Sisters in creation
Chinese-born artists establish a cross-cultural repertoire
The Zhang sisters, from left, Bo, Ling and Hong, exhibit their artwork in a group show at b. sakata garo through Jan. 31.
By Victoria Dalkey
It would have been difficult for the Zhang sisters, Hong, Bo and Ling, who are having their first joint exhibition at b. sakata garo this month, to have become anything other than artists.
Born in Shenyang in Northern China to parents who were art professors, they grew up making art. Long before they went to art school in Beijing, their parents taught them the basics of traditional Chinese brush painting.
All three sisters started their professional art training at the age of 15. Ling, the eldest, who helped raise her younger twin sisters, Bo and Hong, studied fine art at the Central Institute of Nationalities in Beijing from 1981 to 1988, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts. Bo and Hong received their bachelor's degrees from Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Art in 1994.
Ling, 40, came to America in 1988. She settled first in Chicago, where she was invited to show in an exhibition of emerging artists from China. She later moved to Atlanta, where she was artist in residence at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center from 1998 to 2003. A role model for her sisters, she persuaded the twins to come to the United States in 1996 to further their art studies in a country that offers greater freedom and possibilities to artists.
Now 32, Bo, who is the older twin by 10 minutes, is finishing up her master's degree at Georgia State College, while Hong received a master's degree from California State University, Sacramento, in 2002 and is set to complete a master's program at the University of California, Davis, this year.
Hong, who already has exhibited at the sakata gallery and the Library Gallery at CSUS, finds vast differences in Chinese and American approaches to teaching art.
"In China," she said at the sakata gallery, "we were rigorously trained in the fundamentals of Chinese and Western art. We had to choose a medium and work in it for four years. I chose Chinese painting and Bo chose printmaking. We were not allowed to work in any other medium, and the content of our work was controlled.
"In America, there is more freedom. You can explore anything that is appropriate to your ideas. In China, I couldn't have done the political paintings I did for my first show here.
"Both systems have flaws and virtues," she observed. "The Chinese system lacks creativity but gives you a very focused fundamental training. In America, there is much creativity, but the students don't learn the basics. You need those technical tools to do your art."
One might expect artists who grew up in the same family and went through the same training in China to do look-alike work, but the show at sakata reveals three strong and individual approaches. Ling's dreamlike, imaginative works remind one at times of Amadeo Modigliani or Marc Chagall. Bo's experimental monoprints and etchings partake of the spirit of abstract expressionism and Beat Generation art. While drawing on influences from Wayne Thiebaud to Georgia O'Keeffe, Hong's realist still-life and figurative paintings, which contrast Chinese and Western cultural ideas, are wholly her own.
Ling shows a series of small mixed-media works with hand-made and painted frames that present a visual diary of dreams and daydreams in which male and female figures play symbolic roles in fictive landscapes. In "The Diaries of Last Summer," lovers float in a boat seem from above. In "The Early Spring of Villa de Fortesa," a cat rests languidly on the sill of a window looking out on a vibrant landscape. These small works have some charm, but are overshadowed by a pair of larger, more recent works which incorporate three-dimensional objects.
"Conversation" is a double self-portrait in which a graceful woman contemplates two aspects of herself, one masked, the other bare-faced. It reflects, said Ling, a lonely childhood before her sisters were born in which she kept herself company by playing two roles. The two lushly painted panels flank a small orange tree, representing the mysteries of nature, which is connected to the painted images by delicate chains.
Further exploring symbols of contradiction, "Sign Language" presents images of hands in open and closed positions on either side of a Tibetan mandala and a mask sprouting a blue tree covered with eyes. Surrounding the images are scenes of violence and spirituality representing the contradictions inherent in the human condition. Ling, who has spent much time in Tibet over the past 15 years, noted that the Tibetan Lama religion has had a strong influence on her recent works, which deal with conflicts between fantasy and reality, personal experience and spiritual transformation.
Bo exhibits a series of abstract etchings and monoprints that play with chance and accident. Formed from placing string, tissue paper, plastic, wire mesh, seeds, leaves and other found elements on zinc plates that have been deeply etched to the point almost of disintegration, the sombre, richly textured prints are enhanced by intuitive markings and the application of earthy pigments.
Bo described her works as generating from her interest in exploring unpredictable materials and a desire to break the traditional boundaries of the etching plate so that her work more closely resembles painting or drawing and feels spontaneous to the viewer. To accomplish this she leaves her zinc plates in acid for long periods of time, looking forward to seeing what the long etches will produce, then adds found elements to the plates, which she inks with two colors at the same time. The deep etching and found additions give the plates an almost three-dimensional quality.
Moving in a new and unexpected direction, she also shows a fiberglass-and-resin sculpture titled "Cat Claws." The oversize claws, varying in color from milky translucence to deep reds applied through a color Xerox process, have a playful yet menacing quality. Exploring the contrasts and similarities between animal claws and human fingernails, masculinity and femininity, danger and beauty, they are part of a larger series titled "Keratin" that Bo is developing.
Hong's recent oil paintings combine elements of traditional still-life and figurative painting with imagery that reflects the cultural differences between Chinese and American life. Using common objects from both cultures, she sets up a dialogue among dichotomous images, a pair of graceful and efficient chopsticks and a setting of formal Western silverware.
"Lucky Life" examines the differences in how luck is symbolized in Chinese and Western cultures. The Chinese character for luck is always turned upside down, said Hong, so the luck will flow out and into your life. In contrast, the Western symbol for luck, a horseshoe, is always turned up to contain the luck and save it for one's self. In her painting, Hong combines the two symbols, the Chinese upside down inside the Western, so that the luck flows out but still is saved.
In "Tasty," a beautifully painted diptych, she contrasts differing notions of what is palatable. For Westerners, a salmon steak is more appealing, while for the Chinese the fish's head is the tastiest part, always offered to the guest of honor at a banquet.
"Cultural Training," a diptych of a Western baby in nothing but a diaper and a Chinese baby bundled up everywhere except for its buttocks, contrasts the way children are raised in different cultures. In China, says Hong, babies do not wear diapers -- in order to facilitate early toilet training, reflecting a more practical if less modest approach to one of the biggest hurdles in child rearing.
"I Do," a large and richly painted image of Western and Chinese wedding dresses, concludes the show. In China, Hong noted, white is the color of death, while red is the color of life and fertility. She gives us both -- the white satin, off-the-shoulder, 1950s American dress and the red, lushly embroidered, mandarin-collared Chinese dress -- presented as empty vessels awaiting the spirit to fill them.