Liu Dan: New Landscapes and Old Masters

Liu Dan is considered one of China’s most famous living artists, and is renowned for his use of traditional techniques in creating modern works of ink on canvas. Moving from some of the bolder brushworks found in traditional Chinese painting, Liu brings an approach of fastidious detail and deftness. In this exhibition, some of his most recent works are on show, which depict his move from still-life study to landscape scenes.

Liu’s method is precise, and something which we in his finished works: his calligraphy, in graceful indelible ink, is held together by a delicate and deliberate frame of graphite which emphasizes the process of his works. The Ashmolean has supported this aspect of the artist’s work through the exhibition of writing implements and draft sketches which experiment with process and tool.  Far more than merely a supporting role, these sketches allow us to feel a connection with the long and rich history of calligraphy and painting which Liu himself was a student of. They give the viewer a sense of the precision and care which has gone into each perfectly elegant character on the paper. Their tranquil and measured certainty is placed in a striking contrast with studies of rocks which seems to broil like a tempestuous sea, and bridle the fluid chaos – suspended in stone, suspended in ink – a beautiful balance.

Liu is evidently a modern kind of Renaissance scholar; he observes with a scientist’s eye as well as an artist’s aesthetic awareness.

Calligraphy, however, is not just form. The text which forms such a bold mark next to Liu’s still-life studies are further bound to the heritage of thousands of years of Chinese philosophy, whose most profound passages are placed in direct binary with Liu Dan’s nature studies. We feel as if this might come from some ancient and long-forgotten manuscript of natural wonders. Liu is evidently a modern kind of Renaissance scholar; he observes with a scientist’s eye as well as an artist’s aesthetical awareness. Aside from his clear awareness of philosophy, art, Western and Eastern traditions, he also applies scientific principles to his artwork. From the idea of a ‘scholar’s rock’ – an ornamental rock which would sit in a study to inspire the artist of mountains – he is exploring the idea of the rock as “stem cells” of a landscape. It is this idea which we see in the largest piece from this exhibition, entitled Redefining “pleats of matter” (2015). Through repetition and variation, one rock builds upon itself to form a mountain and

No sooner had I appreciated this technique as I thought I could see faces in this work. And it becomes apparent, when spying some figure sketches by Da Vinci on the opposite wall, that I’m not mistaken. Although this gentle revelation of layered concepts was a good presentation of the complexity in Liu’s work, I felt that the soft lighting did detract somewhat from the overall striking effect and clean shapes figured in the artwork. However, nothing could stop Liu Dan’s talent from standing out.

The New Landscapes and Old Masters exhibition is open at the Ashmolean until 26th