Sophie Chang once said, “In painting, the first epiphany of beauty is the most important.” Leaning Beauty is her attempt to capture an instantaneous feeling with her brush. A poet friend of Chang’s, upon seeing the painting for the first time, was inspired to compose the following poem:
Amidst dark green and light purple, the dusk sun sets;
Into the night colours, mountains continue like layered screens.
Their beautiful form cannot be entirely obscured——
Exactly like a beauty leaning on a railing.
Chang has painted a vast, awe-inspiring, and alluring vista. A dark, forested mountain-range is bathed in golden light and resembles a beautiful woman leaning on a railing. Flowering trees dot its ridges, evoking the sudden burst of vitality during the first days of spring. The viewer is transported imaginatively out of the mundane world and into the painter’s “inner universe.” The darkness of the forest contrasts strikingly with the warmth of the mist and clouds, expressing Chang’s positive vision of human existence: although suffering is unavoidable in life, the sun will always rise again to bathe the world in its light and warmth.
Chang has a natural sensitivity towards colours. Here she orchestrates the layering of and contrasts between reddish-orange, black, golden-yellow, jade-green, dark blue, and dark purple to create a miraculous vista. Simultaneously with this freeform use of colours, she preserves a suggestion of realism in the precipitous mountain peaks and lush vegetation. She engenders a dialectical progress between solid and void, abstraction and figuration to manifest the vastness of the universe. On the other hand, the composition from a bird’s-eye perspective suggests that transcendental vision that the artist has arrived at after a long process of self-cultivation and meditation. In this vision, all mountains and rivers are ultimately mental images and thus allow the spirit to roam freely through them.
As a philanthropist, Chang has devoted herself to alleviating suffering in the world. As a mindful “self-cultivator,” she engages in daily meditation in pursuit of spiritual tranquillity and wisdom, which in turn guides her in her philanthropic work. The path she has chosen requires her to maintain a pure state of mind in navigating complicated realities, which requires dedication and commitment. Samantabhadra pictures her state of mind in this frame of reference. Over time, she interweaves lines and colour blocks rendered in exuberant brushwork into a coherent composition. As different passages dried at different speeds, they caused the cracks and fissures that constitute Chang’s signature style and make visible their complex temporal and causal relationships. The beautiful textures become symbols of the shifting realities of the world and the artist’s nuanced responses to and reflections on them.
On top of the layered colours, Chang has inscribed the Tibetan seed characters for “Bodhisattva Samantabhadra” in pure white paint. This bold incorporation of calligraphy draws from renowned Chinese modern abstract artists. Seed characters are objects of meditation in Buddhism, and they appear here as totems of the artist’s countless calligraphic renditions and meditations. Samantabhadra personifies compassion. In Buddhist triptychs, he often appears on the Buddha’s right side riding an elephant, which symbolises the release from the cycle of birth, aging, sickness, and death. At the very center of the painting, Chang’s inscription is bold and assured, suggesting her steady spiritual commitment: in our constantly changing and unpredictable world, we can only transcend suffering and achieve nirvana by ridding ourselves of illusions and purifying our hearts.
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