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Intimately Honest

The third installment in the Chinese Culture Center’s Xian Rui (“fresh and sharp”) annual solo exhibition series, Stella Zhang’s 0-Viewpoint is a refreshing juxtaposition of imagery and texture that both beckons to and repels the viewer — literally. While it will certainly raise some Freudian eyebrows, the show takes the simplicity of white as its backdrop to create wonderful landscapes.

0-Viewpoint consists of five installation works and a series of paintings that seem as though they were designed specifically for the Chinese Culture Center’s gallery space — the all-white installations nestle neatly into the four alcoves as the painting series lines the long wall facing them. The fifth installation, “0-Viewpoint 6,” stretches across the ceiling above the paintings, forming a canopy that lures the viewer further into the gallery space. It is almost as though the viewer is invited to glimpse into rooms of the artist’s soul, each of which shows us something different, and very intimate, about her.

The first landscape (and that really is what it seems to be) that confronts the viewer, “0-Viewpoint 1,” is both unsettling and calming. Five large, white, wrinkly phalluses of different heights form a miniature forest through which viewers can wander to observe the structures from all sides. Metal frames are wrapped with soft, white fabric, their smooth rounded noses extending proudly into the air. Although obvious in what they initially suggest, the forms are also reminiscent of tall, waving mushrooms, or the odd vegetation characteristic of Dr. Seuss illustrations, lending a sense of the surreal and fantastic.

“0-Viewpoint 2” also seems to have heavy sexual connotations, its small, rounded white shapes resembling fleshy buttocks and vulvas. Suspended a few inches off of the ground, these otherwise soft, inviting forms are armored in prickling flesh-colored spikes, fending off those who might approach the delicate forms too closely. The barbed cluster hovers over a smooth white pool of fabric, which corrals them carefully within its boundaries.

This contrast between the plush, rounded shapes and their thorny defenses creates an interesting tension, one which seems to imply an invitation while pushing away at the same time. Zhang’s work is rife with such contrasts, collections of opposites residing together in the same space, revealing the peaceful co-existence of the same such warring states in our own minds and lives.

Interestingly, her use of pure white fabric in the pieces allows the contrasts to appear all the more readily, creating a canvas where the play of light, shadow, and texture are emphasized over color and form. The “0-Viewpoint 3” pieces explore this concept in some fascinating ways.

Initially appearing as just large canvases covered in white fabric, they yield a host of detail upon closer observation. The fabric is stretched, pulled tight across the canvas, as though seeking to smooth and cover it. Yet, it is held together by knots and threads strained to the breaking point. Seams, tears, and holes are visible, the attempt to provide cover so taxing that it ultimately results in revealing more than is perhaps meant. All of Zhang’s works are similarly revealing in subtle ways.

The canvases collectively named “0-Viewpoint 5,” arrayed neatly along the long wall, part ways from the installations in terms of medium, but not with respect to their revelation of inner states. These works are paintings, incorporating sand and glue with their neutral grays and browns, once again emphasizing texture as a significant aspect of the works — Zhang seems to really have an affinity for playing with texture.

Every one of these paintings is a variation on the same theme: wavering oblongs of gray and brown radiating outward from a central void. These seem an explicitly visual representation of the underlying theme of the exhibition: finding equilibrium. The outlines of the oblongs change shape and intensity, yet the center remains. How does one find that center in the midst of a constant bombardment of conflicting input and emotion?

This is what is so refreshing about Zhang’s work: its honesty. The artist has unabashedly exposed aspects of herself that most of us keep deeply hidden from the eyes of others. In so doing, she has turned the audience’s thoughts inward, back upon itself to see whether her experiences are reflected there. 0-Viewpoint is deeply personal, incredibly intimate, and sometimes startling, but a fascinating and thought-provoking meditation.

Chinese Culture Center
April 23-September 5, 2010