Friday, 20 January 2017

Oriental Grace

Mythical, sensitive paintings that recall their Chinese heritage with impact that extends beyond their size

Written by Sandra Smith


Chinese art, Western culture, ancient calligraphy and metalpoint favoured by Renaissance artists shape, merge and permeate the spectacularly detailed and unique ink images produced by Liu Dan who, whilst embracing his country’s legacy, produces contemporary works exuding a cross-culture appeal.Sandra-Smith-colour-176

Liu Dan’s childhood during the 1950s in China’s southern capital, Nanjing, included calligraphy instruction from his grandfather. At the onset of the Cultural Revolution (1966) education for young children stopped. A period in the Red Guards followed plus a decade working in rural Jiangsu during which Dan studied tiny black and white photographs of Renaissance paintings copied from a book. After absorbing these images he reproduced his own drawings and, post Revolution, studied at the Jiangsu Academy of Traditional Painting.

It was perhaps living in Hawaii during his twenties and then making his home in New York that most keenly influenced his style, the geographical distance, not to mention topography and cultural contrast, fuelling an interpretation of the relationship between rocks and landscape, the results of which are showcased in the Ashmolean’s Khoan and Michael Sullivan Gallery.

The impact of Dan’s paintings extends beyond size, vast though some of them are. Mythical, if not tentatively surreal, qualities suck in the onlooker to a dimension where microscopic detail flourishes and marks are so fine, so fluid, they are barely decipherable as evolving from an artist’s tool. Dan’s preferred dry brushes make each shade, from deep black to palest grey, more resemble a rubbing. In addition Mingsha Diabolo (1 and 2) conjure up illusions of billowing smoke and a sense that the image will shift should you glance away.

Although ornamental rocks have long interested Chinese scholars, Dan’s belief that they are the stem cells from which landscapes are built upon enables him to turn these inorganic objects into landscapes. Close up paintings enable an individual rock to evolve into its own, distinct terrain. The one colourful painting, Bamboo Cabinet, may be less typical in style yet is equally intricate and is, like many others here, endorsed with calligraphy.

The artist’s traditionally made paper is sourced from a craftsman in Anhui province who produces required 10-metre lengths. Brushes are also crucial, the artist once travelling 1,000km to Jiangxi in order to replace an antique brush of goat and weasel hair. Such precision is at the essence of Liu Dan’s work and the Ashmolean is to be congratulated for celebrating paintings by one of the world’s leading contemporary artists whose art is simultaneously complex, distinctive and memorable.

Until 26 February at the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, Oxford: 01865-278002; www.ashmolean.org 



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