Zhang Hui


In a recent conversation, Zhang Hui recounted the story of an early twentieth-century artist who painted a picture of his garden but realized afterward that he had left a tree out of the composition. So he took an ax and chopped down the tree. For Zhang, the act of seeing is likewise a highly subjective act, one that fundamentally affects one’s practice. The artist missed the tree, Zhang said, because the composition in the artist’s mind had already superseded reality, had erected a selective “blind spot.” Eradicating the tree from reality defied traditional ideas of truth, and represented a violent and poetic act against objectivity.

Zhang thought the artist in question was Max Ernst. After our conversation, however, Zhang discovered that the story was about Ernst’s father, a domineering patriarch and amateur painter who deliberately omitted the tree from his painting because it created an imbalance in the composition, and then eliminated the actual tree to make the painting more “truthful,” not less so. Suddenly, with a new protagonist, a Surrealist act became nothing more than the belligerence of a reactionary. This subjectivity of narration is also very much part of Zhang’s oeuvre. Having trained in theatrical set design and spent many years in performance and theater, Zhang has a particular sensitivity regarding staging and storytelling. In recent years, he has turned his attention toward the flat, two-dimensional world of the painted canvas, but a sense of dramatic space and time emerged in the depicted views of his apartment and its surroundings that made up his recent exhibition, “21st Floor and a Half.”

Haunted by the image of the artist chopping down the tree, Zhang wants to know if reality can regress or change just by being perceived differently. A sense of temporal mutation is thus injected into otherwise passive objects such as windows, a garage, or a front door. In particular, the most neutral, unemotional, and unpainterly piece of the exhibition was Looking to the Right—Second Renovation, 2009, a superimposed plan view of two layouts of his apartment, before and after a recent renovation. By fusing the reality of the way his apartment is currently configured with years of memory of the way it used to be, Zhang is trying to find a middle ground between what he sees and what he remembers. The work also created a strange problem of perception: Although Zhang painted this series of canvases to see his apartment as a layout plan, by placing them on the floor, he renders the life-size images almost abstract, defeating the original purpose of the work but creating something else instead. Unlike Ernst’s father, Zhang did not attempt to change reality to suit his subjective version of it, but his strange “lying down” paintings have created a hybrid between an attempt at objectivity and the creation of something almost irrational.

Colin Chinnery