Details
LIU DAN (B. 1953)
JIUHUA ROCK
Inscribed and signed, with one seal of the artist
Scroll, mounted and framed
Ink on paper
53 x 136 cm. (20 7/8 x 53 1/2 in.)

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Lot Essay

The physical elements in a painting can do more than simply convey the shapes of rocks and mountains. They can also be employed in a totally non-narrative form to transform the images into indescribable illusions, with the aim of constructing a new order for landscape paintings other than identifiable images.
- Liu Dan

Meticulously rendered with a heightened sense of photorealism, Jiuhua Rock depicts an unusual rock with slender peaks and angled crags rising from the abyss, suggesting a monumental vision of precipitous mountains at vertiginous heights. One of the finest rocks painted by Liu Dan, it fascinates the viewer with a most striking feature – the intaglio characters Jiu Hua inscribed in seal script on the smooth planar surface in the front of the rock. The two characters refer evidently to the strange rock that Su Shi encountered and immortalised in a poem titled Mount Jiuhua in a Vessel. Creating a multi-layered and interwoven narrative, Liu Dan’s extraordinarily fine calligraphy balances the composition: he moves seamlessly from the story of the fabled Jiuhua Rock, the poems dedicated to it, to reflections on the aesthetic discourses by Su Shi. By depicting the rock in sharp focus and out of scale, Liu Dan removes it from its original context, making it at once familiar and strange; Jiuhua Rock, with its rich intertextuality, thus offers open-ended interpretations and possibilities, inviting the viewer to journey through history and time.

In the long tradition of rock collecting and connoisseurship in China, rocks have presented a microcosm of the universe on which the scholar could contemplate, to which renowned collectors – Su Shi and Mi Fu included – dedicated poems and essays. In the Song dynasty, they were often anthropomorphised, viewed particularly as vehicles for the expression of ideas and feelings regardless of their form. Mi Fu had commented that Su Shi’s painting of rocks as ‘[having] such hard edges, so peculiar, almost as if they are the very vessel for his sorrow and melancholy’.

It is this melancholy that the story Liu Dan documents in the inscription of Jiuhua Rock bears witness to. In 1094, on the journey south to his place of banishment at the edge of the empire, Su Shi travelled through Hukou in present-day Jiangxi. There, he encountered a strange rock belonging to Li Zhengchen with the most unusual form: its nine slender peaks reminiscent of the sacred Mount Jiuhua (the Nine Glorious Mountains) – a miniature of the larger reality. He thought about buying the rock with a large sum of gold; however, circumstances of the road prevented him from the purchase. Some eight years later, when Su Shi was on his way back from Hainan island, he passed by Hukou again and realised, in great sadness, that the rock had been wrested away and disappeared. Another year had passed, Huang Tingjian visited Hukou and remarked: ‘[the] rock is no longer here to be viewed; and Dongpo [Su Shi] has likewise departed this world.’ The fate of Su Shi and the rock are thus intricately intertwined.

For Liu Dan, scholar’s rocks are objects of mystery and uncertainty. The organic and strange features of a small rock provide sources
of imagination for the artist to journey through the world from a microscopic viewpoint, enabling him to create magnified and intricate compositions that echo grand landscape paintings where one can wander from within. With an ultimate fascination in the structural properties of things around him, Liu Dan actively removes his subjects from their original context. By decontextualizing his subject matter, he abandons the narrative and distils his paintings to become a pure visual experience.

Jiuhua Rock demonstrates Liu Dan’s mastery in the ink and brush genre – his dedicate and meticulous outline of the strange rock and the layering of ink that reflects brightness and darkness resonate with the drawings by European Renaissance artists and later old masters. He uses his mastery of traditional method and technique to free his paintings from the constraints normally associated with Chinese ink paintings. He does this while remaining true to the tradition, with results that are spectacularly novel and contemporary. Liu Dan emphasises that his attainment of masterly skill through self-discipline is what provides him with the freedom to paint according to his heart and mind. Jiuhua Rock is therefore the culmination of the artist’s lifelong experience and pursuit in art. Liu Dan’s firm belief to present a pure and fundamental visual experience and not “tell a story” allows viewers to pay attention only to what appears in front of their eyes, that is, the aesthetic harmony born out of his mind, body, and paintbrush.

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