The Cliff Series as Contemporary Abstract Art
Four of the five Great Lakes of North America surround Michigan. I find their natural beauty inspiration for my contemporary abstract art. Every few years, my family and I drive north to visit Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore on Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The sandstone cliffs feature in my abstract paintings collection.
Color-rich sandstone cliffs made beautiful by dripping water and melting snows stretch for miles along the shore. Equally, my artistry fills the canvas with its natural colors and free-flowing lines. But like the mineral deposits that layer the cliffs, the rock holds a deeper meaning for my art.
During the 1980’s when I worked on Chinese landscape painting in Beijing, I adopted a pen name with which to sign my art. I still use my pen name to sign my new style of contemporary abstract art. Its spiritual meaning carries significance to the Cliff Series.
Art inspired by nature’s colors
The sandstone cliffs at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore contain geological history dating back to Precambrian times. As well as layers of minerals and colors formed over the last two million years. These natural lines, formations, and colors are stunning to behold.
I especially like to watch the snow and ice as it melts on the cliffs and the groundwater as it flows through the rocks. As the water trickles through the pores of the sandstone, minerals leach out and stain the cliffs with striking colors.
The rock colors at Pictured Rocks have geological significance. I like to exaggerate their tones in my abstract paintings collection, the Cliff Series. Nature influences my choice of color. I use red, a warm tone color to create a dynamic look. It gives the abstract paintings a more profound intensity.
The objective scene of my contemporary abstract art series
Aside from embellishing the natural colors found in the sandstone cliff face, I also use free-flowing lines, contrasting colors and compositional elements to achieve a three-dimensional scene. In Cliff 5 the use of warm and cold hues, red and blue balance the painting.
Unlike some of my other abstract painting collections, such as the Leaves Series, the Cliff Series covers the full-width of the canvas. As the cliffs at Pictured Rocks cover an expanse of shoreline, I like to use the painting to show the striking details created through years of weathering and geological processes.
Natural flowing forms recreated with poured ink and Chinese brushes guide the viewers’ eye movement to different focal points. Streams created by melting snow flow down and around solid rock shapes. The fluid lines, colors, and shapes provide contrast, movement, unity, and balance.
People see different things in the rock shapes. Some see large dark-eyed mammoths with long trunks and primate faces. Others recognize the natural landscape, the rocks, caves and frozen falls flowing down into the lake below. It is one painting but with many parts.
Connecting the subjective personal emotion
Aside from the arrangement of visual elements, my contemporary abstract art reflects my aesthetic feelings.
When I observe the cliffs, I see water and rock. One is soft, the other hard. They are two opposites, as in the opposites in the Chinese philosophy, I Ching. Both extremes coexist in nature, and I desire to combine their spirits into one picture.
Lao Tzu (Laozi) an ancient Chinese philosopher and one of the founders of Taoism (Daoism) inspired Eastern cultures with his wisdom and theories of water. In the Tao Te Ching (Dao De Jing), he wrote, nothing is as soft or as yielding as water. But water overcomes what is hard and strong because nothing changes it.
Water then obeys the shape of the rock. It goes around and through the rock’s pores. With time, the soft, persistent flow of the water changes the rock's shape. This reasoning forms the philosophy of conquering the unyielding with the yielding “以柔克刚” (pronounced Yi Rou Ke Gang).
The influence of Lao Tzu’s philosophy spreads from politics to martial arts such as Tai chi. When I contemplate how the water trickles down the cliffs at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, I also see how this philosophy relates to success.
Success takes time. It takes day after day, year after year of hard work to reach. We must have patience and determination. Like water, to achieve success, we must be persistent.
A personal connection inscribed in my art
As with the I Ching, Lao Tzu’s philosophy influences my beliefs and artistry. In the 1980s, I adopted the pen name “川石” (pronounced Chuan Shi). It continues to hold significance for my art. I see the meaning of the name reflected in the Cliff Series, and I still use this name to sign all my contemporary abstract art.
The direct translation of “川石” is:
川 ( mountain and rivers)
The pronunciation is the same as another ancient phrase in China, 穿石 (Chuan Shi) which means drilling through rock. The phrase 滴水穿石 (Di Shui Chuan Shi) is another expression describing the constant dripping of water as it wears away at the stone.
It is also an idiom, used to describe how continuous effort and hard work will eventually pay off to achieve your goals.
The two sides of the Cliff Series
In the Cliff Series, aesthetic balance stems from both the objective and subjective aspects of the paintings. While the abstract paintings collection aims to capture the spirit of nature, there is also a personal emotional meaning behind the physical action it portrays that lies within the development of the art itself.
Over time, the constant soft action of the water wears away at the cliff. Though water is yielding, its gradual persistence changes the harder stronger object. Eventually, it will wear the rock down breaking through the wall it had created.
Likewise, my patience to develop my contemporary abstract art over the years and to learn and adopt new styles has persisted. With time, it too will burst through the barriers and find success.