As his career and technique evolved from China to the U.S., Zhang Shaoyuan’s latest contemporary collection is a mirror of a true artist seeking to capture the singular complexities of life through portraits.
Zhang began his career as an artist at the age of 17. As a volunteer for the Red Guard, he was sent to the countryside for eight years of re-education. When he wasn’t toiling away in the rice fields or mine shafts, he created monoprints by carving on blocks of bamboo. Inspired by his environment, Zhang produced Cultural Revolution propaganda art, glorifying unified labor and depicting the unfussy and solitary life of farmers.
Under Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, China underwent dramatic economic and social changes and Chinese art began to flourish beyond propaganda. As a student at the 中央美术学院, Zhang’s eyes were opened as he was exposed to foreign contemporary artists for the first time. Simultaneously, he studied under and learned from China’s printmaking masters, Wu Biduan and Pang Tao, who had both lived abroad.
In the late 1980s, as budding contemporary artists began to emerge in China, Zhang moved to the U.S. to study western techniques.
He worked under renowned Utah oil painter, David Dornan, with whom he advanced in mastering the technique of attention to detail in recognizable objects and under Professor Robert Kleinschmidt, with whom he developed a thoughtful and responsive approach to contemporary printmaking. From Dornan’s large-than-life, abstract landscapes to still life oil cans splashed with sharp a juxtaposition of colors to Professor Robert Kleinschmidt’s detailed science-fiction-like nude prints—this was a refreshing step from the constricted cultural revolution artwork of his roots.
The artist’s time in Utah also led Zhang to periods of isolation in the southern Utah wilderness, where he spent countless hours painting while exploring the region’s desolate red rock canyons. His artwork today mirrors a profound tranquility and deep self-reflection that is his own stemming from the hardships experienced in the fields of China and as an impoverished immigrant student working as a janitor and living alone in the U.S.
These pieces reflect an eastern and western influences that include a breadth of inspiration spanning from Wu Daozi’s delicate ink sketches to Willem de Kooning’s vibrant oils. Stylistically, they represents Zhang’s technical prowess learned from his Chinese art background and creative panache developed from contemporary training in the U.S. This is most evidenced by the piece, “Daughter,” in which Zhang molds a bitingly graceful and contemplative form against an seemingly stark backdrop, leaving much to the viewer’s own interpretation.
Such themes might have been considered blasphemous during his teen years, nowadays, poignant emotion becomes a character study on modern China. His figures in each painting depict portraits frozen in time, for example, his works carry a solemn, yet stoic expression almost nonchalantly peering in the viewer’s direction. His depictions are full of independence, optimism, eagerness, hunger and sometimes naiveté, but also display an indifferent regard for their fellow man or and their complex environment.
In his most recent work, Zhang approaches a deeper humanity. Taking inspiration from Richard Diebenkorn’s rich lines and contemporary adeptness to patterning a convergence of character and form, he takes his works to a new level. Zhang is fascinated by emotions in everyday life. Without cars, roads, or buildings, the viewer is provoked to deliberate on the subjectivity of Zhang’s pieces. His works fashion a multifarious stew of clandestine possibilities, struggles, joy and optimism found in modern America.
Zhang Shaoyuan is currently based between the U.S. and Shanghai.
对于我来说, 绘画是一个创造性的和旅程式的过程, 而不仅仅是一个终端的产品, 因此 我在作画时注重的是绘画过程的本身,在我的画中, 我认为是过程决定了结果, 而不是过程服务于结果. 在我完成一幅画的全过程中, 我感觉最难的是始终保持一种即兴的和随机的作画态度和方式. 作画时我尽力 跟着过程走, 即便有时候只能顺着一个混沌的, 不时需要纠正的势头去走. 抓住绘画过程中不断出现的各种可能和机会, 随时调整创作的走向.
建立, 破坏, 再建立, 在破坏和 建立的反复中不断有所新的发现. 我无法套用一种格式来画我的画. 我也不愿意在开始动笔之前就为我的画设定好一个最终的结果, 然后一步一步地去完成它. 我觉得如果这样我将会失去许多突破自我的机会, 同时也无法超越自己已有的能力和认知范围. 每当我开始一幅新的画作的时候, 我都会 有一种既期待又紧张的感觉. 这是当人们在面对一种未可全知的, 同时挑战和希望并存 的状况时都会有的心理状态.
从这个角度上说, 从事画画的人是艰辛的, 但也是幸运的.