Zhang Hongtu

Zhang Hongtu has spent the past five decades expanding the ways in which viewers perceive the world around them, skillfully drawing connections between cultures. Originally from mainland China, and New York–based since 1982, Zhang’s subject matter and styles have continued to shift resulting in a vast body of work that has allowed him to show internationally for more than 30 years.

The first U.S. survey of his work, Zhang Hongtu includes pieces from the late 1950s to the present, chronicling Zhang’s art-making from his early days in China, to his pursuit of artistic freedom in the West.

Featuring more than 90 objects, Zhang Hongtu showcases the artist’s multifaceted and unceasing creativity in diverse styles and media. The earliest works date from Zhang’s art studies as a youth in Beijing, and follow his life during Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.* As Muslims, Zhang and his family suffered particularly harsh treatment during Mao’s rule, and the experiences of the cultural and political climate of his youth fuel his critiques of systems of power to this day.

In the early 1980s, Zhang turned his critical eye to his experiences of immigrant life in New York. Coming to the U.S. was a positive step for his creative expression, but living in a new place had its own challenges. Many pieces from this period, including A Walking Man (1983-4) and Fish (1985), made while Zhang studied at the Art Students League, convey a darker mood. Others begin to reveal Zhang’s ability to combine materials and cultural signifiers for subversive effects, like Soy Sauce Calligraphy (1995), a remake of a sweatshop “help wanted” ad—something quite common to New York’s Chinatown in the 1980s—in the style of traditional Chinese calligraphy. In another series, he uses pages of The New York Times to make paintings which ironically juxtapose headlines of American prosperity with images of the contrasting reality of immigrant life, rendered in a style that merges Abstract Expressionism and ink- and-brush work.

While Zhang has continued to incorporate his personal and cultural history into his practice, he has further honed a brand of creative mischief, drawing on his studies of traditional Chinese paintings and Western art and art history to weave elements of humor and surprise into his works. The “political pop” works from his Mao Series (1987-ongoing) exemplify this. Referring to the iconic celebrity series by Andy Warhol, Zhang gives us an experience of seeing the image of Mao everywhere around us—from the front of a Quaker Oats canister to his silhouette cut out of burlap. This inundation with Mao’s likeness draws on Zhang’s experience of the Chairman’s absolute power and influence, which permeated the daily lives of Chinese citizens.

With works like The Big Red Door (2015) and his large-scale photo mural The Great Wall with Gates II (2015), Zhang utilizes iconic Chinese architecture to make statements that extend beyond his own national and generational point of view. Red doors dotted with large nail heads mark entryways throughout Beijing’s palace, the Forbidden City. Zhang mocks these symbols of power in his version by replacing the nail heads with phalluses, creating a work that not only undermines Mao, but more generally comments on the patriarchal political domination that continues to this day in many countries. Likewise, The Great Wall with Gates II refers to the famous landmark of both Chinese and world cultural heritage, renowned as a remarkable feat of engineering. Built by a tyrant as a form of border security, it becomes useless when Zhang cuts holes into it, inviting visitors to enter the galleries through it.

By freely trading and juxtaposing East and West, high and low, past and present, Zhang works to liberate his viewers from locally-specific values that he deems outdated, and shift them into new contexts. From interpretations of European artists like Van Gogh and Picasso and remakes of ancient waterscapes of Chinese master Ma Yuan to fusions of historical Chinese iconography with American consumer products, Zhang’s work facilitates unexpected contemplation and proposes universal relevancies.

— Luchia Meihua Lee, Guest Curator

* From 1945 to 1976 Mao Zedong ruled as the First Chairman of the Communist Party of China, and founder of the People’s Republic of China (1949). The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was a campaign Mao inaugurated in 1966 to reinvigorate “revolutionary values,” and to purge “bourgeois tendencies” which he felt were tainting Chinese society. Copies of the “Little Red Book” containing his quotations about these ideological beliefs were circulated to children throughout the country for them to study and exemplify.

Zhang Hongtu is generously supported by TKG Foundation for Arts & Culture, Taipei, Taiwan, and special thanks to Crystal Window & Door System, Ltd., Flushing, New York. Additional support is provided by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

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