By ROBERT C. MORGAN, August, 2018
During one of my visits to the impressively renovated warehouses of Mana Contemporary Art in Jersey City, I was given the opportunity to view an important installation of recent work by the Chinese artist Zhen Guo. The pleasure of the occasion was heightened by way of a comfortable car ride from Manhattan that provided the necessary atmosphere for a conversation to ensue. Indeed, this was the first time the artist and I had spoken in depth about her work since our meeting more than two decades earlier.
At that time, Zhen Guo was living (and painting) in Manhattan near the George Washington Bridge. I distinctly recall her magnificent Chinese folk-style paintings hanging on the apartment walls. Her work represented a tradition to which she was deeply, if not majestically involved. Although Zhen’s work has recently taken a sculptural turn, the dynamic color configurations remain very much the same. She has moved stylistically away from working with folk art toward constructing human scale abstract sculptures, sewn together using fabrics, cotton, linen, silk, and leather.
For some there is the question of how Zhen made this transition from Chinese folk art to powerful feminist-embodied sculptures. What happened in the interim and how does one form reflect another? There is no easy answer to these questions other than to say that artists’ lives are often difficult and, in some cases, incomprehensible. The desire to make art is different from entering the world of business or from playing games on social media. The commitment is very different and very personal. Nobody can tell you to become an artist. Rather you simply do what you need to do.
There are times when art and life are in conflict with one another, when the complexities of life stand in the way of art, and conversely, when art obscures the direction one needs to move forward. Through endurance, hard work, and clear focus, Zhen has over the years has been compelled to make the necessary changes in order to regain her life and her position as an artist. Zhen’s recent work reveals the evidence of her ability to enter into an international dialogue with her highly original, brilliantly executed sculpture. I am referring to her large-scale sewn fabric mural, Motherhood (2016), and to a more recent group of fabric forms, titled Punching Bags (2017-18), which she suspends from the ceiling. The seeming opposition between these works is only on the surface.
Rather, from a feminist point of view, these forms are thematically related to one another. From a Chinese perception, Motherhood carries a formative role in the culture from which she was born. To celebrate this ideal she completed a five-six-panel horizontal wall tapestry, measuring 915 x 254 x 15 centimeters. The selection of fabrics and materials, including the intense process of sewing them together, was entirely done by the artist. In essence, Motherhood consists of a grid of breast-like forms, stuffed with cotton, each one having a unique and spontaneous transcription of color all its own.
Alternatively, Punching Bags extends this sewn configuration into a series of uniquely suspended forms that resemble what the title indicates. This 13-part installation, which includes her stuffed, breast-like forms, is hung at slightly different heights from the ceiling. Again, the colors from the selected fabrics give these forms a blazing, intrepid effect. In contrast to the Motherhood installation, which is most often hung on an extended wall, Punching Bags is more singular and aggressive in its overall presence. Visitors to Motherhood – whether shown in New York, Beijing, Shanghai, or Shenzhen discovered a tactile sensibility in the mural inviting them to touch the breast-like forms as if to feel their warmth and compassion. In contrast, those who saw Punching Bags had a very different response. Rather than warmth and compassion, they encountered a more fiercely defensive pose. The curious point in that both sculptures employ similar colors and materials with the exception of an occasional boxing glove sewn on to the Bags. Yet from my observation, the visitors who came to the Punching Bag installation, shown at Mana Contemporary Art this past summer in Jersey City, were less likely to punch these sculptures than to gently push them so as to view their movements in relation to their own bodies, rocking back and forth from their positions on the ceiling. There was a certain beauty in this action that transformed these multi-breasted figures from being fierce into becoming friendly and responsive to the participant, thus giving joy instead of anger.
Consequently, these feminist-endowed figures appear less about difference than connecting viewers to experience the work on their own terms. There is something gratifying about Zhen Guo’s art that wants to bring people together, both women and men. Maybe these sculptures are about opening spaces between the sexes through a more concentrated and sensitive approach to materials and form. It is, after all, about art as much as what art is trying to say. From a Western point of view, one may find an opposition between Motherhood and Punching Bags, but in many ways this is too literal, too obvious. Is the warmth and compassion of the Mother really that far from the fierce pose that offers a defense of human rights? Are women’s rights different from human rights? They would seem to be on a similar track.
Zhen Guo’s Motherhood is also a guardian, the figure that holds the family together and acknowledges the equal rights of children and their ability to further defend what is just and equal. Does it take art of this caliber to make this clear? In the case of Zhen Guo, it would appear to be true. From her perspective, art is the agent – the central axis – that allows experience to enter into consciousness and that gives conscience an opening, a breathing space, where, in fact, we discover we are all in this together. To see these works by Zhen Guo goes beyond the limits of expectation. It is the kind of art made to engender love by learning to believe again in one another. WM
Robert C. Morgan is an educator, art historian, critic, poet, and artist. Knowledgeable in the history and aesthetics of both Western and Asian art, Morgan has lectured widely, written hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published monographs and books, and curated numerous exhibitions. He has written reviews for Art in America, Arts, Art News, Art Press(Paris), Sculpture Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, and Hyperallergic. His catalog essays have been published by Gagosian, Pace, Sperone Westwater, Van Doren Waxter, White Cube (London), Kukje (Seoul), Malingue (Hong Kong), and Ink Studio (Beijing). Since 2010, he has been New York Editor for Asian Art News and World Sculpture News, both published in Hong Kong. He teaches in the Graduate Fine Arts Program at Pratt Institute as an Adjunct Professor and at the School of Visual Arts.
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