Los Angeles

Lian Zhang, Forever and ever, 2022, oil on canvas, 78 3⁄4 × 70 7⁄8".

Lian Zhang, Forever and ever, 2022, oil on canvas, 78 3⁄4 × 70 7⁄8".

Lian Zhang

“Nothing in the world is softer and weaker than water; but, for attacking the hard and strong, there is nothing like it!” Lao Tzu exclaimed in the Tao Te Ching. Impelled by this passage, painter Lian Zhang aspires to achieve a form of soft power via delicate fluid brushstrokes that interweave disparate elements across the surface of each canvas. To activate the chi, or life force, “I always imagine that my hands become water; they travel freely when moving here to there in a painting,” the artist says. At first glance, the compositions in her show here, “Fast Dreams, Slow Days,” seemed innocuous, genteel. Yet with closer scrutiny, one realized that they were anything but.

Zhang’s nostalgic, illusory scenes incorporate fragments of autobiography alongside a mélange of references to Eastern and Western mythology, folklore, art history, and popular culture. The artist conceived of Windy paradise (all works cited, 2022) as an allegory of her experience as a first-generation immigrant from China to the United Kingdom, a transition she describes as a “glorious adventure with some awkward moments.” Grinning with amusement, a wind-whipped little girl tumbles through the air over a grassy beach; below her, the skirt of the supine woman blows open like the petals of a morning glory. A phantom forearm—apparently that of the child, whose left arm ends at the elbow—offers a mangled umbrella to a lady in red who is missing a leg. Such disfigurements read as allusions to the losses and gains involved in relocating from one’s homeland. The seascape was inspired by the Seven Sisters, a group of chalk cliffs on the Sussex coastline that in recent years have become popular among East Asian tourists and immigrants. Zhang modeled her characters after snapshots taken during a trip there with her husband and daughter, when strong gusts ravaged the parasols they brought to protect themselves from intense sun. The painting’s two older protagonists undauntedly hold down a kite string anchored to a ghostly hand. High above, whirling clouds form a pair of faces whose placid expressions belie the scene’s tempestuous intensity.

Several other works seemed to reference the Wu Cheng’en novel Journey to the West (ca. 1592), an epic of tribulation and redemption that centers on a religious pilgrimage. In Old survivor, a macaque embraces an apparently human figure, while Forever and ever depicts a Pan-like, goat-headed personage proffering a gourd containing the so-called elixir of immortality—a toxic alchemical substance that killed many an emperor who dared imbibe it.

Like other expatriate artists, such as Colombia-born, New York–based María Berrío, Zhang employs magic realism to express the wonder and dislocation of settling in a different country. But her ethos and motifs—including ginseng, gourds, and spirit stones—are distinctively rooted in Taoist philosophy and mysticism, from which unfurl subtle social commentaries for the present day.

A large proportion of Zhang’s subjects are female, and the moon frequently appears, a token of yin. Her scenes are nearly always suffused with a tenor of yearning, perhaps for an idealized home of a time gone by—one that was never really hers. The Chinese government has long since deserted the tolerant, nature-centric spirit of Lao Tzu’s Tao, likely because, as the philosopher writes, it “nourishes without compelling,” advises us to “keep to the feminine,” and urges leaders to rule with a light hand.

In Antidote, tears roll down the cheeks of a winged crane goddess. Her compassionate mien recalls ancient Guanyin bodhisattva sculptures, while her jade-green dress resembles the iconic gown worn by Keira Knightley in the movie Atonement (2007). Having just sacrificed her right hand in an effort to rescue the squat dragon that’s sitting forlornly in front of her, the deity is on the verge of becoming mortal, as evidenced by the etiolated human legs that grow from beneath her long skirt. Off in the distance, a crane swoops aloft, striving to extract a sharp pagoda that impales a stone giant’s tongue—“a despairing metaphor,” in the artist’s words, “for a society where people are so afraid of speaking the truth.”