Dapeng Liu

Enriching his paintings with emotion and stories, Artist Dapeng Liu outlines the processes behind his artistic language in the lead up to his latest exhibition 'Peaks and Valleys'.

“As Gustav Flaubert said, “One cannot always think that feeling is everything. Art is nothing without form.” I believe that if feeling is the soul, then form manifested in artistic technique is the bearer of the soul. To think more about technique and feeling or artistic ideas, I have always been fascinated by Marcel Duchamp’s withdrawal from painting as early as 1912. Perhaps he thought that to continue painting on canvas provided little scope for him to realise his ahead-of-time artistic ideas and to express his artistic feeling, as he may have thought that the potential for new techniques and forms on canvas had been exhausted.

Nevertheless, more than a hundred years have passed, with much evidence of continuity in the art world, many seemingly modern artworks keep following the boilerplate path initiated by the father of modern art, Paul Cezanne. This conventional genre focuses on the exploration of the colour, shape and traces of the brushstroke. In my paintings, to avoid falling into an entrenched, formulaic pattern of working, I attempt to use my own language of artistic expression. I do this primarily by concentrating on the expression of ideas, concepts and feelings. I therefore hold a focus on technical skills as of secondary importance.

I was born in Beijing in 1982. As a child, from the age of four I was trained by my father to sketch and paint. Later, as an adult seeking change, I moved to Sydney in 2007 where I spent more than five years researching the history of both pre-modern and modern art in China. Following this period of scholarly research, I have been committed to full-time painting since 2014, working primarily in oils. I am attracted to landscape, portrait, figure and subject paintings. Long fascinated by both the differences and similarities between the East and the West, I have developed my own style that aims to subtly blend the essence of both traditions and also to build a dialogue on canvas that connects with different times and dimensions.

Most of my landscape paintings usually consist of mountainscapes, seascapes and coastline scenes. The impetus for my creation of mountains derives from my Chinese cultural background, my admiration of traditional Chinese art by the old masters, and of course the visual memory of the abundant mountains in China. On the other hand, my inspiration of the delineation of the sea and coast is largely rooted in what I have seen and felt of Australia’s boundless and varied coastline.

In these paintings, one notable characteristic is the small elements that I carefully embed into the main landscape. The elements are Eastern or Western, old or new. They have included objects such as skyscrapers, temples, ancient or modern figures, boats, and even interior objects and furniture. Using these elements, I aim to nourish the landscape with subtle storytelling and atmospheric feelings. Through these subtly placed objects, a sense of conversation with other times and spaces can be perceived.

As examples, in ‘Bondi Beach Rhapsody’, an ancient figure is sitting on the edge of a cliff, gazing at the view of present-day Bondi Beach with tiny people scattered on the golden sand.

In ‘Brooklyn Wat’, an ancient man sits beside a window in a dwelling, which is located under a jacaranda tree in the foreground hills. The distant view in the background is of Brooklyn, whose cityscape is juxtaposed with the adjacent misty forms of Angkor Wat.

These works focus on the depiction of a dialogue across time. However, in some other works, such as ‘A Conversation about the Sydney Harbour’ and ‘Land… A Conversation’, I concentrate more on connecting different dimensions through uses of windows as a medium as well as other objects inside a room such as a chair or a lamp. Using this concept, I create a borderless interior scene on top of the main landscape, while through the window, the two worlds quietly communicate.

In terms of technique, my landscape paintings are influenced by methods of composition and colouring that are widely used in classical Chinese landscape paintings. This methodology includes a multi-point perspective. In contrast to the single vanishing point perspective, the process of painting landscapes using a multi-point perspective is more like capturing and cutting out different sections of scenery and melding them together into one. Although some of my paintings such as ‘Bondi Beach Rhapsody’ contain a more obvious touch of classic Chinese landscape, other works like ‘A Conversation about the Sydney Harbour’ do not resemble any particular style. These works, adopting independent styles, represent more personal modes of expression.

I never attempt to create a style by simply transplanting Chinese ink and water techniques onto the medium of oil and canvas. Instead, I like to think of my ideas as spontaneously emerging from my practice.

My preference for the spontaneous emergence of ideas is based on my personal dislike of formulaic artworks in which the artist tries too hard to singularly focus on either the technical or the conceptual aspects. In the present highly commercialised art market, many styles and concepts are created just for the sake of creating a new style. I feel this often ends up with lifeless and emotionless artworks. I agree with the contemporary artist Xu Bing when he says, “Art must be honest, that is why it is valuable.”

Looking back on my landscape paintings, finding this current language of artistic expression is based on more than five years of exploration and thinking. Along this journey, my current landscape painting style has evolved from my earlier portrait paintings. I started painting portraits from 2008 while conducting my research studies. During this process, even in some of my works before 2010, I already experimented with the interfusion of Eastern and Western elements. I also used surrealistic approaches such as ‘a picture within a picture’ and the blending of outdoor and indoor environments. A good example is a portrait I did in 2010 of my former PhD supervisor, Dr Thomas Berghuis, who was until recently the curator of contemporary Chinese art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Traces of my current working concept can be seen in the Berghuis portrait.

To explain my current concept, I aim to subtly enrich my paintings with emotion and the telling of stories. I do this through the infusion of various elements from different points in time and space into a larger landscape that’s often calm and quiet. Within my model, I am careful to give free rein to the imagination, but I also aim to display on canvas in a natural form, a balance between Eastern subtlety and Western immediacy.

As for my most recent activities, in 2014, my portrait of curator Cao Yin was highly commended as one of the top six finalists in the Archibald Prize. I was a finalist in the 2015 Sulman Prize with a landscape painting of my current concept. In 2015, my portrait of entertainer Carlotta was selected for showing in the Archibald’s Salon des Refuses.

Peaks and Valleys
Until December 19, 2015
Nockart Gallery, Hong Kong

Courtesy the artist.

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