Chen Hongzhu is one of the New Generation of Chinese artists: a generation of only children whose work examines how Chinese youth grapple with an open consumer society. Expendable cash, pop culture, choice & lifestyle options … these trappings were unknown to their parents’ generation, and as a result many young Chinese are growing up in a world without any framework of reference for how to handle this new-found fortune. As the Chinese model Ma Nuo said recently: “I would rather cry in the back of a BMW than laugh on the back of a bike.”
Chen’s paintings are driven by these personal and material quandaries. In her stark “china doll” portraits of fractured innocence, the optimism of pop seems corrupted by the pressure to make life choices without any guidance or values. Unlike the heavily politicised work of the 90s generation, artists of Chen’s generation look less at politics and more at individualism – an exploration of how Capitalist values take root in a communist context. Introspection and isolation is a strong theme: unlike the 90s generation that defined themselves in opposition to the state, Chen Hongzhu focuses on individualism, and the culture shock of being thrown feet-first into a culture where, more than anything, money talks.
Chen’s figures appear child-like and cute, but at the same time old beyond their years. Sometimes they’re cut or bruised, damaged in some way; often they’re accompanied by cryptic animal familiars that give them a kind of surreal comfort and company. As Chen describes in her own words:
“I believe that in every person’s heart live two children– one that turns to the light and another that feeds on darkness. Your entire life you must look after and appease these two children. I often paint people and animals together because I feel animals embody a kind of collective human unconscious. Our inner naive and reclusive self can be expressed well by the animals, almost as if they are mirrors showing a reflection of humanity. My pictures often obscure the boundary between man and animal, and in this way display an even clearer view of humankind.”
Chen Hongzhu graduated from the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts, and her work has already been picked up by the Chinese contemporary collector Uli Sigg and the Singapore Art Museum. This exhibition follows her inclusion in “Future Pass” at the 54th Venice Biennale, curated by Victoria Lu of MoCA Taipei.