Catharine Clark Gallery presents Wanxin Zhang | Totem with an exhibition of life-size ceramic sculptures. Totem is deeply inspired by Zhang’s upbringing in Maoist China, his subsequent disillusionment, and his ultimate relocation to California as a young artist in the 1990s. The work in the exhibit reflects both a geographical journey and an ideological search. Totem demonstrates Zhang’s mastery of the malleable and expressive qualities of clay to disrupt and reshape both the form and meaning of traditional symbols and icons.
Zhang’s new monumental clay figures feature the artist’s signature style—a blend that reflects Bay Area Figurative and California Funk traditions with nods to Chinese history. Inspired by his time studying with Peter Voulkous, and by the innovations of Robert Arneson and Stephen De Staebler, Zhang’s figures explore the organic, evocative qualities of clay, and the impact of popular culture on the body. Pink Warrior (2014) exemplifies the departure and hybridity in Zhang’s new work: an androgynous soldier coated in a glossy bubble-gum pink sheen; face and body a landscape of finger prints, gouges, coils and layers; inscripted with individual emotion rather than blank anonymity. This warrior retains the freeform construction and visual weight of Zhang’s well known Pit #5 series, but is an entirely new ensign of power structure dismantlement. Zhang’s Pieta figures further exemplify the cross-cultural reshaping unique to the artist’s aesthetic. The Refluent Tide (2013) melds influences across centuries and continents from the Delft School to the Italian Renaissance to Ming and Qing Dynasty Chinese porcelain. Dripping with blue glaze, the figures seem to fuse, suggesting sexual ambiguity and erasure of boundaries between mother and child. The embraced figure, though obscured, is clothed in a way that suggests the present, the street, the everyman. Zhang is one of several contemporary artists, including Akio Takamori, Mark Alberghina, Mounir Fatmi and Grayson Perry, who are exploiting the potential of ceramics to create figurative sculpture that explores sociopolitical themes. The momentum created by Zhang and others has garnered recognition for contemporary ceramics as fine art; worthy of exhibitions at canon-creating institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Art and Design in New York. The time is now for a West Coast resurgence in showcasing ceramic artists. Nancy M. Servis, Northern California ceramics historian, writer and scholar, says of Zhang’s work, “The sculpture of Wanxin Zhang is compelling in its cultural duality voiced through expressionist ceramic sculpture with painterly glaze. Decades of artistic focus has led to his current body of work which acknowledges artistic forbearers, like Funk art and Bay Area figuration, while unleashing spirited originality and verve.” Catharine Clark Gallery debuted our interest in ceramics with the inclusion of work by Nicole Cherubini in a group show in 2009. This is the gallery’s first solo exhibition of an artist working in ceramics.