Liu Dan’s Vision of the Honorable Old Man

by Nell Shaw Cohen

Written for East Asian Art and Culture (LARTS 490, Fall 2010)

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The Boston Museum of Fine Art’s Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition shows contemporary Chinese and Chinese-American artists responding to individual art objects and traditions in Chinese art. Some of the artists developed stylistic and thematic elements borrowed from their early modern and ancient predecessors (e.g., Li Huayi’s Dragon amidst Mountain Ridges). Some utilized stylistic qualities markedly different from their sources to respond to themes and meanings that they found in the original pieces (e.g., Li Xiaodong’s What to Drive Out?). Others re-imagined traditional imagery using a contemporary sensibility (e.g. Li Jin’s paintings, or Xu Bing’s Mustard Seed Garden Landscape Scroll). The artist Liu Dan instead chose to create a fairly literal portrait of his source object—a scholar’s rock. Liu’s work is not just a response to the object, but an expression of his experience with the object, his representation of the act of looking. His paintings are a response to the Chinese scholarly tradition of collecting and contemplating natural rock formations.

Liu chose to respond to the Honorable Old Man Rock from the 17th century Ming dynasty: a 5 ½ foot tall rock, craggy and pockmarked, yet also elegant in its elongated form, mounted on a wooden base. Liu was inspired to create a series of works entitled Ten Differentiated Views of the Honorable Old Man. These are nine hanging scrolls, realistic larger-than-life portraits of the rock from nine angles hung on a semi-circular wall behind the Old Man itself, complemented by one large hand scroll of an imagined rocky landscape.

The Honorable Old Man itself is not so much an artwork as a natural object placed in a certain context by Ming connoisseurs. The plaque accompanying the rock tells us it was “collected,” not created. It served a purpose both decorative and spiritual, but not necessarily artistic in the modern Western sense. The MFA’s curation explains that historically, close contemplation of rocks was a refined, respected, and spiritually elevating practice amongst art connoisseurs and scholars in China, and Liu takes his cue from the Chinese tradition of rock viewing in the creation of his art. In doing so, Liu transforms (a word used frequently by the curator) this object into something closer to what a museumgoer would consider “art.” Liu’s paintings are a unique expression of his perception and interpretation.

Liu took a three dimensional object and, rather than creating one portrait, unpacked it through multiple views. The work simulates the view that an observer has when making a circle around the object, the viewer’s eyes traveling along the undulating curves, lines, and indentations in the rock’s surface. The placement of the rock in the middle of the gallery allows the museum visitor to do just that; this arrangement offers a direct juxtaposition of the visitor’s experience of the rock, and of Liu’s own impression of the experience displayed beside it. In his paintings, Liu blows up the rock to a monumental scale. He is showing us what he sees in the rock: its shades of grey and black; its mottled texture; its elongated form that brings to mind an emaciated “old man.”

The hand scroll conveys the contemplation of rocks in a different manner than the hanging scrolls. Bearing superficial elements of the appearance of the rock, but surreal in its overall form, it is not a literal portrait of the Old Man rock but a fantasia on the qualities of the rock’s surface. The scroll, seen from right to left (the convention with Chinese scrolls), implies a sense of time and development of themes and showcases the extraordinary abstractions that Liu sees in rocks. As the scroll expands to the left, the rock-scape increases in complexity and size. This rock-scape bears implications of distance and horizon, but it lacks any landmarks that imply location, or the reality of nature, producing the “sense of displacement” that Liu claims is key to the mystical aspect of rocks. Although the shape of this scroll vaguely implies landscape, it is abstract; the painting is pure form and pattern, creating a “surface of pure energy.”

The hand scroll vividly captures the spiritual aspects of Chinese rock contemplation. Liu writes that “stones can create the impression of vastness,” and that they relate to the “Chinese idea of mystical travel.” He states that rocks are “the stem cells of Chinese landscape paintings . . . their ability to transform is infinite.” The MFA’s curation refers to “shenyou,” the “imagined travel” through a mental landscape that a viewer is meant to experience when looking at rocks or stones. Gazing at the undulating forms of stones moves the viewer into a realm beyond “everyday experience.” Contemplating rocks “frees a person from this physical world”— through close viewing and an abstraction of the physical, the viewer enters a spiritual, essentialized realm.

Liu Dan does a remarkable job of amplifying this mystical contemplation of rocks into something that may be more directly understandable to a 21st-century viewer than the Honorable Old Man. He accomplishes exactly what the format Fresh Ink implicitly asks of contemporary artists: both to shed light on their Chinese past, and to use that past to construct a meaningful present.

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