Chinese artists take much of their inspiration from folklore and myth, and Sun Ke is no exception. The subject of most of her paintings is the phoenix, the king of birds in Chinese culture. Sun’s love for the majestic phoenix has its origins in the Zhuangzi, a classic of Taoist thought.
“The phoenix is a bird of the utmost grace. The Zhuangzi describes it as an extremely picky creature only resting at the phoenix tree having sweet springs and fine grains for food. The bird is a romantic talisman of our ancient history,” Sun said.
Eager to resolve the question of why every Chinese seems to know the phoenix even though the bird is seen by none, Sun began look for answers within herself. From the results of her work, the phoenix appears to be the Chinese heart itself.
By mixing other Chinese elements with conventional phoenix figures, Sun paints the bird in different themes. In her work, Phoenix Series-4, a phoenix is seen lowering its head on a background of plum blossoms. Its headwear is inspired by Peking opera, a typical image of beauty in Chinese conception. In Phoenix Series-2, the feathery phoenix fades away into a traditional background of clouds and mountains.
“I want the phoenix that leaves my paintbrush to be assimilated into the viewer’s mind. If I find the right touching elements, I consider including them in my next work,” she says.
Her work is crafted to draw a specific response from the viewer – to arouse something sleeping deep within their minds and remind them of the importance of traditional culture.
“I couldn’t love China’s traditional art any more. It’s not like Western art, emphasizing beauty or appearance. Chinese art values inner beauty, a comely, poetic image. That’s why I paint so many works in a traditional style. I see historic styles as an extension of the wisdom of ancient China,” Sun says.
The birds take a lot of work, and Sun says she is unwilling and unable to pick a favorite.
Besides her phoenix series, Sun has also worked with environmental themes, such as a Smog Series inspired by China’s thick air pollution. The series has three paintings of a similar scene depicting piles of gas masks on the ground. Sun called the series “an elegant morbidity.”
“It seems hazy and beautiful at first glance with the masks in the white smoke, but when you look again it takes on a morbid tone. The gas masks are akin to human faces, which represent our fear and hope to survive,” Sun says.
Influenced greatly by the thought of Wang Yangming, Ming Dynasty philosopher who wrote that the world around us depends on how we perceive it, Sun prizes the inner experience brought by her creations.
“The wisdom of Chinese traditional art has deep meanings for all of us. It’s something we can never leave behind, because it’s an artistic process that puts learning to be a human first,” Sun said.