Sculptor Wanxin Zhang (b. 1961) came from China to the United States with his family in 1992. He settled in San Francisco, and has been teaching at the Academy of Art University, in San Francisco, his alma mater. A ten-year survey of his ceramic works, mostly figurative in nature, traces how he made this country his home.
What is made abundantly clear from the start is the amazing ability and skill of this artist who can absorb any influence of his choice and still make the final outcome so accomplished. His figures have roots in China, the terracotta warriors excavated in Xian in 1974 being the obvious example. But many works after the year 2000 are showcasing contemporary common men as heroes, the artist claims. For them, he borrows a robust body of Mao rather than terracotta soldiers of the first emperor of Qin dynasty from the 2nd century B.C. One has to realize that artists in China including Zhang learned the whole history of Western art very quickly. After the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s which, he says, was harmful to the art, he was exposed to the peak of European sculpture tradition from the Italian Renaissance: “David” by Michelangelo and abstract sculpture by modern master, Picasso.
But more than anything else, the young artists in China were awakened and exposed to the contemporary art by a major show on American artist, Robert Rauschenberg, who came to China in 1983. His superb technical proficiency captures each life vividly and yet monumentally. The semi-abstract surface of the robust bodies may be inspired by the masculine aesthetics of Peter Voulkos, a major figure of Abstract Expressionism in the ceramic media. At the same time, disciplined training in realism is utilized to depict the face. The figure in “Who’s calling” (2007) was so real that I could almost experience body scent, hair oil and inhale his cigarette fumes. That is far removed and advanced from the propaganda sculptures he made in China. A young black man in military uniform is wrapped in a moment of glory of Black history at President Obama’s “Inauguration Day” (2009). He is in an intense trance with his mouth half-open and sweat glaring off his forehead. The unabashed joy over a significant victory in American history surges out of the body of this humble soldier.
In California, the funk ceramic movement is dominant, and he dedicated “California Artist, Too” (2006-2007) to Robert Arneson, one of the leaders of that movement. “Wind Mask (Mask Man)” drops the somber quality and introduces a light-heartedness with a hand on top of the head that covers the face with a thick white pigment. The thoughtful process in details is as masterful as the others yet the result doesn’t add up to the next step in his individualized signature.
“Good Morning Mr. Boccioni” (1999), which is inspired by the known stylized Italian futurist sculpture by Boccioni Umberto, is an interesting piece. It not only demonstrates his solid training in the Western tradition but also his sensitivity in grey monochrome sculpture. This delicate quality is a part of a human vulnerability, and may very well be a potential element for the artist to explore in his sculpture as he contemplates further layers of complexity. There is a major theme in the show, which is the dichotomy of East and West, more specifically China and the general West. He plays with symbols of two colors, Chinese earthy orange and a blue color, which may be a reference to the patina of bronze.
“Warhol/Mao” (2006) is a contemporary light-hearted Mao, who is covered by an orange glaze. In “Fatherhood” (2005), a Chinese soldier is a father who is covered by a patina of blue glaze, and his child with a western face held in his arms is covered with an earthy orange.
I think of his almost 20 years of life in San Francisco and the recent census report. The United States has increased its population due to new immigrants, mostly from Asia and Mexico. California has the largest minority population of 22.3 million, and the percent of Chinese population in San Francisco is 19.6 percent. He will surely be one of those to be included in the U.S. census as an American. It will be interesting to see how his new work, incorporating a far more complex dichotomy of American people from this ever-flowing world melting pot, will evolve. With his already masterful technical ability to conjure up what he observes in people combined with the added experience of life, I look forward to see what new elements his next ten years will bring.
“Wanxin Zhang: A Ten Year Survey” is presented at the Bellevue Art Museum from February 23 – August 9.