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Darkness Upon Darkness

Author: Chen Yuan Translator: Allen Young 2019-04-29

From far away, the imposing darkness of Hu Liu’s works is mesmerizing. You feel you’re standing before a jet-black wall: everywhere your eyes reach is somber and grave.

But this Beijing artist says her works aren’t black, they’re xuán. The word can mean “dark” or “mysterious,” and it evokes the philosophy of Laozi and Zhuangzi. “Xuán is remote, and it also means ‘hidden,'” she explains. She then quotes from the Dao De Jing: “‘Darkness upon darkness: the gateway to wonders.'”

In this world drawn in xuán, Hu hides her works in the folds of time, but they reveal themselves with the changing light. “This isn’t a world that any color can depict,” she says.

Xuán is not black—or rather, it’s not only black.

By design, elements on Hu’s canvases seem to appear and disappear. The entire surface is drawn stroke by stroke in pencil—every plant, every petal, every seascape—line by line, overlapping endlessly. The dense streaks of graphite call you closer, beckoning your eyes to trace the light and shadows, to move point by point and envision its compositional structure. Only when you’re close enough can you perceive the visual intricacy you expect to find in a painting.

Millions upon millions of pencil strokes: to outside observers, this creative process looks almost like a work of religious devotion. For Hu, a drawing isn’t finished just because it looks finished—it often stretches out even more boundlessly. “It’s like crossing the river to the farther shore: it’s hard to judge how long it will take. You have to discover whether the water is shallow or deep, warm or cold.”

Staring at Hu’s works, you feel you’re plunging into the black depths of the canvas, subject to the swell and ripple of every stroke. When you’re overwhelmed and look up again, wholeness and clarity appear. Only then do you see why Hu calls this color xuán: the picture is still jet black, but all of the details flash through your mind, and what you see becomes what you think.

“If I’m trying to convey something, the only way to see it is to observe the work up close, face to face. The viewer has eyes, the viewer doesn’t need answers, the viewer can discover them on her own,” she says. “Beckett wrote, ‘The artistic tendency is not expansive, but a contraction, and art is the apotheosis of solitude.’ To me, that rings true.”

Perhaps the real language of an artist is their work. Only when standing before a work of art can a viewer find resonance or contact with its creator. “Through observation, a work of art allows us to feel the intangible,” Hu says. “The most powerful way to be heard isn’t to babble incessantly but to be silent. It’s much more effective than any words.”

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