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For three sisters from northern China, art is a family affair

By Bob Sylva -- Bee Staff Writer - (Published January 10, 2004)

Apart from a pool of vivid memories, the experience of growing up in rigorous China, the creative imprint of their notable parents, the one physical feature that distinguishes, if not convolutes, the three towering Zhang sisters is their luxuriant hair.

A plush sable that could tip a thousand brushes.

A virtual waterfall of hair, which spills over their shoulders, cascades down their backs, and extends in delicate wisps well beyond their waists.

Twins Hong and Bo Zhang both have abruptly clipped bangs, which frame their candid and sometimes confusing likeness. Otherwise, their hair has never been cut and remains a sympathetic tether.

Ling Zhang, the older sister, "the disobedient daughter," always the trailblazer and role model, has taken several strands of her hair, twisted them with colorful cords to form spouting tentacles. The daring look is Medusa in a festive mood.

Last year, in a show at Sacramento State's University Library Gallery, Hong Zhang exhibited several remarkable drawings of hair, which seemed to be sifted through a charcoal comb. So finely detailed was the hair, so full of depth and sheen, that one was sorely tempted to stroke it.

The hair was an intimate self-portrait of two sisters, two plumes of parted selves, veiled but revealing.

Now, all three sisters are being exhibited together for the first time in a group show that opens this evening at b. sakata garo, 923 20th St. The show, cleverly enough, is called "Sisters." No sable cataracts of hair this time, but plenty of glimpses of the sometimes unraveling braid of East and West.

"We all come from the same family," says Hong Zhang, who helped assemble the show. "But we all have our own approach to art. This is a chance to give people an introduction to us."

Now, on a ghostly morning, the gallery a jumble of shipping crates and leaning canvases, the three Zhang sisters are sitting poised in a semicircle. They are imposing women -- each stands 5-foot-10, stylishly dressed, sophisticated, outspoken. Ling is 40; identical twins Bo and Hong 32. Bo is 10 minutes older; Hong a shade taller and much more ambitious.

"We were always fascinated by our father's brush," says Bo, of their art aptitude as children. "We would paint everywhere -- on the walls, the floor."

The Zhangs are from Shenyang, a teeming industrial city in northern China. Their parents were art instructors at Lu Xun Academy of Fine Arts. During the Cultural Revolution, a cadre of the Red Guard tore through the family apartment. Their father was sent to a farm to be "re-educated"; their mother assigned onerous party duty at a high school.

Ling spent much of her childhood living with a once prosperous grandmother, who pawned her jewelry for food. Ling, ever adventurous, left home first. Ultimately, all three sisters attended the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Both Bo and Hong were at the student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, their school having created the famous "Goddess of Democracy," an image shown the world over.

By 1988, Ling had immigrated to America, first to Chicago, then Atlanta. The twins followed in 1996. In 1997, Hong married John Kennedy, a former UC Davis student whom she met in Beijing. Hong is now pursuing a master's in fine arts at UC Davis.

The sisters remain close, especially Hong and Bo, who were rarely ever apart. Who shared every secret. Hong's marriage prompted a family crisis. "I was very happy for her," says Bo, who earned her MFA at Georgia State University. "But I was also very upset. My closest friend was being taken away from me."

Their hair provided a brushstroke of solace.

Now this exhibit promises a glad reunion.

"We come from the same family," says Bo, echoing Hong. "But we make art individually. It will be interesting for us to see how people respond to the work."

Sisters in creation

Chinese-born artists establish a cross-cultural repertoire

The Zhang sisters, from left, Bo, Ling and Hong, exhibit their artwork in a group show at b. sakata garo through Jan. 31.

By Victoria Dalkey
Bee Art Correspondent
(Published January 18, 2004)

It would have been difficult for the Zhang sisters, Hong, Bo and Ling, who are having their first joint exhibition at b. sakata garo this month, to have become anything other than artists.

Born in Shenyang in Northern China to parents who were art professors, they grew up making art. Long before they went to art school in Beijing, their parents taught them the basics of traditional Chinese brush painting.

All three sisters started their professional art training at the age of 15. Ling, the eldest, who helped raise her younger twin sisters, Bo and Hong, studied fine art at the Central Institute of Nationalities in Beijing from 1981 to 1988, earning bachelor's and master's degrees in fine arts. Bo and Hong received their bachelor's degrees from Beijing's Central Academy of Fine Art in 1994.

Ling, 40, came to America in 1988. She settled first in Chicago, where she was invited to show in an exhibition of emerging artists from China. She later moved to Atlanta, where she was artist in residence at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center from 1998 to 2003. A role model for her sisters, she persuaded the twins to come to the United States in 1996 to further their art studies in a country that offers greater freedom and possibilities to artists.

Now 32, Bo, who is the older twin by 10 minutes, is finishing up her master's degree at Georgia State College, while Hong received a master's degree from California State University, Sacramento, in 2002 and is set to complete a master's program at the University of California, Davis, this year.

Hong, who already has exhibited at the sakata gallery and the Library Gallery at CSUS, finds vast differences in Chinese and American approaches to teaching art.

"In China," she said at the sakata gallery, "we were rigorously trained in the fundamentals of Chinese and Western art. We had to choose a medium and work in it for four years. I chose Chinese painting and Bo chose printmaking. We were not allowed to work in any other medium, and the content of our work was controlled.

"In America, there is more freedom. You can explore anything that is appropriate to your ideas. In China, I couldn't have done the political paintings I did for my first show here.

"Both systems have flaws and virtues," she observed. "The Chinese system lacks creativity but gives you a very focused fundamental training. In America, there is much creativity, but the students don't learn the basics. You need those technical tools to do your art."

One might expect artists who grew up in the same family and went through the same training in China to do look-alike work, but the show at sakata reveals three strong and individual approaches. Ling's dreamlike, imaginative works remind one at times of Amadeo Modigliani or Marc Chagall. Bo's experimental monoprints and etchings partake of the spirit of abstract expressionism and Beat Generation art. While drawing on influences from Wayne Thiebaud to Georgia O'Keeffe, Hong's realist still-life and figurative paintings, which contrast Chinese and Western cultural ideas, are wholly her own.

Ling shows a series of small mixed-media works with hand-made and painted frames that present a visual diary of dreams and daydreams in which male and female figures play symbolic roles in fictive landscapes. In "The Diaries of Last Summer," lovers float in a boat seem from above. In "The Early Spring of Villa de Fortesa," a cat rests languidly on the sill of a window looking out on a vibrant landscape. These small works have some charm, but are overshadowed by a pair of larger, more recent works which incorporate three-dimensional objects.

"Conversation" is a double self-portrait in which a graceful woman contemplates two aspects of herself, one masked, the other bare-faced. It reflects, said Ling, a lonely childhood before her sisters were born in which she kept herself company by playing two roles. The two lushly painted panels flank a small orange tree, representing the mysteries of nature, which is connected to the painted images by delicate chains.

Further exploring symbols of contradiction, "Sign Language" presents images of hands in open and closed positions on either side of a Tibetan mandala and a mask sprouting a blue tree covered with eyes. Surrounding the images are scenes of violence and spirituality representing the contradictions inherent in the human condition. Ling, who has spent much time in Tibet over the past 15 years, noted that the Tibetan Lama religion has had a strong influence on her recent works, which deal with conflicts between fantasy and reality, personal experience and spiritual transformation.

Bo exhibits a series of abstract etchings and monoprints that play with chance and accident. Formed from placing string, tissue paper, plastic, wire mesh, seeds, leaves and other found elements on zinc plates that have been deeply etched to the point almost of disintegration, the sombre, richly textured prints are enhanced by intuitive markings and the application of earthy pigments.

Bo described her works as generating from her interest in exploring unpredictable materials and a desire to break the traditional boundaries of the etching plate so that her work more closely resembles painting or drawing and feels spontaneous to the viewer. To accomplish this she leaves her zinc plates in acid for long periods of time, looking forward to seeing what the long etches will produce, then adds found elements to the plates, which she inks with two colors at the same time. The deep etching and found additions give the plates an almost three-dimensional quality.

Moving in a new and unexpected direction, she also shows a fiberglass-and-resin sculpture titled "Cat Claws." The oversize claws, varying in color from milky translucence to deep reds applied through a color Xerox process, have a playful yet menacing quality. Exploring the contrasts and similarities between animal claws and human fingernails, masculinity and femininity, danger and beauty, they are part of a larger series titled "Keratin" that Bo is developing.

Hong's recent oil paintings combine elements of traditional still-life and figurative painting with imagery that reflects the cultural differences between Chinese and American life. Using common objects from both cultures, she sets up a dialogue among dichotomous images, a pair of graceful and efficient chopsticks and a setting of formal Western silverware.

"Lucky Life" examines the differences in how luck is symbolized in Chinese and Western cultures. The Chinese character for luck is always turned upside down, said Hong, so the luck will flow out and into your life. In contrast, the Western symbol for luck, a horseshoe, is always turned up to contain the luck and save it for one's self. In her painting, Hong combines the two symbols, the Chinese upside down inside the Western, so that the luck flows out but still is saved.

In "Tasty," a beautifully painted diptych, she contrasts differing notions of what is palatable. For Westerners, a salmon steak is more appealing, while for the Chinese the fish's head is the tastiest part, always offered to the guest of honor at a banquet.

"Cultural Training," a diptych of a Western baby in nothing but a diaper and a Chinese baby bundled up everywhere except for its buttocks, contrasts the way children are raised in different cultures. In China, says Hong, babies do not wear diapers -- in order to facilitate early toilet training, reflecting a more practical if less modest approach to one of the biggest hurdles in child rearing.

"I Do," a large and richly painted image of Western and Chinese wedding dresses, concludes the show. In China, Hong noted, white is the color of death, while red is the color of life and fertility. She gives us both -- the white satin, off-the-shoulder, 1950s American dress and the red, lushly embroidered, mandarin-collared Chinese dress -- presented as empty vessels awaiting the spirit to fill them.

January 22, 2004
Art Review

Three sisters, three visions
By Tim White, Sacramento News & Review

Hong Zhang, detail from "Silverware," oil on canvas, 2003.
When I first walked into b. sakata garo at 923 20th Street to see the gallery’s current show, I enjoyed it very much. On display are works by three Chinese artists, each with a different take on the art-making process and a different approach toward dealing with issues surrounding Eastern and Western cultures. The pieces that seem to illustrate the cultural tension most clearly are direct and representational--a large painting of a fork and knife placed next to a set of chopsticks is a good example. Instead of coming off as trite, the image is direct and sincere. It doesn’t ask specific questions and doesn’t state anything with certainty. What fascinated me most about the show hit me when I got home and looked at the postcard. The three Chinese artists are sisters: Hong, Bo and Ling Zhang. This is astonishing, because the three seemed to have little in common stylistically and were equally strong. Artistic strength must run in the family.