In 1990 Liu Dan was working on finishing a masterwork entitled Ink Handscroll, now in the San Diego Museum of Art. A monumental work of 60 feet in length, it announced the arrival of his truly singular mature style, and is still regarded as one of his great masterpieces. A little known fact is that there were two further sections that Liu Dan planned to add to this work. Around 2005, Debby and Marcus Flacks saw a sketch of one of the omitted sections (fig. 1) in his studio and fell in love with it and commissioned the artist to carry out a full size version. The result, Far-Off Journey (lot 1139) is an extraordinary landscape in its own right, an innovative composition as well as an ode to the masterpiece he created 15 years prior. Keeping to a similar scale to the San Diego work, Liu Dan decided to retain the proportional sense of a scroll by adding a block of calligraphy of equal size to the landscape image. Although Liu Dan suggests that his calligraphic inscriptions are often an aesthetic rather than a narrative component of his painting, his inscription of Qu Yuan’s poem Far-Off Journey aptly echoes the feeling of wandering and uncertainty in the landscape composition. It is paradoxically these two emotions that inspire Liu Dan to create some of the most elegant compositions in contemporary Chinese art.
“The material forms in painting do not only convey the characteristics of the mountain or the rock; instead, they turn all images into indescribable illusions completely devoid of narrative, in order to re-establish a new order beyond images within landscape painting.” Liu Dan, 2016
The pursuit of a new visual order for Chinese landscape painting has been central to Liu Dan’s artistic exploration and it is a subject matter that the artist has ceaselessly developed since the early 1990s. His Ink Handscroll, consists of shapes that resemble mountains, water and clouds in an energetic and flowing movement. In this work Liu boldly explores and delineates the structure of material objects to alter the perception of the most traditional genre of Chinese ink painting. Far-Off Journey can be seen as an extension of this enormous landscape work, providing a glimpse of Liu’s inquisitive, passionate mind during his stay in the United States. It also demonstrates his unique interpretation of the relationship between rock and landscape painting as that bond first emerged in the artist’s work.
In revisiting his old masterwork and reinterpreting his preparatory sketch, Liu Dan opened a dialogue with his earlier work which is entirely in keeping with the “conversations” he creates with the past masters of both Chinese and Western painting that have so inspired him. When creating a new work, Liu Dan prepares detailed pencil sketches of his subject. He is particularly attached to these drawings and almost never parts with them under any circumstances. The miniature, meticulous drawing of Far-Off Journey exists as part of the original sketching for Ink Handscroll. For the artist sketching and painting are a multilayered process of exploration; his sketches enable him to observe and study his subject matter intimately, while his painting enables him to both discover himself in the practice of art and to submerge himself entirely in conversation with higher powers. We can see a parallel between the practice of the artist and that of European Medieval and Renaissance masters who, in the words of the artist, “endeavored to render in art what in their imagination were the embodiments of the soul and will of God”.
Liu Dan is intrigued by objects such as rocks, a dictionary, and flowers because he sees in them mystery and uncertainty. Although it appears that Liu portrays a faithful representation of his subject matter, the scrupulous details he depicts are deceiving to the observer. For example the organic and strange features of rocks provide sources of imagination for the artist to journey through the world from a microscopic viewpoint, thus allowing him to create intricate landscape compositions. 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 distills his paintings to become a pure visual experience. Liu’s firm belief to not “tell a story” allow viewers to pay attention only to what appears in front of their eyes, that is, the aesthetic harmony born out of Liu Dan’s mind, body and paint brush.