QUEENS MUSEUM | OCTOBER 18, 2015 – FEBRUARY 28, 2016
Now on view at the Queens Museum is a long-overdue retrospective of the New York-based artist Zhang Hongtu. Curated by Luchia Meihua Lee, the show contains nearly 100 works, alongside archival and source material, highlighting works from every major period in the artist’s career from the late 1950s to the present. Born in Gansu Province in China in 1943, Zhang arrived in New York in 1982 as a student, an early beneficiary of Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policies. Between 1981 – 83, a number of other artists did the same, including Chen Yifei, Ai Weiwei, and Chen Danqing. Many of them left China in order to more fully advance their careers as artists; almost all of them eventually returned home to find greater fame and fortune than they could achieve here. Ironically, those who established themselves abroad have often benefited the least from the exposure—and largesse—that the market has wrought. While Zhang does not lack for success and recognition, it is worth noting how completely unbranded his works feel, absent of the ponderous repetition of a successful style that is often the hallmark of a bloated market.
The first-floor atrium display quickly establishes core aspects of Zhang’s practice: his attachment to political history and its symbols, his interest in cultural perceptions (and misperceptions), and his unfailing goodwill and gentle humor. The exterior of the main gallery is covered with a 99-foot-long photograph—a loopy, oversize image of the Great Wall, manipulated to feature an infinite number of welcoming gates rather than impenetrable bricks and watchtowers. At the center of the hall is a surrealist installation, Ping Pong Mao (1995), a regulation-sized ping-pong table, with the unmistakable silhouette of Chairman Mao carved out from either side of the net. Viewers are invited to do their best to sustain a game despite the political potholes. Beyond the table tennis setup is a more ominous symbol of Chinese might: a monumental set of traditional red Chinese doors, recreated here in Zhang’s hands as Studs (1992), their surface covered in a grid of 162 bronze ornaments. The number is important, as only the doors of the Forbidden City would have had these motifs in this specific arrangement. As such, they are an explicit symbol of political power and secrecy from the imperial era through Mao’s reign. In Zhang’s hands, the studs appear at odd and irregular angles, rendering them ludicrously phallic in varying states of ineptitude.
These works foreground Zhang’s simultaneous capacity for whimsy and pointed political critique, but they do not completely prepare the viewer for the variety of works within the interior galleries. In addition to his comic appropriations of Chairman Mao’s sanctified image across multiple media, Zhang is well known for his almost-too-pretty, East-meets-West Shan Shui (Chinese landscape) paintings of more recent years, wherein he borrows the palette and style of an Impressionist painter to recreate a traditional Chinese landscape or composition. But above all else, the comprehensive scale of this exhibition allows for the tirelessly inquisitive and experimental nature of the artist to fully emerge.
Zhang’s eager experimental nature can be spotted in jaunty still life compositions such as Still Life with Cactus (1972), on view in a room featuring works on paper made prior to and during the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 76). These precocious early studies are marked by the tenets of Socialist Realism, the Soviet style that dominated Chinese art education at the time, showing scenes of factory and urban life, as well as farmers and peasants from Zhang’s period in the countryside. Juxtaposed with more recent works executed in a traditional landscape hanging scroll format, populated not with forests and streams but with bicyclists and smog, the early sketches underline Zhang’s longstanding interest in the contradiction between a nation’s idealized self-representations and the realities of its citizens’ lives.
However, Zhang did not always have such a clear political bent. The works from his early years betray both a financial and creative struggle. Included in the show are his moody, largely monochromatic paintings of daily life, executed on recycled newspaper. A large-scale self-portrait from the same period, Self-Portrait (The Back) (1987), features only the back of the artist’s head, rendered in crude, wet cement grays, suggesting not the romantic ambiguity of David Caspar Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, but instead a feeling of stasis and imprisonment.
The rude-boy gesture of a self-portrait from the reverse became an important motif for mainland-based painters in the 1990s, but sturm und drang has never suited Zhang. In 1987, he took his brush to a Quaker Oats container, defacing the iconic pilgrim by adding the green cap of a People’s Liberation Army soldier and an east-is-red sunset at his back. In so doing, he created the first work of China’s Political Pop movement and initiating Zhang’s best-recognized series, “Material Mao”
(1987 – 95). Zhang has stated that he needed to adopt Mao’s image in order to tame it, and the scale of his output in this period suggests just how deep that need ran. A dozen of the Quaker Oats boxes are included here, along with an extensive series of paintings and mixed-media works. Mao appears again and again as both presence and absence: his silhouette carved out of bathroom tiles, extracted from dirt, cut from a mesh of chicken wire. A mixed-media room is highlighted by Front Door (1995), a recognizably New York tenement apartment door, replete with half-a-dozen locks and deadbolts. A regular knock emanates from behind the door, and the Great Helmsman’s distorted features peer at us from the peephole. Works such as these add a gravitas to the series’ otherwise Pop overtones, suggesting just how deeply the state had insinuated itself into Zhang’s emotional and material life.
Zhang speaks of a popular notion of Chinese history as a kind of wallpaper; each successive regime covers up the trace of the past, bluntly discarding any relationship to what came before. In this sense, he feels Chinese people have often been denied a critical relationship to their own history, but, equally, he laments what he perceives as his and subsequent generations’ complacency. The “Material Mao” works are relentlessly kitsch and even quaint, perhaps especially now that audiences are more familiar with Chinese contemporary art. But, as Zhang points out, Mao’s portrait still hangs over the Tian’anmen gate; his embalmed body still lies in state nearly forty years after his death. For Zhang, the willful disregard of these facts only makes the gaps in China’s collective memory all the more poignant.
But it is inaccurate to consider Zhang as simply a Chinese artist. Zhang was raised by devout Muslim parents in a culture overwhelmingly dominated by a Han majority and by the Communist party. His career in many ways represents a long examination into his status as insider and outsider, personally, politically, and culturally, and his impatience with the status quo remains the driving force of his art. An extensive new catalogue on Zhang, Expanding Visions of a Shrinking World, will be published this winter by Duke, with contributions from such art world and Sinology luminaries as Julia Andrews, Tom Finkelpearl, Wu Hung, Eugenie Tsai, Lilly Wei, and others, offering additional insight into the many valences of his career. This is an artist whose fervently critical, iconoclastic, and politically engaged nature might just be counted among the finer points of Mao’s legacy.
INGRID DUDEK is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Art Asia Pacific, Art in America, and the Brooklyn Rail