It is ironic yet unsurprising that politicians in both China and the U.S. have censored Zhang Hongtu’s paintings. Ironic because there are not many artists more dedicated to merging the cultural traditions of the East and the West, and unsurprising because Zhang’s work often wryly undermines authority.
Zhang, who has lived in New York since the early 1980s, is primarily a painter, though he also makes sculptures and installations, and has even dabbled in fashion, creating Mao-inflected designs for Vivienne Tam. This retrospective, guest-curated by Luchia Meihua Lee, is the first major survey of Zhang’s work in the U.S. It spans more than five decades, stretching back to the watercolor paintings and charcoal studies he made in the ’60s as a student at the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts in Beijing and extends to work made in 2015. The almost 100 pieces on view are grouped thematically, highlighting the conceptual issues in the artist’s oeuvre rather than its chronological development.
Several large works, all jesting critiques of China’s historically patriarchal culture, occupy the museum’s atrium. In a monumental 2015 photomural, the artist has added arched gateways along the Great Wall of China, transforming a classic symbol of exclusion into one of openness. Nearby, The Big Red Door (2015, after two previous versions, 1992 and 2002) re-creates a portal to the Forbidden City. Zhang has replaced the real door’s rows of huge hand-hewn nails with metal phalluses, most of them hanging limp. These pieces are a suitable entry point to Zhang’s oeuvre, which can be jocose even when dealing with severe subject matter.
The first room is the most aggressively iconoclastic. It focuses on Zhang’s series “Long Live Chairman Mao” (1987-ongoing), a variety of works that use Pop art aesthetics to criticize the ubiquity of Mao’s image in China. For one of the earliest pieces, Quaker Oats Mao (1987), Zhang added some strokes of paint to a cereal canister, transforming the familiar Quaker Oats man into Mao and creating a playful but powerfully subversive image. In the exhibition, 10 slightly different versions are displayed on two shelves, as if in a grocery store. At the time Zhang created these works, Mao’s portrait was nearly sacred in China, while the U.S.-based Quaker Oats Company was vehemently anti-Communist—the work caused consternation on all sides.
Another room is given over to Zhang’s student work, juxtaposing the socialist realist paintings and drawings he made in China with the fiercely expressionistic and experimental pieces he created while studying at the Art Students League of New York shortly after arriving in the city. In one particularly sly piece, which like performance art exists now only in the form of photographic documentation, Zhang rewrote (and replaced) help-wanted ads that he found on the walls of Chinatown sweatshops in the calligraphic style of Wang Xizhi, a 4th-century figure commonly known as the Sage of Calligraphy.
Hybridity has always been a major element of Zhang’s work. In his series “Shanshui” (Mountains and Water, 1998-ongoing), he re-creates famous Chinese ink paintings in the style of Western masters like Cézanne and van Gogh. The seven examples on view make evident Zhang’s immense talent for stylistic mimesis. Beyond their visual lusciousness, the works set up a kind of cross-cultural viewing experiment: which does one see first, a classical Chinese composition or its Post-Impressionist brushwork?
The newest series represented in the exhibition shows Zhang branching into environmental criticism. Called “Remake of Ma Yuan’s Water Album (780 Years Later),” these 10 paintings from 2008 present the ancient master’s beautiful scenes as they are today, badly polluted. They are brooding works, dark and atmospheric, yet still gorgeous in the manner of sunset colors spreading through smog. The paintings share a room with one of the museum’s permanent installations, The Water Supply of the City of New York (1938), a large topographical model made for the 1939-40 world’s fair. It’s a thoughtful juxtaposition that highlights one of the most foreboding critiques in the show.