Zhang Hongtu: Mao in Queens

Zhang Hongtu’s first major U.S. exhibition at the Queens Museum is close to home for the 74 year old artist. Although Hongtu was born and raised in China, he’s been living in New York City since 1982 and his studio is in Woodside Queens. Outside of Asia, New York has the largest Chinese population in the world. Although there are many cultural differences between the East an the West, it is this “East meets West” phenomenon is where Hongtu’s personal style comes through most poignantly.

Hongtu was born in 1943 in Pingliang a prefecture-level city in eastern Gansu, China. His father, Zhang Bingduo, was a devout Muslim who advocated the religion’s practice by opening Arabic schools throughout China. The Zhang family’s fortune took a downturn when Chairman Mao Zedong began his “Great Leap Forward” campaign in 1958. The fact that the family were Muslim in an atheist state significantly hindered the family’s status. Furthermore during Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” in 1966 (due to the social and economic failures of his Great Leap Forward) brought upon more woes for Hongtu and his family. For his father, this signified the end of his tenure as the Vice President of the National Muslim Association. The Zhang family stopped speaking of religion in the house. At the time, Hongtu was student at the Beijing’s Central Academy of Arts and Crafts, and his studies were abruptly brought to an end by the initiation of the “Cultural Revolution.”

His current solo exhibition opens with his pivotal series depicting Chairman Mao during the late 1980’s to early 1990’s called Long Live Mao Zedong. The exhibition illuminates the artist’s personal and collective experiences during Mao’s “Cultural Revolution,” as well as his feelings of alienation from being a Muslim in Mao’s China and later from his immigration to New York City.

Zhang Hongtu, Quaker Oats Mao, 1987. From the series Long Live Chairman Mao. Acrylic on Quaker Oats box. 9.75 x 5 in. Private collection

Quaker Oats Mao, 1987. From the series Long Live Chairman Mao. Acrylic on Quaker Oats box. 9.75 x 5 in. Private collection

Long Live Mao Zedong began when Hongtu realized that there was a certain affinity in likeness between the Quaker Oats man and Mao Zedong. The first works in the exhibition consist of these Quaker Oat boxes that combine icons from the East with icons from the West. Another poignant play on Western history is his Last Banquet, which was painted after the Tienanmen Square tragedy in 1989. The painting’s composition resembles Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (1494-1499) yet its subject matter satirically deifies Mao and his “sacred” Little Red Book. Another painting called Bilingual Chart of Acupuncture Points and Meridians (1990) uses Chairman Mao’s body as a map for the explanation (in English and Chinese) of China’s political history after 1949.

Bilingual chart of acupuncture points and meridians , 1990, acrylic and ink on panel laid on base

Bilingual chart of acupuncture points and meridians, 1990, acrylic and ink on panel laid on base

The Mao series is the epitome of what art historians and critics have called “Political Pop.” This movement prevailed among Chinese contemporary artists who created absurdist and ironic work that combined symbols of Mao’s propaganda with Western themes of materialism, which had been arriving in China in the form of “Mao Fever.” The aim of these works was to eschew the proliferation of Mao’s image on consumerist goods such as t-shirts, lighters, and other mass produced items. For Chinese artists, this was a stark contrast to the metaphysical and allegorical work that had been the basis of ancient and modern Chinese art.

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A Walking Man, 1983-84, Acrylic on canvas. Courtesy of the collection of the Art Students League of New York

However, Hongtu’s style is far more diverse than just pop. This is illustrated in the following rooms, especially inside an entire gallery devoted to his work from the early 1980’s when he first moved to New York City. The works in this gallery shift the focus to Zhang’s critical examination and experience of living as an immigrant in New York City. One of the most captivating was a large figurative and expressionistic painting titled A Walking Man (1983-84), which was made while Zhang studied at the Art Students League.

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Untitled (Newspaper Series) #9B, 1984-85, Ink and acrylic on newspaper

This painting and mixed media collages like Untitled (Newspaper Series) #9B (1984-85) express the dark feeling of alienation and displacement that recent immigrants often face. These dark and monochromatic works also recall the mood and compositions of Lester Johnson’s 1950’s dark monochromatic paintings of unidentified men within an alien landscape.

Taking on environmental issues, Hongtu revised a water album by the Chinese master Ma Yuan in 2008. Unlike the originals, Zhang’s paintings show the same landscape in its polluted and dried up states.The Queens Museum placed these images around a large scale relief map of New York City’s water-supply system, which was part of the 1939 Worlds Fair.

In a gallery of his more recent paintings, Zhang Hongtu masterfully juxtaposes the Eastern and Western art movements by re-imagining classic works by both Chinese and European masters. Hongtu has appropriated the landscapes of Chinese masters Fan Kuan , Shi Tao, Guo Xi in the styles of their Western contemporaries like van Gogh, Cézanne, and Monet.

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