DaHuang Zhou

by Ethan Tate

by Ethan Tate

 

DaHuang and his brother Shan Zuo are collectively the Zhou Brothers of Bridgeport’s Zhou B Art Center. Uniting Eastern and Western aesthetics, the Zhou Brothers were at the cutting edge of the contemporary art movement in China in the ’70s. In 1985 they left China for an exhibition in Chicago, and have lived and maintained a studio in Bridgeport ever since. Last year, they were commissioned by the White House to present a painting to the president of China. They recently unveiled a fifty foot bronze sculpture in Beijing.

Can you describe your background and how you came to be in Chicago?

My brother and I grew up in China and we finished our education in China. In 1985 my brother and I had a museum travelling show, [that visited museums] including the National Museum of Art in Beijing, the Museum of Art in Shanghai, and the Museum of Art in Nanjing. It was considered one of the biggest museum travelling shows for contemporary artists–it never happened before. After that, in 1986, we left China. Before we left, we were considered [to be at] the top level in China for contemporary art. Not many artists had this kind of opportunity to show in a national art museum.

We started our art career in 1973. That year was my first painting collaboration with my brother. We did it basically at that time for fun and as improvisation. So we did a painting together. After many years later, we were looking back and realized the painting actually is more like our [metaphorical] self-portrait, and our collaboration started from there.

In 1986, when we left China, many of our friends were asking us why we would leave China when we had achieved so much. But for me, I feel like that the timing was perfect for us. We were thinking you have to have a bigger international stage–then you can be a more international figure.

You received many awards in China and had the travelling show. Did you ever have an antagonistic relationship with the government or were you always celebrated?

Our work is not anything related to the political; it’s more human symbols, culture, history. So when we came out in the 80s, we had the museum travelling show because our represents the Chinese culture. The work had a new look but their root was from the old culture and that’s why the government and Master of Art [gave a lot of] support.

So would you say your art carries on a tradition of Chinese culture? Do you draw influence from a certain time period in China?

We have a very traditional classical Chinese background. Our paintings have a great influence from the Chinese crane painting, the early painting style from 5,000 years ago. You can see this kind of spirit. Our work at that time was very abstract and symbolic and the whole movement of the painting itself carries the kind of Chinese spirit in it. The Western influence is later in our work and come out with something like impact, strong, contrast.

What were you and your brother doing in the ‘70s and ‘80s that was new to art in China?

In the late ‘70s they had a couple movements in China–one group was called “Scar.” Their statement is that art should be freedom; art should be a special kind of environment. At the time what they were painting was 100 percent politically related to society–very angry from the environment. This as a movement got some attention in China from university students who were very crazy and supported this kind of spirit. Then a few years later that group of people all left China to Paris and the United States. I thought about this because they were very loud and they wanted a different environment. But when they really got it the artists disappeared. Artists have their own spirit and their own life. It’s not a statement, not a political statement. When our work came out it touched people’s spirit. They had been talking about the combination of east and west for a long time but now they finally found it.

You had said that the Western style is more about impact and force, so how would you characterize the Eastern style?

What’s the most important thing in Chinese painting? The most important thing is chi-yun. Chi-yun just means the movement of the air. That is the most important thing in any of Chinese art–the moving spirit. When it’s translated into English, I think it’s missing a lot of this meaning. The Chinese are always talking about how art has to be in between looking like and not looking like. It’s between yes or no. You can feel it but you cannot grab it. In performances, when the Chinese are performing a war scene they just do a movement like this [twirls an imaginary lasso] and that’s it. It’s just a movement and you feel like you have thousands of soldiers in battler. But in Western culture, they bring a real horse to the stage.

When were you first exposed to Western art, and what were some of the artists you liked?

When I started to see Western art in the late ‘70s was when I was in Shanghai, in the University of Performing Art. In the library I found a whole set of books called “One Hundred of the Greatest Painters in History.” Wow. I would take my lunch everyday and go to the library and I would paint the book with oil paint. Each painting was only sized eight by ten. It was probably only fifteen to twenty minutes per work. I was painting from Monet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse–I would paint so many. I think right now I still have probably a hundred of them. And during this short period of very intensive study I got so many things. You study and then one day something in your brain opens and you feel like you get it. After Shanghai, I felt like I was ready. I started searching for what was our own style, what should be our own way.

So you’ve always been collaborating with your brother?

I talked about our first painting in 1973. We then had to go to different places; we separated again; we did different work here and there. And then we went to Shanghai together to study in the late ‘70s, in ’77. In the ‘80s we studied in Beijing in the Institute of Art. In 1985, one evening–my brother worked for a performing company and I worked for a ballet company.

Making sets?

Yes, doing sets. We were often in the studio and we would talk about our dreams and future. And then one day we had a bottle of wine and we moved the couch and behind the couch on the wall we marked a logo there and put the year 1980-1985 and then we pushed the couch back. That was one of our dreams, to hopefully make it realized in this time. Then we worked very hard, painting. Creation is always up and down. Sometimes it’s a struggle, looking for one language, one painting style. Sometimes you suffer for a long time. You don’t want to repeat something people already have. In 1982 we had our first show in the museum, but it was only the museum in the university. This show started to bring our name to the whole nation. But at that time our name still didn’t come out as Zhou Brothers yet. It was just these two young artists who work together.

Do you ever work separately?

No; not in the last thirty-something years.

Do you ever disagree with your brother on your artistic vision?

At the beginning of the collaboration, there was a lot of discussion. We tried to get the harmony, the understanding. And then we realized that another step is that you don’t need to know too much about what you think. For art is not like science, where you must have a great explanation. Art is always something you cannot express. When you use logic the painting is less powerful. If you cannot explain it, there’s more mystery.

When one artist does a painting, even when you know you would like to do it better, you normally do not have enough courage to exactly realize it’s not so good. But the other guy coming might not be thinking too much and put a couple marks there. And that is a spark.

Do you have a separate style from your brother?

Not style, but personality. We both have pretty strong personalities. This kind of personality you can see in the painting. Sometimes I’m too thoughtful, do too much thinking and then my brother, because he doesn’t care that much, basically he destroys the painting. He just makes a mess. It will make you angry. After this, you’re thinking, “Wait a minute, it’s actually nice.”

You often paint with your brother in front of an audience. Do you view the performance as art, or is the final painting the work of art?

The art is the final painting. When the artist steps in front of the painting, that moment is about how you think, how you act in order to create the final product. For the final product, nobody knows when exactly is the end. Only the artist knows. So that’s why the great art can stop in any time.

So the performance aspect is more just demonstrating the process and not art itself?

Yes.

How has your art changed in the past thirty years?

I look at it like there are three different periods. One period is in China before coming to the States. The art was more abstract, more Chinese-influenced. You can see Chinese symbols–the movement, the spirit, the brushstrokes. And the other period is in the United States, from 1986 to 1993. Our painting started to have more strong figures, thicker texture, more [of a] strong impact. In this period of work, besides what you see in the painting, more inspiration came from everyday life. Inspiration came from somebody I met at a party last night or something like that. Before that, inspiration came from history. After the year 2000, the work became finer, and thinner, and more transparent.

Can you talk about why you moved to Chicago and why you have been here for so long?

It’s completely coincidence. We received a letter from Chicago, but the envelope had no address. It just said China, Beijing, Zhou Brothers. This letter came from one gallery in Chicago called East-West Gallery. He found out our information from some magazine. One month later we received the letter; it was a little bit opened. In China at that time, if you wanted a passport it took a long time. It was not so easy for Chinese to leave China to come to the United States. Finally when we got our passport, the day of the show had already passed. But we said we would come anyway. We were so excited; it was the first time coming to Chicago and the United States, and we didn’t know anybody. We came with thirty dollars and no English. This guy picked us from the airport with our name on a sign. We stayed in his apartment on Lake Shore Drive for three months for the exhibition. We got a very good review from the Sun-Times. After many years later I know in Chicago you don’t normally get a review from Sun-Times or Tribune. But we got a review, and I thought it was not a big deal because in China we get in the newspapers all the time.

Then we didn’t know what [would be] the future in Chicago, because we were expecting to have a quick success, but nobody bought any paintings at that time. My brother and I made our plan: we smoke cigarettes, and we said we don’t smoke if we don’t work on our paintings. If we wanted to have a cigarette we had to paint. A couple months later we made another exhibition with the same gallery and the exhibition turned out very well; we sold some paintings, so it was a turning point. After a couple months, we thought we should look for a studio. We negotiated a deal with a gallery and we offered 1500 dollars for ten paintings. [Laughs] And we started looking for an apartment in Bridgeport. At that time an apartment was like 240 dollars. One shopping [trip] lasted for two weeks and cost maybe fifty bucks. That was basically our life in the beginning.