Chinese art ( Zhang Hongth: Studio visit and Artist talk)

In visiting Zhang Hongtu’s art studio in Woodside, in the New York borough of Queens, one is struck by his gentle and lively insight.

It is very frustrating for a listener because his English is so heavily accented, but what is understandable of his speech is well worth noting. In a wide-ranging discussion, he touched on humor, the cathartic value of defacing the iconic image of a dictator, China’s imperiled environment, the dangers of political art in that country, and his feelings as a new immigrant. He showed slides of a number of his works, which all, in some way, reference China. Zhang Hongtu came to the USA from the People’s Republic of China, in 1982. He had grown up as an outsider. As Silberberg puts it, “the family’s religious and economic background increasingly became a serious political burden in the officially atheistic state.” [1] His family was committed to the government-suspected Muslim religious minority, and his father actively worked to spread the teachings of his faith.

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They were also businesspeople in a regime that discouraged entrepreneurship. The fact that his family was successfully financially made them a target of frightening government oppression[2]. In China, he studied art, so when he arrived in the USA, his technical skills were well developed. It seems that he was allowed to leave China with only thirty dollars[3], which may not have been even enough for the taxi from the airport. He told us that he found a job as a construction worker within two days. He was not lonely when he came to the US, he said, in spite of being in a strange country with no money[4]. His website indicates that he also studied art for another four years in New York[5]. Every work that we looked at related somehow to China.

Either it showed the round and serenely smiling face of Chairman Mao, or a scene that evoked a Chinese landscape painting, or monkeys or fish that appeared Asian, but everything referred somehow to China. This was apparently quite deliberate. His painting, he said, reflects his inner self, and his inner self is very determined to critique China’s policies. In preparing for this visit, I was fascinated by the manner in which he used techniques that reminded me of famous Impressionists but in pictures of unfamiliar places.

I was interested in what prompted him to begin blending elements from eastern and western art. He told us that he observes that no art is truly pure. He pointed out that every artist and piece of art reflects a mixture of influences from other cultures, inspiration from other works of art, and that many include a variety of techniques. Thus, his mixing of eastern subjects is, to him, a natural progression. I see this as a modern version of what happened in the 1700s. During that general period, European art influences, for example, the idea of accurate portraiture, entered China, as we learned in researching the personal art selections of the Emperor Quianglong[6]. Zhang Hongtu brings eastern influences into the west, in the same way. I was also intrigued with why he was interested in the three specific artists whose styles show up so often in his recent work: Cezanne, Monet, and Van Gogh.

He told us that these artists were his personal icons. I also observe that these three are instantly recognizable in style. This may allow him to borrow and mix style and subjects without worrying that someone is going to interpret him as copying. He himself describes these works as, “zaizhi, or “re-creating”” the Impressionist and Chinese classics together[7]. They have been termed ‘reconciliation’ by Qian[8]. Thus, his brush technique, his deliberate adoption of another’s style, is clearly that of Cezanne when he paints a scene from a traditional Chinese pen and ink drawing and titles it with Cezanne’s name in the title[9]. He also often includes, in his Shan Shui series of these east-west hybrid landscapes, Chinese calligraphy that instructs the Chinese-speaking viewer to step back and appreciate the painting from a discreet Impressionist distance[10].

It is hard, as a young viewer, not to perceive this as funny. Several of us were specifically interested in whether he was being deliberately humorous, and I believe that he was clear in saying that humor was not intentional in his work. However, his criticism of the regime, policies, and practices of his birth country seems to all have been quite intentional. For example, he sent a painting to China for the Olympics, executed in immediately recognizable Cubist style and colors[11]. The image and the text embedded in it evoked the problems in Tibet.

The painting, entitled Bird’s Nest, was sent back, rather than being destroyed by the Chinese authorities, but he undoubtedly made his point. He did not get the publicity for the picture that he had hoped for, however[12] At his studio, he showed us some items that are also clearly meant to make political commentary. We viewed some of his works that featured Mao’s image. He mentioned that he experienced what I believe he called ‘catharsis’ when he did this sort of work. For example, using Mao’s image ( he referred to it as ‘cutting it up’) to decorate a Quaker Oats box gave him a special feeling. He mentioned that back in the Bush administration, he had experimented with cutting apart pictures of President Bush. He told us that there was no corresponding response in his psyche of ‘catharsis’, the way there was when he portrayed Mao.

In this series, he has portrayed the communist leader as a girl, or as Stalin, complete with distinctive mustache. This latter image was an explicit comparison between the killings in Russia and the deaths in China, according to what he told us. When we chuckled at some of the variations he created on Mao’s image, he told us that this was no joke in China.

In China, even now, he said, such art would be entirely and dangerously unacceptable[13]. He showed us a painting of silver fish amongst vertical plants. These creatures all have their mouths open, as though they are gasping for oxygen. He told us that when he painted this, he considered it a happy painting at the time[14]. However, it is hard to avoid the inference that perhaps it also reflects the airless atmosphere for art and dissent in China.

The artist showed us a series of paintings that are similar compositions featuring monkeys and distinctively Chinese mountain shapes, with city buildings shown in the background[15]. These, he told us, represent the rapid growth of human population, and the imminent destruction of the environment. He shared with us that he felt that artists had an obligation to talk about such problems[16]. As a special treat, he shared with us an animated video of one of his works in progress. This was a magical thing to watch, because it reveals where he goes with his brush, first, second, and from then on.

It is not the logical process of a machine, but the deft and intuitive mastery of an expert. He ended our visit on that lovely and visually arresting note[17]. Zhang Hongtu was very gracious, and exceedingly modest, in sharing his ideas and intentions about his art. There is a certain evocation of eastern philosophy even in his presentation of himself. This reminds me of his statement, noted above, that his art reveals his inner mind. If this is the case, his inner mind is consumed with the oppression of the Chinese government, and deeply humble about his own gifts. Seeing so much of his art together, and being immersed in it, combined with his spare and cogent comments, was almost a meditative experience, and one that I will long remember.

His art is not just beautiful. Even his pop-art influenced pieces that evoke (for me at least) Warhol, such as his Chairman Mao series, are decorative and attractive as well as thought provoking . His works on the environment are disturbing but appealing even if one does not grasp the polemical message. His Shan Shui series works are often dramatically and breathtakingly beautiful. Seeing his work in his very presence was a true privilege.


D’Arcy, David. “Artist’s Pointed Critique is Barred from Bejing.” Wall Street Journal.

August 21, 2008. (accessed April 2011). Hongtu, Zhang.

“Presentation to students of Chinese art history.” April 23, 2011. —. Zhang Hongtu Homepage. 2011. (accessed April 2011). Metropolitan Museum of Art. “The Emperor’s Private Paradise.” Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2011.{28E96F8C-C8DE-42EC-BD4E-359940576D0C} (accessed March 31, 2011). Qian, Zhijian. “Over the Boundaries: Recent Works by Zhang Hongtu.” Zhang Hongtu Homepage.

2011. (accessed April 2011). Silbergeld, Jerome. “Zhang Hongtu: The Art of Straddling Boundaries.” Studio Door China.

2011. (accessed April 2011). Silbergeld, Jerome. “Zhang Hongtu: The Art of Straddling Boundaries.” 2011. http://www. Accessed April 2011. (Silbergeld 2011) Zhang, Hongtu. “Presentation to Students of Chinese Art History”.

April 23, 2011. Queens, NY. This was one of the times when it was difficult to understand him, but the overall idea is accurately captured. (Hongtu, Presentation to students of Chinese art history 2011) Hongtu, Zhang. “Zhang Hongtu Homepage”.

2011. Accessed April 2011. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“The Emperor’s Private Paradise”. Metropolitan Museum of Art. www.{28E96F8C-C8DE-42EC-BD4E-359940576D0C}. Accessed April 2011. Qian, Zhijian. “Over the Boundaries”. Zhang Hongtu Homepage 2011.

Accessed April 2011. (Qian 2011) (Qian 2011) (Qian 2011) D’Arcy, David. “Artist’s Pointed Critique is Barred from Beijing”, 2008, Wall Street Journal.

Accessed April 2011. (D’Arcy 2008) (Hongtu, Presentation to students of Chinese art history 2011) Ibid. (Hongtu, Zhang Hongtu Homepage 2011) These monkey paintings are visible there. (Hongtu, Presentation to students of Chinese art history 2011) (Hongtu, Presentation to students of Chinese art history 2011)


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