Hu Zi, Florence Neptune V, 2018, gouache on paper, 89 3⁄8 × 44".

Hu Zi, Florence Neptune V, 2018, gouache on paper, 89 3⁄8 × 44".

Hu Zi

Don Gallery | 东画廊

In her recent exhibition “Stone Flesh,” the Shanghai-based painter Hu Zi, widely recognized for her focus on portraiture, presented a quirky collision of mythologies with new oil paintings and sepia-toned gouaches based on Michelangelo’s David, 1501–1504; Bartolomeo Ammannati’s Fountain of Neptune, 1565–74; and other Renaissance sculptures, interspersed with and punctuated by paintings of David Gilmour, the British rock star and former lead guitarist of Pink Floyd. Known also for her roster of celebrity portraits—stand-ins for the artist herself by way of, say, Johnny Depp’s Edward Scissorhands or Keith Richards, but also by way of Sarah Lucas, Mozart, or Egon Schiele—Hu Zi uses these pop-culture and art-historical icons to speculate about whether it was ever possible to live for the power of beauty, or whether that idea has always been a sham masquerading as the beauty of power.

Inspired by a recent trip to Italy, the exhibition situated viewers in an imaginary Piazza della Signoria, the historical focal point of Florence and its onetime republic. Ammannati’s magnificent Fountain of Neptune in the piazza symbolizes Florentine dominance over the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas in the sixteenth century. Adjacent to the piazza is the Palazzo Vecchio, before which stands a replica of Michelangelo’s David, the original having been moved from this spot to Florence’s Galleria dell’Accademia in 1873; the replica was installed in 1910. Hu Zi alluded to all of these artworks in her show.

Entering the exhibition, we were greeted by four modestly scaled gouaches, Florence Neptune I–IV (all works cited, 2018); these strikingly suggest mug shots, with the sea god gazing directly at the viewer and in right and left profiles. Hu Zi’s handling of the medium is discriminating. Her lightness of touch enables an overall fluidity and transparency, allowing the water to do the work, while bringing a supple contour to Neptune’s classical features; his full head of curls is rendered like the complex labyrinth of a superhuman brain. A somewhat larger sepia-toned gouache, Michelangelo David, was presented as four combined panels, together evoking a window, showing the subject in right profile. Again the gouache is handled skillfully, with limber mastery over the work’s upper- and lower-bisected composition. The window idea doesn’t completely work, however, and one might have wondered why the artist didn’t simply opt for a larger single sheet of paper. The same could be said for the six-part Neptune V, which tries too earnestly to re-create the effect of a cathedral window.

Still, there was the show’s curious riddle of the two Davids. And why David Gilmour? The five oil portraits, David Gilmour I–V, portrayed a young musician in his heyday. Painted in thinned-out shades of lavender, magenta, cadmium red, and robin’s-egg blue, the medium-size works are closely cropped head shots showing Gilmour’s shoulder-length auburn hair and pensive facial expressions, as if he were lost in the ether of his own stardom and mythology. Now seventy-two, Gilmour continues to record and tour. Hu Zi equates Gilmour’s humanitarian, political, and social activism with a near-godlike strength, comparing him to Michelangelo’s biblical underdog, slayer of Philistines and monument to virility and masculine beauty. This is a rather far-fetched suggestion. Gilmour is flesh and blood; Michelangelo’s five-hundred-year-old, six-ton chunk of marble has continued to captivate the imaginations of the masses since its creation.

One would be hard-pressed to ignore Hu Zi’s obvious debt to Western counterparts: Francesco Clemente and Elizabeth Peyton readily come to mind. That said, Hu Zi clearly seems to be pushing toward greater individuality in style and content. While she continues to build a career by vicariously reliving the lives of her musical and artistic idols, she might consider riskier, less taciturn ground—that of vulnerability, allowing for an unflinching and raw personification of both self and soul. By doing so, she might also make a more defiant claim on those conflicting and sometimes fragile dichotomies concerning power and beauty. I believe it was Kafka who said, “Anyone who keeps the ability to see beauty never grows old.”