Louise Zhang

In Artist Profile 55 (2021), Drew Pettifer spoke with Louise Zhang about the pairing of the cute and the abject, her negotiation of Western and Chinese cultural influences, and her commissions for the National Gallery of Victoria, which currently stand behind the Gallery's closed doors through Melbourne's lockdown.

The visceral artworks of Louise Zhang are animated by a dynamic tension between desire and repulsion. Through lurid, eye-catching paintings, blobby, bodily sculptures, and, more recently, VR and immersive technological works, her practice navigates a complex interplay of histories, forms, and cultural references. Rich in both Chinese and Western symbolism, Zhang’s art expresses a curious duality and ambiguity that oscillates and unfolds when encountered. Her practice draws upon affect, Eastern mythology, and Chinese botany through the lens of her hybrid, ‘third culture’ identity.

Initially trained as a painter, Zhang quickly developed an interest in other forms of materiality, including sculpture and installation. She enjoyed drawing as a child and spent a lot of time visiting fashion studios and workshops and textile factories thanks to her family background in the industry. To pass the time she would play with fabrics and has spoken of how she admired the colour and patterns of the various materials she came across. In recent years Zhang has used more block colours and illustrative lines in her work as a result of the repetitive strain injury (RSI) pain she experiences in her hands and a type of arthritis that affects her lower back. She finds acrylics less straining on her wrists and acknowledges that this has influenced the kinds of work she is able to make as she conveys her intended ideas and meaning within her physical capabilities.

Zhang is openly drawn to the abject. She has been attracted to body horror cinema and gore since she was quite young, an interest that has long concerned her conservative Christian parents. Her family migrated to Australia from China before she was born and she has used her art practice as a vehicle for exploring both her conservative upbringing and her experience as a Chinese Australian who ‘didn’t know much about being Chinese’ growing up. She has expressed a desire to examine her fascination with Chinese mythology and horror in a way that still manages to respect her parents and their religious views. Indeed, Zhang has alluded to ways in which art has provided another language for communicating her ideas and beliefs to her parents.

In order to connect with Chinese culture, Zhang spent seven months in China in 2016-17 on artist residencies in Beijing and Chongqing. During this time she was introduced to the Chinese realm of the dead or ‘hell,’ diyu, a discovery that had a profound impact on her. Diyu is often represented as an intricate maze with chambers and levels which souls pass through after death to atone for sins committed in life. The amount of time spent in diyu is proportionate to how ‘good’ someone might have been in their earthly lives. Zhang found this Chinese concept far more appealing than the eternal damnation her conservative Christian upbring promised and these ideas began to inform her practice.

One subsequent work questioning conservative Christian theology is Zhang’s painting Devil’s lion, 2019, which directly references 1 Peter 5:8 from the Bible: ‘Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.’ This Biblical story terrified her as a child. The painting contains references to fire and flames, including the title which is superimposed in large Chinese text in a graphic flame font. These Christian references are contrasted, however, by a prominent representation of a Chinese lion, often associated with the Chinese lion dance or Chinese guardian lion statuary. This recontextualisation of the lion as a symbol of good luck, fortune, and protection sits in stark contrast to the framing of the lion as a source of fear and anxiety.

Devil’s Lion is one of three works by Zhang recently acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria which feature in the exhibition ‘NGV x MECCA: Louise Zhang’ (until August 2021). Acquired with funds donated by MECCA founder and co-CEO Jo Horgan and MECCA Brands, this is the fifth iteration of ‘NGV x MECCA,’ a partnership that recognises, celebrates, and empowers early career female artists. A second painting, You Are Forgiven (Lotus), 2020, similarly looks at notions of sin in relation to Zhang’s religious upbringing. Floral, watery imagery filling the canvas is broken up by subtle, Chinese text which translates as ‘I forgive you, You are forgiven.’ Upon closer inspection the flowers reveal themselves to be the lotus flowers referenced in the title of the work. Lotuses are associated with purity, enlightenment, self-regeneration, and rebirth in Chinese culture and many Eastern religions. Both of these paintings demonstrate how Zhang uses competing cultural symbols and motifs to critically explore social and philosophical questions from the vantage of her own personal anxieties and curiosities.

The final of the NGV’s acquisitions is the sculptural piece Scholar Mound Study #3, 2019. This vivid, gooey sculpture serves as a playful contemporary feminist critique of the gongshi or scholar’s rock. These limestone formations have been sculpted by natural processes of erosion via exposure to the elements. Expressive scholar’s rocks have been prized for their ability to capture the creative energy, or qi, of the natural world. Chinese scholars – the vast majority of whom have been men – have appreciated scholar’s rocks in some form for more than a millenia. The self-identified ‘feminine’ colours of Zhang’s drippy, abject form undermines the masculine philosophical tradition that the object references.

Like other feminist artists before her, Zhang combines the bodily and the abject with other elements that might be considered cute, feminine, kitsch, or low brow in a feminist critique of history and culture. Artists like Zhang employ the charm of the playful and the pop to draw audiences in before the work unfolds into something more abject or grotesque underneath. Zhang, for example, uses bright, saturated colours in a cartoon-like palette to invite the viewer in, before revealing a monstrous or perverse undertone lurking deeper in the work. The abject itself also possesses an allure, a push and pull from desire to disgust that operates alongside these other animated processes within Zhang’s work. Her work is simultaneously alluring and disturbing.

Encountering Zhang’s series of works at the NGV in Federation Square it quickly becomes evident that they have been installed, quite deliberately, in close proximity to Gordon Bennett’s painting Notes to Basquiat: Double Vision, 2000. This considered installation not only highlights some of the similarities in form and palette, but also the conceptual relationships between Zhang and other intersectional contemporary Australian artists. Both Bennett and Zhang interrogate histories of Otherness and provoke critical reflection on the role of language and systems of identity formation. Zhang’s work sits within a rich community of practice that examines hybridity, culture, and identity in the Australian context.

Zhang has previously commented that while art is not always immediately graspable, it offers a subjective engagement with history, experience, symbolism, and heritage in ways that other mediums are not as adept at expressing. The multiple layers within her own practice engage audiences across these varied fields, first through an alluring palette and then through a complex push and pull of subject matter. In so doing, Zhang connects audience, people, place, and culture through the cultivation of a unique site for exchange.

This essay was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 55, 2021.

NGV x MECCA: Louise Zhang
Until August 2021
Ian Potter Cultural Centre: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

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