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Art Watch : Hong Chun Zhang

Hong Chun Zhang is our Art Watch Artist for today. This section is brought to you by Art From Us and Divvya Nirula. The Artists we spotlight here can be from any field, across any discipline, and using a variety of media. We share here why we think they are important and worth watching. Be it genius creators of eras gone by. Or the upcoming contemporary artist who is yet to have their first show. All come under the purview of Art Watch.

The work of Zhang seems disconcerting to many but it has a lasting impact on those who view her work. The works closely resemble contemporary horror movie slides. And upon a second look one sees that these are the hair-works of Chinese artist Hong Chun Zhang. Her use of black hair as a motif, references female identity, sexuality and the temporal nature of human existence. Time passes, our hair grows – a dead thing deriving its energy from a live source – expanding and spreading. Even in death, human hair continues to grow for some time. It is one of the last things to completely decompose. These themes or mortality and the morbid are worth exploring for artist Zhang.

Artistic Journey

Born in 1971 in China her work combines traditional skills with contemporary ideas. Hong received her B.F.A. from the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. She then moved to the United States in 1996 to pursue an M.A. from California State University, Sacramento in 2002. And an M.F.A. from the University of California, Davis in 2004. The art of fine craftsmanship at the Academy in Beijing was something that would stand her in great stead. However the art content was restricted severely by the Chinese government. In 1996, Chun Hong came to the United States and was able to spread her wings and fly.

Zhang was raised in a family that encouraged and understood art and her surroundings provided solid impetus for her career. She happened to grow up during Mao Zedong’s turbulent Cultural Revolution, both her parents were art professors. Her siblings too, are in the field of art. She grew up on the campus of an art academy where her parents taught for twenty years. One of her fondest memories is watching her parents paint in their studios and teaching their students in the classrooms. She received her paper, brushes, ink and watercolour when she was six. And was encouraged to draw from her own memories, experiences or from life.  

According to the artist – “The duality in my work has a lot to do with being an identical twin. I always like to see the difference and similarity between the two, especially from my life experiences and observations in China and in America. 

For her the radical idea of her first series of long hair drawings ‘Twin Spirit’s, came from her connection with her twin, both having had long hair since high school and it had become one of their combined major characteristics.

Why Hong Chun Zhang?

The use of the images of long, straight, black shiny hair as a reference to their identity was a metaphor to extend the meaning beyond the surface. Further in the philosophy that she depicts using the medium – her long braid ‘Life Strands’ is representative of the shift from the personal to the more universal. Here her mane is an examination of her complete life cycle  ‘from radiant, untangled youth to the turns of mid-life and the loosened white hair of the last stage.’

It was difficult to create art in China and USA offered opportunities to exhibit rather than in the male-centric Chinese art world.

“I cannot deny my Chinese heritage and the cultural influence in my artwork, but my goal is to create artwork that is accessible and universal”, she says, “I do not want to be categorized as a Chinese artist, rather an artist who happens to be Chinese…. I love the diversity here.”

Zhang’s education in Chinese and Western aesthetic modes, has led to a solid foundation and has augmented her art practice and perspective. The combination of traditional skill and new concepts, draws from her own experiences and observations in China as well as the United States is remarkable. The result is work produced on a massive scale with incredible fine details. Her signature works are black and white charcoal drawings that are based around the idea of hair and explore her identity as a minority Chinese American woman, a sister and a mother.

International Recognition

Zhang has exhibited her work all over the world at prestigious venues including the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery, Asia Society Texas Center, Japanese American National Museum, The Museum of Contemporary Art Norway, The 9th Shanghai Biennial and Beijing Ink Studio, most recently at Milan Royal Palace and The Middlebury College Museum of Art. Hong are the recipients from Dedalus Foundation MFA Fellowship and Pollock Krasner Foundation.


For more Artists handpicked by Divvya Nirula – explore the ART WATCH archive.

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