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The powerful feminist-embodied sculptures of Manhattan artist Zhen Guo

Zhen Guo Motherhood 2015- 2016 Installation 915 X 254 X 15 CM Fabric and mixed media (with the artist) 

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.

Zhen Guo “Punching Bags” 2014 – 2018 Installation at NEST Contemporary Beijing 2017Each piece 183 X 46 X 46 CM Fabric and mixed media

Zhen Guo Motherhood 2015- 2016 Installation 915 X 254 X 15 CM Fabric and mixed media

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.

Zhen Guo “Punching Bags” 2014-2018 Installation at Mana Contemporary Art 2018 13 pieces each 183 X 46 X 46 CM Fabric and mixed media

         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.

Zhen Guo Motherhood 2015- 2016 Installation 915 X 254 X 15 CM Fabric and mixed media

         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

Robert C. Morgan is an artist, scholar, poet, teacher, and author. Considered an authority on early Conceptual Art, Dr. Morgan  has lectured widely, written literally hundreds of critical essays (translated into twenty languages), published several books, and curated numerous exhibitions. In 1992, he was appointed as the first critic-in-residence at Art Omi International Artists Residency, where in 2016, he was honored as Critic Emeritus.  In 1999, he was awarded the first ARCALE prize in International Art Criticism in Salamanca (Spain), and the same year served on the UNESCO jury at the 48th Biennale di Venezia.  In 2002, he gave the keynote speech in the House of Commons, London on the occasion of Shane Cullen’s exhibition celebrating the acceptance of “The Agreement” by the UK. In 2003, Dr. Morgan was appointed Professor Emeritus in art history at the Rochester Institute of Technology, and, in 2005, became a Senior Fulbright Scholar in the Republic of Korea. In 2011, he was inducted into the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in Salzburg; and, in 2016, the Department of Special Collections at the Hesburgh Library, University of Notre Dame, purchased The Robert C, Morgan Collection of Conceptual Art.  Much of his work since the late 1990s has focused on art outside the West in the Middle East and East Asia where his books have been translated and published into Farsi (Tehran: Cheshmeh, 2010), Korean (Seoul: JRM, 2007), and Chinese (Beijing: Hebei, 2013). Dr. Morgan has worked extensively in China with contemporary ink artists and has authored many catalogs and monographs on Chinese artists. In addition to his scholarly, he continues a parallel involvement as an artist and abstract painter (since 1970) with a major survey exhibition at Proyectos Monclova in Mexico City (March 23 – April 29, 2017). His work has appeared in numerous exhibitions and is included in several important collections.


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