Art and People

Eazel Sits Down with Zhen Guo (Part I)

Patrick Rolandelli | March 20, 2018

Earlier this month, Eazel sat down with Zhen Guo, a Chinese-born, New York-based artist who graduated from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (now the China Academy of Art) and was among the first group of art students from the Chinese mainland to begin their artistic careers in the wake of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. After becoming a teacher at the same academy where she received her formal training as an artist, Zhen would eventually emigrate to the United States with her first husband to reestablish her career in New York City and rediscover her identity as an artist producing work influenced as much by Western pop culture and postmodern narratives as by her Chinese heritage and training in the meticulous craft of pre-revolutionary Chinese traditional arts.

Upon learning about Zhen Guo and the fun and provocative nature of the work she was to feature at the Chinese American Arts Council’s Gallery 456 toward the end of February, we knew we had to become involved. So we reached out to the organizer of the exhibition and arranged with the curator to virtualize the experience of the artwork—as well as cover the opening.

The work to be presented consisted of a row of punching bags, tapestries hung on the walls, a series of drawings, and dozens of porcelain-like, shiny lacquered papier maché casts—all featuring iterations of the same iconography: A single breast—seemingly devoid of any sexual quality, demonstrating a curious warmth.

Installation view of Zhen Guo: A Denied Existence, Feb 23 - Mar 23, 2018
Gallery 456 with Goldfingr, Chinese American Arts Council, New York

The opening was fantastic. A diverse crowd of New York professionals converged at the gallery after work on a Thursday evening to be among fellow art lovers and to see Zhen’s work up close. As the space was filling up, Zhen—the warm personality that she is—walked about, greeting her audience individually. And once the room was nearly at capacity, a member of the waitstaff hushed the crowd for Zhen to address the room.

As Zhen presented the exhibition she spoke to her experience as a Chinese artist in the wake of the Cultural Revolution, as an immigrant to the United States in the mid 1980s, as an independent woman finding her way in the world at the turn of the 21st century.

A few weeks later, we meet with Zhen back at Gallery 456 with the exhibition still up. And upon stepping back into the aura of her art—this time without a crowd of people fluttering about—we knew it was going to be an interesting story.

Eazel: Zhen, first off, congratulations on your show. It’s so great to meet you here again—back in the presence of the work. What an opening it was. Perhaps you can start us off by speaking to where the inspiration for all of this came from—how you developed your identity as an artist in China.

Zhen Guo (ZG): Thank you. It’s good to see you again. Well, in China I didn’t know I had an identity—as a woman, or as an artist. I didn’t give much thought to the woman’s role in society—or feminism for that matter. These issues weren’t talked about openly when I was growing up—or even during my training as an artist. It was never explained to me that there was a power relation between men and women in society.

Eazel: How did you discover your calling as an artist?

ZG: I had to fight for this path in life—to study art in school and pursue a career as an artist. During the Cultural Revolution in China—and in most other places in the world—the life of an artist was associated with struggle, almost as being less honorable. The artist’s path wasn't viewed in the best light. Of course my parents recognized this and wanted me to pursue studies to become a doctor or engineer. In fact, I had to be strategic in letting them believe this was my plan as well. When the time came for state-sponsored testing to determine my academic track, I deliberately opted out of all the other tests in order to be able take the test for fine art—against their wishes.

The artist, Zhen Guo with her daughter Tian Guo Weinberg, former teacher and mentor Yu Xining, and father, Guo Changfang who at this point, had fallen ill with cancer. 1999.
The artist, Zhen Guo with her class at Zhejiang Academy.
She was one of two female students given placement in her class of fourteen at this premier university. 1980.

Eazel: Stepping back a bit to your childhood and the experience of growing up amid the Cultural Revolution, did any particular aspects of Chinese culture at this time make a lasting impression on you?

ZG: As the Cultural Revolution got underway I was a teenager working various jobs in factories, honing my craft as an apprentice sewer, painting folk and propaganda paintings for the government, which at the time was assigning people to different jobs. Society didn’t encourage you to think for yourself—to think critically about the status quo. You were supposed to only consider the government, and follow the rules it set. Still, it was in working these various jobs that I first touched paint and fell in love.

Eazel: How has the art world in China evolved since this time?

ZG: Only recently have people in China started to think for themselves. This is why even now, Asian art still has an element of imitation—of deliberative replication. In China, you copy old masters to perfect your style and technique. You change aspects of tradition as a way of saying something new. Art in the East has yet to strike a comparable discourse between artist and society, as is exhibited in the West where the artist desires to create something totally organic. My art tries to break through this inherent reluctance among artists of the East.

Eazel: On this note, it would seem that your art—and Chinese art in general—depicts a different relationship between tradition and individualism. How does your experience as an artist speak to this?

ZG: Tradition keeps Chinese artists from developing a true contemporary language. And Chinese tradition is largely built on filial relationships between men and women, from Confucius. That’s why you can’t have a contemporary language without feminism.

Women’s Function 16, 2012, Acrylic and ink on Japon, 183 x 287 cm
From the series, My Heart is Red

I know this because of my own experience. After getting married, I came to America and worked as a commercial artist. As I see it now, I was re-routed to the life of a second-class citizen. Luckily, I was very skilled as an artist and painter with ten galleries in the US selling my artwork. I did it to support my family, because that was the role expected from me. But I wasn’t making the art that I wanted to make. I wanted to be different, to experiment with new art forms like my classmates. But because of family obligations I had to sacrifice my own creative project and deal first with supporting my family and surviving as an immigrant.

At this time I still didn’t realize women’s value as individual, contributing members of society. I didn’t understand that you can do both: To take care of your family alongside pursuing your passion. Chinese society made me a wife, a daughter, and a sister—not an artist.

I worked so hard to support my husband financially, and eventually I supported him in our immigration to the US. I came to the US first and took care of all the administrative issues related to our move. At the same time, I was the breadwinner and the caretaker. My time was spent learning English and figuring out how to survive and solve for the immigration of my husband from China.

It was a role that I was eager to take up, but in the process, it took me up. During this time painting was no longer mine. Rather, it was just a means by which to facilitate my husband's life project.

Eazel: It would seem this time served as something of a gestation period for your own artistic project. How did you eventually come into your own and discover your voice as an artist?

ZG: I had a voice when I was younger, painting as a pure artist. Later on I would submit to society’s rules and role for women, sacrificing my own ambition and desires. This is when I feel I became mute. I still had language, but I couldn’t make noise. It wasn’t until my family life started to fall apart—when my first husband and I separated—that I completely stopped painting. It just became too painful. So for a period of time I lost my voice and I was stripped of my identity as an artist.

Within just six years I got divorced, had a baby, remarried, lost my father, lost my mentor, and lived through the trauma of 9/11. I became depressed, and as an artist, I felt it quite deeply. The few paintings I forced myself to make during this time were focused on death. I never thought of going back to painting commercial art. Though as an artist, one grows as much as she falls.

I picked up painting once again as means of digging into my life and past. And eventually I moved on from thinking of myself as someone with an unfortunate life, realizing that none of the trauma that I experienced in life happened just to me. These were societal issues. And reading about women's experiences around the world made it clear to me that these were problems were global realities. Most people don’t realize this as they blame themselves for the effects of long-standing societal structures. You know, just a generation before, my mother was unable to get any sort of education, and her mother’s feet were bound. Each generation is a leap forward, and that’s how I think of my art. With this feminist art my aim is to wake up women of my generation and the next.

Greater than the Sum of a Part: Punching Bags, 2017, Mixed media, Dimensions variable. Installation view of Third Annual Asian Art Exhibit: Asian Women Artists, 2017, Jeonbuk Museum of Art, Wanju, Korea

Eazel: Recently the scope of your artistic practice has extended to encompass not just painting, but also video and installation work. Based on the work presented here at your exhibition at Gallery 456 your current artistic statement would seem to consist primarily of installation work. Is painting still important to you?

Zhen: I’m doing more installation and sculptures because I think that three-dimensional work evokes more from the viewer. I’ve been doing two dimensional paintings all my life, but with increasing focus and stronger feelings. I feel the need to explore new mediums to speak to my audience in different ways. When I found the image of the breast, I thought it expressed my point of view, which is why it became the focus of my installation.

I still work in painting. In fact, right now I’m working on a series of ink paintings that explore feminist narratives. My Boxer and Woman’s Function series were both well-received. However, when I showed my Breast Wall tapestries in China, I noticed some people would start to cry standing in front of them. Witnessing this immediate and physical response made it clear to me that this installation project was powerful and that more people had to experience it. The textiles—both cotton and silk—and patterns I have employed in this work are directly connected to people’s lives. These are materials they’ve felt and seen before, and they evoke reflection on the past. I’m making this work for anyone with a mother.

Eazel: The monumental quality of The Door of Life, which you presented in Shandong last year is quite moving. What were you seeking to convey with this work?

Zhen: It was a rare opportunity for me to work on an outdoor sculpture. The work utilizes local ceramic materials, seashells unique to this location, and other local goods. I wanted to make a feminist piece that was respectful of the locals’ politics and discretion. The idea here was to create a human door. Inside the white, smooth tunnel is a warm, wooden cave featuring a video installation and the sound of water flowing. There is a skylight and a few refracting spheres of glass. As you walk through the The Door of Life you are reborn. I wanted to inspire people to turn inward as they would walk through the piece.

For me, the door represents a woman's body, and walking through it is like re-entering and exiting the womb. This piece—just like the Breast Wall tapestry—is about immersing the viewer in the existence, beauty, and power of woman. It’s a first step, and I’m not sure it is understood yet, but for now it’s just a beautiful, monumental tribute to women everywhere.

The Door of Life, 2017, Steel, cement, tiles, wood, glass bottles, video, 800 x 800 x 500 cm
Installation in Sculpture Garden in Shandong Wudi, China

The interview will be continued in Part II

Copy-edited and researched by Tian Weinberg

Zhen Guo's page on Eazel
Zhen Guo’s current exhibition at Gallery 456, Chinese American Arts Council, New York

All Images courtesy of the artist unless otherwise stated separately.

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