Last October, Wuhan-born Zeng Fanzhi set a new contemporary Asian art record with the US$23.3 million sale of his painting The Last Supper at Sotheby’s Hong Kong. The news confirms that there’s gold in these hills. But new artist Zhang Zuo is unimpressed by the growing cult of personality surrounding Mainland contemporary artists.
“There is no such good thing as a good artist in any form,” Zhang declares. “There are only good pieces of art.”
Born in a small town of roughly 1,000 people in Hebei Province, Zhang’s artistic journey has been a pure one. His debut solo exhibition, Solace of Youth, opens at LWH Gallery in m50 on January 10, and he’ll be milling around on weekends eavesdropping to hear the audience’s unfiltered thoughts on his work.
“I feel very fortunate,” he says. “An artist I knew, Mo Xin, recently died, and he didn’t get his first exhibition until his late 60s.”
The mixed-media show features nearly thirty pieces centering around the experiences of modern migrant youth in China. It’s an experience that Zhang knows too well.
“Unlike my father and forefathers who had a very intense history and experienced a great deal, I was born in good times,” he says. “I wanted to record this era. Although there’s a lack of revolutions, there are still challenges.”
“There’s a huge gap between migrant youth’s aspirations and what reality is able to provide. Traditional education and cultural values have failed to catch up to give these young people the tools to survive in this new reality.”
Zhang’s artistic journey began before kindergarten. Growing up in a poor and toy-less household, he spent his childhood routinely cutting out cartoon characters painted on instant noodles packages and pasting them on discarded paper.
Although he studied design at Mei San University, Zhang’s heart was in art. At 24, he moved to Beijing’s creative haven Songzhuang – a move he says he didn’t dare tell his parents about – where he survived on menthol cigarettes and four buns a day flavored with bottled minced meat sauce. Days were spent painting in an unheated concrete slab with fellow aspiring artists.
To make ends meet, he took a job at a company that specialized in mass produced artwork where he developed the ability to paint four works a day. Despite seeing his peers succumb to the stability day jobs provided, Zhang was passionate about his artistic life of drinking, smoking and creating.
“I was very raw, rough and arrogant then,” he says. “I wasn’t scared of anything and didn’t think about selling any of my paintings.”
Things changed in 2010 when he joined the army as a way to pay off his school fees – “My military income was the equivalent of three years of my family’s annual crop” – which left little time for art. Doodling any chance he got, Zhang left the army two years later with much more discipline and determination.
He moved to Shanghai last March to be closer to his girlfriend, and works and lives in a 15 square meter apartment in Pudong where, he says, “I eat, sleep, drink, smoke, paint and … (smiles cheekily) on that floor.”
While he misses the ability to mix with locals and kindred spirits in Songzhuang, this city has been kind to him. This exhibition is an accident as he first approached LWH Gallery to see if they were hiring.
“As a gallery, we mainly feature Southeast Asian art, but I believe that we should nurture and give back to society,” says LWH founder Woon Hoe. “Being in Shanghai’s art district, we should provide a platform for young aspiring Chinese artists.”
Impressed by Zhang’s earlier dreamscapes, Woon requested larger pieces for a solo show. Over the past few months, the theme emerged with work encompassing ink, spray paint and other mediums.
“The birds represent migrant youth and the barren landscape symbolizes the harsh environment they struggle in,” Zhang says. “This will probably be my most innocent and honest exhibition as I’m not tainted by commercial thinking.”
By Andrew Chin