Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Zhou Brothers Make a Creative Paradise

Zhou B Art Center

On October 16th, the segment of 35th Street in front of the Zhou B Art Center was dedicated as Honorary Zhou Brothers Way.

Mayor Emmanuel and Chinese Deputy Consul General Wang Yong joined Alderman Thompson, Alderman Balcer and Commissioner Daley to extend the honor in front of a large crowd of art lovers from across the city.

The Zhou brothers themselves are Chinese-born, Chicago-based artists of international stature.  In the Zhou B Art Center, they have created a Chicago version of the Kunstlerhaus, a stable home base and launch pad for other artists.  And they have brought Bridgeport to the respectful attention of an audience that once saw little reason to venture south of Roosevelt Road.

The role of the arts in making cities and neighborhoods vibrant has received growing attention in recent years.  And conversely, as the Illinois Arts Council’s Tatiana Gant observed in passing at the Zhou reception, the arts are increasingly asked to justify themselves in terms of measurable impacts.  That’s new, she says.  In the past, funders supported the arts because they believed they made people happy, enriched their lives in immeasurable ways.

But the measurable impacts of the arts are also significant. In 2012 , the 4th edition of a national study called Arts and Economic Prosperity reported that Chicago’s arts sector generates $2.2 billion in economic activity each year.  That includes $1.2 billion in spending by non-profit arts and cultural organizations themselves, and another $1.0 billion in spillover that the audience spends on the cab ride to the show, the dinner at the restaurant afterwards, the hotel and the souvenirs.

The Zhou B Art  Center in Bridgeport clearly has those kinds of impacts, as crowds travel to attend curated exhibits and private events – the Center served as a venue for 80 private events last year – and open studios the third Friday of every month when the whole building swirls with people.

Still, there’s an irony in asking art to sell itself based on such measures.  In the modern world, in the west at least, artistic expression has been cultivated as a sphere of values outside the rigorously materialist one that sees the world as an object to be studied, harnessed and put to use.  Generations of romantic types have worried that the materialist view robs the world of its enchantments and impoverishes people’s lives.  That it leaves them to navigate the world as a bureaucratic maze, reducing them to conformity and obedience.  Or else they make their way by the force of their will to dominate.

The romantics sense there is an alternate sphere of values, of rich experience and genuine feeling, but that their access to it isn’t guaranteed.  It could be suppressed by the demands of an instrumental world, like it was for the man in the gray flannel suit from the 1950s, or it could be appropriated for someone else’s material gain, like what happened to all those garage bands in the 1990s, who sold out to the record industry machine.

That tension between the sphere of expressive values and of material ones didn’t unfold along the same tropes in Communist China, where the Zhou brothers grew up, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t in play.

ShanZuo and DaHuang Zhou are native to Guangxi, a province in southwest China where you find the strange, green hills you sometimes see in Chinese landscape paintings – a fairy tale landscape. They are members of a Chinese ethnic minority called the Zhuang.  Their family had been scholars and educators for generations.  But the brothers were born in the decade after the Communists took control of the Chinese mainland.  Chaing Kai Chek and his Nationalist Army retreated to Taiwan in 1949, taking as much of the Imperial Art Collection and its 10,000 years of Chinese art heritage as they could carry.

ShanZuo and DaHuang, are names the Zhou brothers adopted for their new life in America when they moved to Chicago in 1986.  ShanZuo was born as Shaoli in 1952, DaHuang was born as Shaoning in 1957.  1957 was also the year their father MengYuan was convicted as a “Rightist” and sent off to a labor camp.

He’d been lured into speaking frankly about the effects of anti-intellectual reforms on the education system by the kind of policy change that made life in Communist China treacherous.  One year Chairman Mao is saying “Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend,” because truth will be realized through honest dialogue.  The next year all the voices who ventured to contend are sent off to do hard labor in distant provinces.

Their father’s conviction tainted the entire family, subjecting them to new restrictions and punishments with each new wave of ideological tightening for the next 20 years.  In an essay Dr. Kuiyi Shen wrote to accompany their 2003 retrospective 30 years of Collaboration, the brothers still recall their early years as happy ones.  They lived above their grandmother’s bookstore in the picturesque town of Wuming, they entertained themselves with poetry and amateur theatricals, their grandmother taught them calligraphy, and painting from a classic Chinese text.  In those first years after the Revolution they had access to their grandfather’s art collection of Chinese masters, and their grandmother’s extensive library, they’d found their father’s scholarly writings on Chinese and Western literature hidden away in a suitcase.  Then the Cultural Revolution hit, it took Communist social control to another level, and “brought an end to all dreams.”

But the Zhou Brothers still dreamed of being artists, even when it was technically impossible, especially for young men with a “bad class background.” Paint and supplies were hard to come by unless you were officially employed as an artist, say painting sets for a theater company. Such jobs were only available in cities, and you couldn’t just move to the city to try to work your way into a job.

There was a registry system to stop the populace from abandoning the countryside.  Everyone was registered as a country, town or city dweller.  The system was enforced with ration cards you needed to buy food and dry goods – you could only use your ration cards where you were registered to live.  You could only change your registration status in a few special circumstances, and most of them were closed to the sons of convicted Rightists.

But somehow the Zhou brothers managed it anyway. Shaoli first, then he’d find a way to bring Shaoning along.  First he got a temporary job designing sets for an opera company in Nanning, Guangxi’s capitol.  He couldn’t get admitted to university and then placed in a city job at graduation because of his Rightist background.  But the opera company hired him as a “borrowed worker,” allowing him a series of temporary permissions to live in the city to work.  And once he was in, he managed to get a similar position for his brother - as a set painter at the Nanning Dance Troupe.

So they worked, and painted, in Nanning until the Beijing Spring, the loosening of policies that began a couple years after Mao’s death in 1976.

Li - River of Souls, Zhou Brothers 2012

To put this in context with other Hardscrabbler events, the Beijing Spring unfolded while Dan Davidson was showing his work as a systemic minimalist at the OK Gallery in New York.  They were the same years Joe Mancari and Al Ribskis graduated from De LaSalle High School to make their way through the disruptions of a postmodern economy then unfolding in the west.

1976 was the same year the 1st Mayor Daley died, Jimmy Carter was elected President, and the country was sunk in an economic malaise that seemed like it might signal some kind of more general decline.

In China, the world was just opening up, cautiously, after 30 years of isolation and bleakness.  And the faculty at the Shanghai Drama Academy, where Shaoli had been admitted, was known for being open minded.  In the late 1970s, that meant they were open to modern styles aside from Socialist Realism.

The Chairman Has Come to Our Factory

In his Yan’an Talks on Art and Literature back in 1942, Mao Zedong put forward a vision of art in the service of Revolution.  Borrowing heavily from the Soviets, he declared that art’s theme was more important than bourgeois ideals like beauty and self expression.  Its subjects would be peasants, workers and soldiers, muscular people in upbeat scenes.  They would be portrayed in a realistic style that would be readily accessible to the masses.  And art would be produced by workers, not sensitive artists in the bourgeois sense.  Even students looking to study the Chinese tradition world focus on the work of anonymous craftsman, like religious murals attributed to a collective workshop, as opposed to the fancy landscapes of famous masters who’d spun out frivolities for the elite.

A whole generation of students and artists had no exposure to art outside these horizons.  Then, after Mao’s death, the horizons cracked open.  In a 1977 speech, Deng Xiaoping signaled it might be safe to criticize the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.  By 1980, a handful of special enterprise zones opened doors for private ownership and foreign investment. And the entire weight of Western art history splashed in the doors at once.

It came in through visiting art exhibits, from Romania -- all the more powerful because Romania was a socialist country, exhibiting Expressionist works.  And from the Boston Museum of Fine arts -- which sent Singer Sargent portraits of society ladies, and a Jackson Pollock.  And more curiously, it came in through a spate of “book exhibits,” which put deluxe editions of art books on display for a browsing audience.

The book exhibits were ticketed events, and tickets weren’t available to the general public.  Dr. Shen writes that artists and students who gained admission would recall those shows, and what they saw at them, for years afterwards.  The Zhou brothers visited them again and again, taking notes, and copying pictures they could study in more detail after the Shanghai Drama Academy purchased the 100 volume History of World Art series for its library.

These were also the years that China was building airports, hotels and public buildings, some of which would be visible to businessmen visiting from foreign lands.  They were decorating them with murals that strayed from Maoist orthodoxies – both in their subject and in their style -- and in doing so, they opened a door to a new view of the purpose of art, and the voice of the artist, views more like those that took shape in the West.

Water Splashing Festival mural at Beijing International Airport
Yuan Yengshen, 1979

The new murals portrayed Chinese minority peoples engaging in picturesque rituals and other non-revolutionary scenes.  Dr. Shen writes that these scenes were still politically correct because they promoted the unity of all Chinese peoples, a longstanding theme of China’s 20th century regimes.

But he says minority culture also gave a powerful psychological release from the arid conformity the Cultural Revolution had imposed on mainstream culture, particularly among the Han majority and in the coastal cities.  He says artists traveling inland were refreshed to find rural societies still colored by local tradition. “For artists of a romantic temperament,” Dr. Shen writes “the customs of some rural minority peoples charmed with their primitivism, and the boldness and simplicity of their folk art formed a powerful alternative to the bare concrete political slogans, and slick propaganda images that surrounded urban people.”

Stylistically, artists were beginning to stray from strict realism toward the modern and the abstract.  Abstract art was dismissed as bourgeois in Maoist China.  Its preoccupation with personal vision and self expression was decadent, corrupt.  Its corruption must have seemed clearly manifest in the way these preoccupations splintered western art into obscure movements understood by handfuls of participants, whose work and quarrels seemed incomprehensible and irrelevant to anyone outside their cliques.

But by the late 1970s, Chinese artists were striving to develop their own aesthetic language too.  Dr. Shen writes that’s what the Zhou brothers set out to do when they came out from art school.  Returning to Nanning, the provincial capital, was something of a letdown after the stimulations of Shanghai.  Their ideas about art were met with incomprehension, their reputations still vulnerable to accusations of infraction against socialist ethics.

But Guangxi was also where there roots were, as members of the Zhuang ethnic minority.  And as they turned their attention to developing their own aesthetic language, they rediscovered the Huashan cliff paintings that they’d known from childhood. 

Huashan Cliff Paintings

The Huashan paintings are scattered across the cliff faces above the Ming River for 180 miles.  It’s not clear when they were painted or how, but they are old enough that their ochre pigment has fused into the rock.  Some scholars estimate they were painted during the Warring States period, in the first centuries BCE.   They depict myths, rituals, the daily life of the ancient Zhuang people.  The figures are simple, direct, they evoke the power of myth.

At first, the brothers made a study of them, and began copying them.  Gradually they absorbed them into their own style.  Years later in Chicago, ShanZuo would tell the artist and critic Fred Camper that rediscovering them was “the golden key” to their aesthetic vocabulary.  They used simple terms to convey deep meaning, like poetry, ShanZuo said. “From that time on we felt we could do anything.”

detail from Golden Dream, Zhou Brothers 1976

Dr. Shen says their emerging language spoke on two levels.  On one, it evoked China’s glorious heritage.  Standards of living in China were still modest, and “this claim to ancient greatness provided, at least for a time, a distraction from the realities of the present day.” On another, “artists familiar with Western modernism would understand that the brothers were operating within the still prohibited modernist tradition.”  In public, though, “all would speak in very different terms.”

The figures from Huashan would appear through the Zhou brothers’ paintings for the next 40 years.  In the late 1970s, they began incorporating them into long scroll paintings with sweeping themes. Heaven and Earth, Light of Wisdom, Cradle of Life. They showed them in a series of escalating exhibits, first in Guilin, then in Beijing, and in Shanghai.  Their fame and prestige grew in China, it spoke to the country opening up to the west, but with its own native voice.  It spoke to the power of history and also of resilience springing back from the tests of the Revolution.

The Zhou brothers had achieved all the status and prestige that China has to offer them.  But the political climate was still subject to reversals, including a brief crackdown on “bourgeois liberalism” at the end of 1986.  It must have been clear that their success was still unstable, subject to abrupt turns in the current, they might lose everything in an instant.  So when they got an invitation from the Chinese owner of the East West Gallery to show their work in Chicago that year, they packed all the paintings they could fit into suitcases, and they left.

From Heaven to Earth, Zhou Brothers 1977

In Dr. Shen’s narrative of the Zhous in China, abstract art represents liberty, freedom of expression, even the artist’s compulsion to create his or her own aesthetic language.  But as a language, abstract art is fractious and argumentative.

In the decades after Mao laid out the case for Socialist Realism as the Revolution’s standard for art and literature in China, the Chinese experienced the enforcement of one aesthetic language by a central cultural authority as a definite impoverishment.  They craved freedom of artistic self expression.  Art defined by one school to advance a centrally determined agenda wasn’t enough.

But during those same decades, westerners have found that the retreat of the cultural authorities leaves you with different problems.  The aesthetic language fragments into dialects, and it becomes harder for critics to judge with authority, for artists to communicate clearly, for an audience to appreciate with confidence.  Art is still important, so communication must still be possible.  But without the illusion of aesthetic universals, the audience splinters into taste groups, and it’s a lot less clear how they develop those tastes, or come to agree that something is good.

After Babel, success can seem arbitrary.  The success of other artists in particular may seem to be a matter of cronyism, hype, commercial gimmickry.  Which are all the kind of things some anonymous locals were telling Fred Camper when he wrote an about the Zhou brothers for the Chicago Reader in 2001.

By then, the brothers were world class artists whose paintings and sculpture commanded great prices.  Their aesthetic language intrigued gallerists and collectors from the start, but that doesn’t mean their success was assured. When they’d first arrived, and were still laboring in obscurity, friendly critics sometimes encouraged them to try painting something more like the pictures of beautiful Chinese women in exotic costumes some of their fellow expats were producing for the interior decorator market.  One suggested their problem was that they were still painting for museums, without having the stature to attract museums in the West.

But their poverty was offset by their sense of freedom. For the first time they were working without looking over their shoulder, worrying about the political temper, whether their work was allowed.  They stuck to their vision, they absorbed some lessons from Western artists (They told Fred Camper their work had become less cluttered, more clear, from studying Western artists who “totally forget everything and develop one idea very directly.”) And relatively quickly, their stature grew.

They were selling paintings, some of them to important Chicago area collectors.  Within a few years, they attracted the attention of a couple German gallerists who promoted their work in Europe.  So they were making money, they were growing in prestige.  By the year 2000, they were invited to demonstrate their celebrated joint painting style as a performance at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland.

Balloon, Zhou Brothers 1990

Western critics saw the same things the Chinese ones did but from the other side of the mirror.  They saw resonance with Western modernists like Miro in the Huashan figures, but also references to Chinese philosophy and exotic aesthetic principles like the balance of matter and emptiness, air and harmony.  If their audience in China appreciated references to forbidden modern styles from the west, the western audience must have appreciated the mystery of something new emerging from a powerful, ancient civilization that had gone dark for 30 years.

"The Zhou brothers struck a chord with me," Richard Cooper told Camper.  A top Chicago collector, Cooper was one of the first to buy the Zhou brothers work when they arrived in the West.  “They weren’t doing the political art that usually comes out of a repressive society as it starts to mature,” he said “They seemed to soar with a spirituality that combined Eastern and Western feeling, an abstraction that seemed soothing but meaningful, that seemed to bridge both cultures.”

Life Temperament III, Zhou Brothers 1993

Camper’s Reader article was titled “Too Hot to Be Cool.” In writing it, he wanted to know why the Zhou brothers’ work, which was so well regarded outside Chicago, wasn’t represented by a single local gallery in 2001.  Northwestern University professor William Conger spoke up as a supporter.  He said he thought the Zhou brothers’ work has a lot in common with the figurative and surrealist art often embraced in Chicago.  “What is absent,” he told Camper “is the notion of the ironic distance.”

Painter Li Lin Lee agreed.  “Art has become very cynical and jaded, a stylistic and philosophical pastiche.”  He said the Zhous might not be fashionable in that context, but they are like other immigrants in their energy and hope.  He said their lack of irony stems from their faith in painting.  It reflects the fact that they “passionately believe in the ability of painting to communicate.”

Open My Door #7, Zhou Brothers 2001

Michael Zhou is ShanZuo’s son.  He was born in China and lived there with his mother until he was 8.  They joined his father in 1990 – the same year ShanZuo and DaHuang bought their studio on Morgan Street.  It had been a Polish social club nicknamed the ‘Bucket of Blood’ for its bar fights.  Inside, the Zhous built a spacious studio where they could work in peace.  Outside, Morgan Street was still rough for a long time.  Michael remembers that in China everyone thought the United States would be utopia.  When he moved to the studio on Morgan Street, the corner of 32nd Place was a gang hotspot and he wasn’t allowed to go outside.

Growing up, Michael says he wasn’t particularly interested in art.  He saw his father and uncle painting in their studio, but says “they painted in privacy, I didn’t realize how important they were.” He was more interested in sports.  When he went to college, he studied business.

But after graduation, in the mid 2000s, he started a venture with Rhett Johnston, the son of one of the Zhou brother’s early collectors, partly to showcase Rhett’s art.  They collaborated with brands like Nike, and incorporated Rhett’s hip hop and graffiti inspired designs into sweatshirts and gym shoes.  

The business was called MadeChicago.  They had a storefront a few doors from the Zhous’ studio but they mainly sold wholesale to clothing boutiques in Wicker Park.  There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic from Morgan Street, though Michael recalls young gang bangers appreciated the store’s visual language, “They used to come in and want to hang out.”

Today, Michael Zhou is Executive Director of the Zhou B. Art Center at 1029 W. 35th Street.  He works closely with Sergio Gomez, the Center’s Curator and Director of Exhibitions, and Donna Bliss, Vice President Creative Development.

Michael says his father and uncle once considered moving to New York because conventional wisdom said that to be successful as an artist, you had to be at the center of things.  But they knew New York was unstable -- artists would raise the profile of a neighborhood, then the developers would come in and rents would explode.  His uncle was particularly reluctant to follow the herd – he said their studio in Bridgeport was a creative paradise. 

They decided to stay and build on it.  In 2003 they purchased one of the Speigel warehouses on 35th Street.  Michael says their friends were concerned they’d got in over their heads.  There were holes in the walls and floors, and it was filled with debris, old cars and printing equipment.  They spent the first year clearing it out.

Michael says there was no business model for converting a warehouse space to an arts institution, they were learning by doing.  There was some friction from the city early on. “It was after the E2 nightclub disaster,” where dozens of people were crushed in a rush for the door, and the city was hyper vigilant. “They thought it was a rave space.”

The actual vision was something more along the lines of the Kunstlerhaus, a type of artists’ association the Zhou brothers had come across while teaching in Germany.  Artists work in the same building, providing both a material base and opportunities for dialogue.  “For an artist, the most important thing is the studio practice, having a permanent space to work and to show your art,” Michael Zhou says “and where rent is not going to explode 1000%.”

Part of the core mission of the Zhou B Art Center is to promote dialogue between artists and collectors and others who look at it.  That dialogue helps artists sell their work, but Michael says they wanted to create an alternative to the gallery system, one that promotes artists and their work, but that isn’t based on sales.

“A lot of our artists were students at the School of the Art Institute,” Michael says.  “In art school it’s easy to get lost in criticism.” They come to the Zhou B Art Center afterwards and can step out from the criticism and find their voice, “to find their visual language,” like his father and uncle found theirs in Guangxi.

Hebru Brantley is one artist who took root at the Zhou B Art Center in that way.  Brantley’s web site describes his work as “pop infused contemporary art inspired by Japanese anime and bold aesthetics of street art pioneers like Jean Michel Basquiat.”  Michael says he was personally drawn to Brantley’s animations, he encouraged him to develop the figure of Flyboy as a central character in his work.  “We gave him his first solo show in 2005 or 2006 – that was his big break, now he’s one of the most successful artists in Chicago.”

Wedding, Rine Boyer, 2015

Rine Boyer is another. Boyer often portrays small groups of people in her work, she says she is interested in how they interact, how people look at and appear to one another.  Having her studio in the Zhou B. Center helped her make a connection with the Bluerider Art gallery in Taipei.

The owner of Bluerider Art met Michael at a Sotheby’s seminar in Hong Kong.  She hadn’t opened Bluerider Art yet, Michael recalls, she was talking about it.  But she went out the next day and signed a lease on a 10,000 square foot gallery space.  Then chose artists out of the catalogue the Zhou B Center creates each year for a show called “Chicago Invasion.”  Rine Boyer was one of those artists. Now, Boyer says she does a lot of paintings on commission, many of them portraits, for collectors from overseas. 

Her Taipei gallery may also add new connotations to her visual language. The Bluerider Art website describes Boyer as an American artists whose work illustrates the intrinsic connections between art and culture.  “Modern culture is increasingly defined by its emerging subcultures.  ‘Hipsters’ stand at the forefront of the artistically aesthetic lifestyle.  Boyer masterfully depicts this trending group of style setters and seekers of authenticity.”

In the West, or at least in Chicago, the hipster and his aesthetic lifestyle aren’t always considered exemplars of the search for authenticity.  It might take a viewer regarding him from across the seas to remember the immaterial impacts he represents.  That is, the psychological riches of a culture where self-expression is encouraged as a sphere of real value.

Water Lily, Zhou Brothers 1976

The Zhous themselves are still building and extending their model of creative paradise.  They’ve kept their eye out for other properties in Bridgeport and Chicago.  Currently, they’re in the process of building an art center in Beijing. Their own artwork continues to change, probably as their lives unfold and give them new points of view.  One recent series of paintings was inspired by a return trip to China, where they revisited the rolling hills on the Li River – the “River of Souls” -- in Guangxi.  Another features world leaders, like President Obama and Chinese dignitaries.  But for the dedication of Honorary Zhou Brothers Way, they put up a preview of a new series of their own paintings on the first floor of the Zhou B Art Center, called “Water Lily Pond of Life.”

Back when they were young painters, when they first returned to Nanning from Shanghai a little isolated and unheard, they set up a studio in a drab warehouse, and they poured themselves into painting. They painted water lilies, thousands of canvases of water lilies.

The canvases in Water Lily Pond of Life have the monumental scale, the familiar figures from the Huashan cliffs, but in vibrant colors that gives some of them an urban graffiti-like effect.  They still have confidence in the power of painting to communicate grand themes.  Sergio Gomez’s curatorial notes in the gallery say that the theme of Water Lily Pond of Life is liberty.