When I tell people that I wrote my dissertation on Zhang Huan the usual response is: who?! Despite the rise in popularity and interest by the west for Chinese art, many would struggle to name any contemporary Asian artists. Zhang’s career has seen him work in China and New York through a variety of media from performance to ash paintings. His newest work consisting of fourteen oil paintings on linen is now on display at Pace.
From a distance the work looks like Jackson Pollock collided with pointillism while eating candy floss. The fourteen paintings all appear similar, with bright, pastel colours bursting with thick paint. The paint is so dense that it is hard to resist touching its tactile surfaces. As the viewer moves closer to the images, they begin to see faces within the paint that look like they are grinning at you with large cartoon eyes and over-the-top smiles.
These faces are actually meant to represent skulls that are symbolic to the buddhist belief of a cycle of endless deaths and reincarnations. Zhang became a lay buddhist nine years ago with religion having a strong influence to his work. The skull is said to prevent the temptation of worldly pleasures by destructing the ego. While to a western viewer, the smiling faces seem like a far cry to anything reminiscent of death, you only have to google ‘Tibetan death masks’ to see Zhang’s influence. Striped sections appear to accompany the faces however these represent ribs and the injuries caused by war and violence.
If we focus for a moment on the show’s title: ‘Spring Poppy Fields’, we might want to ask what poppies have to do with death, skulls and ribs. From a distance, the faces could be an aerial depiction of a field of flowers filled with the colours of spring. However the paintings are meant to represent hallucinations which are provided from the opiate effects of the poppy, thus linking to the state of nirvana, the final state of Buddhism. The paintings are illustrations to illusions and mental states on this journey.
Despite being predominantly filled with death imagery. These bright paintings are far from dark and gloomy. There is a sense of joy, which I suppose, may be present towards death if you believe in reincarnation and the promise of a new life.
Zhang Huan: Spring Poppy Fields is on display at Pace until 31 May