Middlebury College Museum of Art


Hong Chun Zhang: Hair Story in Charcoal and Ink

January 24–May 3, 2020

Hong Chun Zhang is a classically trained Chinese artist who currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas. Zhang developed her trademark “hairy” style in 2002, fusing the ink painting conventions of her homeland with approaches to media and composition learned in the United States. Raised among artists, she attended high school at and received her B.F.A. from the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. She moved to the United States in 1996 to pursue an M.A. from California State University, Sacramento and an M.F.A. from the University of California, Davis.

Hong Chun Zhang, Curl, 2019, charcoal on paper
Hong Chun Zhang (Chinese, b. 1971), Curl, 2019, charcoal on paper, 36 x 70 inches. Courtesy of the artist. © Hong Chun Zhang 2019

Upon completing her graduate work, Zhang continued painting in ink, but she abandoned standard Chinese subjects and started working with new materials and on a larger scale. Seeking a style that would make ink painting feel more familiar to American audiences, she turned her attention to hair. The long black locks that pervade her artworks bind her to her past in China, even as her depictions of reimagined nature and everyday objects composed of hair evoke her new home and add surrealism and humor to her realistic work. In this series, hair becomes a channel for Zhang’s exploration of her personal identity.

In this exhibition, Zhang likens the gentle flip of a curl to the unpredictable force of a breaking wave, pictures a perilous tornado as a wispy twister that can be viewed at a safe distance, and transforms a field of grain into a sea of braids which make reference both to the untangled radiance of youth and to the twists and turns of life in general. A broken fortune cookie and take-out box overflowing with blonde noodles highlight the stark differences between Chinese and American perceptions of Chinese-American popular culture.

Hong Chun Zhang, Braidfield 2, 2019, charcoal on paper
Hong Chun Zhang (Chinese, b. 1971), Braidfield #2, 2019, charcoal on paper, 24 x 36 inches. Collection of Middlebury College Museum of Art, purchase with funds provided by the Barbara P. and Robert P. ’64 Youngman Asian Art Acquisition Fund, 2020. Courtesy of the artist. © Hong Chun Zhang 2019

Zhang’s artistic process is also characterized by cultural fusion. While this exhibition encompasses works executed in Chinese ink and in the Western medium of charcoal, their visual impact is remarkably similar because her early training informs both practices. For example, because rice paper is unforgiving of mistakes, Zhang must make detailed preliminary sketches before painting, and she meticulously plans out her charcoal works as though they were made in ink as well.

In both form and process, Hong Chun Zhang’s work is richly layered, weaving together the history of Chinese ink painting and new modes of expression that she first encountered in the United States.

Zhang has carried out fellowships and residencies in New York and Venice, and her work has been exhibited at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, Asia Society Texas Center in Houston, Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles, and major museums in Australia, Norway, Holland, and China. She is also represented in public and private collections in Paris, Sydney, Beijing, Zurich, and the United States.