Zhang Huan

Spring Poppy Fieds

Pace Gallery

6 Burlington Gardens, W1S 3ET

till May 31

photos: nathalie hambro

Employing an almost pointillist technique, Zhang Huan’s application of the thick pigment performs an optical illusion. From a distance, the canvas metamorphoses into a field of psychedelic colours; the pink, teal, lilac and cornflower blue palette appears to pulsate with energy. Upon closer inspection, the colours separate and the individual faces of the skulls emerge from their abstraction. Seemingly uncontrolled and haphazard, the placement of the skulls on the canvas is misleading.

Zhang Huan’s recurring use of skulls stems from the artist’s early exploration of performance inspired by the body and human form. Drawing inspiration from the hallucinatory effects of the poppy’s opiate properties, the use of the skull motif reflects the Tibetan beliefs of endless deaths.  In her essay, The Art of Impermanence: Zhang Huan and Tibetan Skulls, Kathryn H. Selig Brown discusses the Tibetan Buddhist beliefs, from which Zhang Huan draws, maintaining that skulls are reflective of the Buddhist cycle of birth, death, rebirth and journey to nirvana.

Becoming a lay Buddhist* near to nine years ago, Zhang Huan has since frequently adopted Buddhist icons and death rituals in his work. In accordance to Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, greed, anger, ignorance, pride and lust are all destructive emotions that will thwart one’s prospects at attaining nirvana. The skull plays an integral role in the destruction of the ego, preventing the temptation of worldly pleasures; in the words of Kathryn H. Selig Brown, “the enemy is the ego and the skull, a tool to smash it.”

Despite Zhang Huan’s heavy reliance upon Tibetan Buddhism, his choice of palette is non-Tibetan and paradoxical in its symbolism. The various colours, representative of “garish consumerism” in these paintingsenhance the sinister and dark humoured qualities of the skull. The abrasive tones of the maniacal faces taunt at the darker effects of opium, reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat’s opium-infused inane smile.

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