Artist Profile: Vivien Zhang

Rising artist Vivien Zhang is currently pursuing an MA degree in Painting at the Royal College of Art, London, after achieving First Class Honours in Fine Art at the Slade School of Fine Art (University College London).

Biography and artist’s statement

At the age of ten, I moved to Nairobi from my hometown Beijing, and four years later subsequently moved to Bangkok, Thailand. Having attended international schools in these diverse new places, I then came to London to further my studies. From this experience came my initial desire to reclaim my original culture – Chinese culture – from subjects of immediate interest to me in my work. In the past years I had been re-visiting specific Chinese objects of significance – from cloud-like stone pillars to artifactual bronze vessels from the ancient Xia, Shang and Zhou dynasties. I felt an intense interest in these cultural relics themselves; their role defined my relationship with the audience in a “contemporary” and “displaced” context, and allowed me to explore personal concerns relating to displacement and diaspora.

detail1_vivien zhang_vessels, blast, pink and green_2012_oil and acrylic on canvas_200x220cm

From this interest, I have struggled, but slowly achieved an abstraction of the vessel motif in my paintings, as can be observed in the work Vessels, Blast, Pink and Green. This reduction of motif is a direct reflection of my declining exclusive obsession with these objects and growing confidence in what my paintings can achieve. By exploiting my familiarity with these objects’ structure, my paintings have been reduced to abbreviations of brush marks and gestures, in order for me to engage more intensely in the painting process, and to achieve the essential qualities I work for in a painting – “the powerful” and “the bizarre”, and a visually striking image.

vivien zhang_vessels, blast, pink and green_2012_oil and acrylic on canvas_200x220cm vivien zhang_folded stencil (generosity)_2013_oil on canvas_55x46cm

My most recent paintings have also been directed to investigate the “phenomenon” of painting – the relationship between the artist and his or her practice – as I feel an increasingly heightened emphasis of the “self” in the contemporary age, under the seduction of the market and other social changes. Thus, as a away to deal with the artist ego, I began the proposition of achieving a self-referential literalness in my work from pre-determined formulaic processes, in which gestures from earlier work would inform newer gestures to evolve into different forms, and these further develop and challenge each other. My processes often include specific measurements for repetitive shapes, grid systems (which are continuously challenged by “interruptions” and “fractures”), pre-planned stencils, and loading my brush methodically.

As an example, Partition, Three was conceived from a long process of re-evaluating and re-negotiating the significance of the motifs in earlier paintings – their hierarchy and the space they are presented in. As stated before, the gesture I employed in my previous paintings was an abstraction of the vessel motif. This gesture was subsequently given an autonomous status as a compositional element in more recent works. They then, as compositional elements, fed into different systems of order (in terms of composition), thus allowing me to re-examine the idea of space in my works. From this, an uncertain space found in my earlier work was then challenged, and subsequently explored in my paintings no longer just from an illusionistic point of view, but also in terms of “difference” and how order and repetition generated space and difference (Deleuze, Difference and Repetition).

detail3_vivien zhang_partition, three_2013_oil on canvas_180x200cm

These progressions have also open up the scope for me into questioning issues in relation to the detached processes in contemporary painting practice today – how permission and authority stand in present day practice, how the painter-painting relationship and artwork-audience relationships have changed in relation to the increasingly formulaic processes artists are adopting, as well as how the experience of a work of art and the sublime have been affected by the now.


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