Gnarled and twisting branches looking like the snakes of Medusa fill most of the pictorial space, their reddish hue set off by contrast with the green leaves that create a halo-like effect around them. The view is close-up, cutting off the upper portion of the tree as well as the roots below, and viewer attention is thus focused on the forms, color, and texture of the tree itself. Overlapping of the branches and some shading yield a pictorial space of considerable depth as well as an intriguing complexity.
Sandalwood is a rare and expensive commodity, to the extent that even the roots are harvested along with the trunk and branches. Important in many religions, including Islam, Zoroasterism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, sandalwood is used in many ceremonies as well as in the making of a distinct form of incense and several types of perfumes.
In the present painting Luo Jianwu appears to depart dramatically from the monochromatic style that has dominated his recent paintings. However, working meticulously with results approaching the effect of a Durer etching, Luo has given birth by means of ink and masterful brushwork alone images of the rocks and trees that populate his very personal artistic universe. Cypress, junipers, pines and now sandalwood, some of which are renderings of actual trees, have resulted in an oeuvre that is much like a small forest on the one hand and a very special portrait gallery on the other. The branches here coil and writhe like some great serpent, pulsing at the center of the composition as if these mighty limbs were holding a secret, perhaps embracing the heart of the tree.
Luo was born in Sichuan province as the Japanese army advanced across China in 1944. In Taiwan, where the family was able to relocate, he had an opportunity to study Western styles of painting and drawing at the Guoli Yichuan, the National Art Institute. Immigrating to the USA in 1987, Luo lived and worked in New York City, where even Central Park provided a window to the nature so essential to Luo’s painting. While regularly visiting Beijing from 1989 onward, Luo, the one-time graphic artist and fashion designer and presently teacher, calligrapher, painter, and tea master, made it his permanent residence in 2008. Beijing and its environs are home to numerous venerable rocks and trees that continue to inspire Luo in his work. Luo’s paintings have been collected by the Chicago Art Institute, the University Museums at Harvard and Princeton, and many private American collectors. The New York Times art critic Holland Carter described Luo’s work as being “tonally layered, minutely detailed,” and also as “taking years to produce.” Luo in fact does not produce according to market demand but rather creates according to his own clock, and the result is always worth the wait.