Now in its fifth year, the NGV x MECCA partnership supports women in the arts and enables new acquisitions by emerging Australian female artists to enter the NGV Collection. This year, three works by Chinese-Australian artist Louise Zhang were acquired for the NGV with funds donated by MECCA founder and co-CEO Jo Horgan and MECCA Brands.
Louise Zhang is a Sydney-based artist, whose multidisciplinary practice encompasses painting, sculpture and installation. Her colourful and wondrous works explore her identity and cultural heritage, including her religious background (she grew up in a strict Christian family) and traditional Chinese symbolism.
Since graduating with a Masters of Fine Arts by research from UNSW Sydney Art & Design in 2016, Zhang has been able to focus on her practice, working as a full-time artist. In 2016 and 2017 she undertook residencies in China, during which time she furthered her research into Chinese symbolism focusing on traditional motifs, as well as her interest in expressions of horror in East Asian popular culture.
During her childhood Zhang was discouraged from engaging with traditional Chinese mythology and superstitions, as they conflicted with her family’s faith. However, she now uses her art practice as a way to explore and understand her relationship with her cultural heritage. When I interviewed Zhang in the lead up to the presentation of her works at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, she said:
Visuals are inherent in Chinese storytelling and communication. I find using architecture, landscape, symbols and motifs are a way I can explore deeper narratives that can mean something personal without dictating meaning. There’s also a complexity to them, something as simple as a flower or fruit is loaded with folklore, representation, even medicinal properties.1Interview between the author and Louise Zhang by email, Sept. 2020.
In her painting Devil’s lion, 2019, Zhang references a Bible story – of the devil, prowling around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour – that haunted her as a child. The work’s title is written in Chinese characters in a graphic style, reminiscent of vintage horror film posters. The addition of text elements to her recent paintings is in part because of adjustments Zhang has made to her working methods for health reasons, as she explains:
Chronic pain is a part of my life as much as eating is part of life. It’s ever-present. Some days are better than others, but I am never without pain … My condition worsens as I work so it is necessary to slowly make changes without sacrificing what I love doing and what I’m trying to say.2ibid.
Whereas previously she often worked with oil paints and created her own supports of shaped boards to paint on, Zhang now focuses on using acrylic paint on canvas and more line work, which is less straining for her hand. The compositions of her paintings are inspired by traditional Chinese landscape painting shanshui, meaning literally ‘mountain and water’. The practice first became popular among Daoist poets and painters in the fourth and fifth centuries. Contemplation of such paintings (above) allowed the viewer to wander within the landscape in their imagination, and Zhang is drawn to their inherent visual storytelling.
The painting You are forgiven (Lotus), 2020, sees Zhang explore the symbolism of the lotus flower. Colloquially also referred to as waterlilies, lotus blossoms sprout out of the mud ‘unblemished’ and are associated with purity, rebirth and enlightenment in many Eastern religions. Zhang was inspired by the goddess Guanyin who is often depicted sitting atop a lotus throne and is revered for providing protection, care and compassion. The text in the painting reads, ‘I forgive you/you are forgiven’ and references Zhang’s exploration of the notion of sin in relation to her religious upbringing.
The work exemplifies Zhang’s methodology of researching cultural symbols and motifs to explore her personal experiences and anxieties of navigating the world as a ‘third culture kid’. Zhang identifies with this term, herself a child from a migrant family, born in a country that her parents are not originally from.
While Zhang conceived the idea for You are forgiven (Lotus) prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the work’s themes are especially relevant during the current pandemic:
You are forgiven (Lotus), 2020, was initially a concept I wanted to explore despite the coronavirus – the idea that certain kinds of fears, of fault, of guilt can be dictated by cultural divisions. Let’s just say the pandemic hasn’t made that any better. Fear is heightened, the way we live, the way we act and move around society has changed. The way society responds to things have changed. Racial and social division has heightened.3ibid.
Alongside Chinese mythology and botany, horror cinema has been an enduring inspiration for Zhang and her sculptural work often traverses the boundary between the attractive and the repulsive. In her fantastical work Scholar mound study #3, 2019, she employs a range of unusual materials that might also be used in movie-making props, including a surprising glass eye peeking out from the back of the sculpture. Experimenting with new materials can be a way out of an ‘artist block’ for Zhang. She says:
Materials like colour can be very powerful tools in evoking certain feelings and sensations. The malleable, stretchy clay with the visceral nature of free pour polyurethane is highly seductive. I wanted to work with that visceral seduction. The drippy, wet and organic.4ibid.
Scholar mound study #3, 2019, is a playful interrogation of the traditional Chinese scholar’s rock, or Gongshi. Shaped by wind and water, these expressively formed rocks were displayed like works of art and appreciated by Chinese scholars, who at the time were primarily male, for their ability to capture the creative energy force (qi 气) of nature. Zhang humorously subverts the sombre aesthetics of Chinese scholarly accoutrements by injecting the form with a perceived feminine aesthetic of sugary colours and glittery surfaces.
In addition to her three works on display at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Zhang’s artwork is also featured in MECCA stores around the country, as she worked collaboratively with MECCA Brands on its Holiday 2020 limited-edition packaging and campaign. For her, design and art intermingle in her practice to a certain extent:
The art comes first and the design is drawn from that. They are very different processes, but they share the same bouts of creativity, experimentation and exploration. Neither are sacrificed in terms of conceptual explorations and meaning.5ibid.
Wherever we encounter her beautifully rendered imagery and signature lush colours, Zhang hopes for her work to ‘contribute to the world through calmness, but also a sense of joy. I’m hoping people will see my work and feel calm and inspired’.6ibid.
Interview between the author and Louise Zhang by email, Sept. 2020.