Chinese ink painting meets the old masters

Contemporary Chinese artist Liu Dan at the Minneapolis Institute of Art

In "Reimagining the Lystra Scene," Liu Dan transforms a 17th-century Dutch religious painting as a landscape. Submitted image

WHITTIER — On their way to the second-floor galleries that house an exhibition of ink paintings by the contemporary Chinese artist Liu Dan, visitors to the Minneapolis Institute of Art might look out the window and catch a glimpse of an eccentrically curved and pockmarked limestone rock installed on the grounds outside.

Sometimes called a scholar’s rock, it’s an object meant for philosophical contemplation, and a variety appear in Liu’s ink-on-paper paintings, including the multi-part still life, “Six Views of a Rock,” a photorealistic feat of observation, and “Peak of the Celestial Capital,” a towering scroll painting that exemplifies Liu’s idea of the rock as the “stem cell” of the landscape, a portion of the mountain that contains the whole mountain. Liu paints the rock, but he asks you to look beyond it.

That the grounds of Mia contain real-life example of the scholar’s stones that appear in Liu’s paintings is just one indication of how harmonious a pairing this is between museum and artist.

Fortified by donations from collectors with names like Pillsbury and Dayton, Mia’s Asian art holdings are one of its great strengths. Another is its collection of paintings, including works by European artists going back to the 14th century.

“Peak of the Celestial Capital,” a towering scroll painting that exemplifies Liu’s idea of the rock as the “stem cell” of the landscape. Submitted image
“Peak of the Celestial Capital,” a towering scroll painting that exemplifies Liu’s idea of the rock as the “stem cell” of the landscape. Submitted image

Liu, who spent more than two decades living in the U.S., synthesizes those two traditions. As he trained in classical Chinese ink painting, Liu also studied the works of European old masters — even, during a period when the country’s leaders aimed to purge China of western influence, surreptitiously trading cigarettes for murky photographs of masterpiece paintings.

That exchange, recounted in the exhibition catalog, occurred when Liu was a teenager. Born in Nanjing, China in 1953, Liu came of age during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, and like millions of urban youths he was sent to the countryside to live alongside farmers and laborers and absorb, through a kind of osmosis of ideology, traditional Chinese values.

Liu walked at least some of the path customarily followed by Chinese ink painters, studying one-on-one under a more experienced artist and mastering traditional brushwork. But he also adopted western techniques, beginning his large paintings with detailed pencil studies and looking to the work of the old masters for inspiration.

One of those pieces comes from Mia’s collection: “St. Paul and St. Barnabas at Lystra,” a 17th-century painting by Dutch artist Willem de Poorter depicting a missionary journey to present-day Turkey. Illuminated by a shaft of light, the two apostles are surrounded by awed villagers who, after witnessing Paul heal a cripple, assume the Christian missionaries must actually be Zeus and Hermes of Greek mythology.

Liu reimagines this scene as a fantastical mountain landscape, retaining the pyramidal composition of de Poorter’s painting but transforming the mass of bodies into a cluster of convoluted stones, like a long-dry gully carved by some ancient torrent. The faceless rocks imitate the villagers’ poses.

“Ink Landscape,” which dates from 1991, much earlier than many of the other large scroll paintings on display, seems to hint at the influence of early modernist painting in Liu’s work. It’s a vigorously painted scene of a mist-shrouded mountain with sharp-edged details, and Liu diverts from reality as freely as a traditional Chinese landscape painter would, seeking not to replicate nature but to use it to express an idea. That idea clearly isn’t the pulse of industry that inspired modernism but something older, stronger, elemental — a tectonic force.


“Ink Unbound: Paintings by Liu Dan”

When: Through Jan. 29

Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Ave. S.

Info:, 870-3000