooses, one always sees through his paintings the depth of meaning and philosophy his dedicated brush visualizes, thus enabling mutual communication and an open mind, which is, in Liu Dan’s words, the objective of his artistic creation.7
1 “Conversation with Liu Dan” Asia Art Archive in America, New York, 25 March 2010, www.aaa-a.org/programs/conversation-with-liu-dan/ accessed 30 January 2017.
2 Mee-seen Loong, Shuimo: Ten Thousand Blossoms Spring, S|2 Sotheby’s New York, March 2014, p. 8.
3 Alexandra Munroe, “Why Ink? The Art of Liu Dan,” in Alternative Visions: Liu Dan and Hiromitsu Morimoto, pp. 7 – 17. The Gallery at Takashimaya, New York, 1993.
4 Li Xiaoqian, “Interview with Liu Dan”, excerpted from Union of Mind and Dao, Suzhou Museum, 2012.
5 Liu Yang, Ink Unbound: Paintings by Liu Dan, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minnesota, 2016, p. 27.
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