Piece of the Week: Shao Yuan Zhang’s Canyon Solitude, From The Propaganda Precipice to The Sublime Solitude

Shao Yuan Zhang’s limited edition print, Canyon Solitude (15.70”x15.70”) is sublime.

Not the slangified term “sublime,” but rather, the 18th Century romantic’s philosophy du jour that fascinated the syllabi heavyweights like Edmond Burke, Immanuel Kant, and William Wordsworth.

The sublime is an aesthetic experience that is awe-inspiring, astonishing, and even fearsome. The sublime gapes at something wildly profound.

But off the pedestal of bygone academic mystique, the sublime is still accessible in the modern world. The sublime is alive: it is the out-of-control, literally breath-taking rush of a roller-coaster or the view of a vast gorge from the great height of a bridge.

There is something inherently, though subtly, sublime in both the work and background of UGallery’s artist Shao Yuan Zhang.

The word “sublime” is one of those interesting, dissectible words, whose ringing Latin genetics unfold its own meaning. It literally translates to “up to” (sub-) the “threshold” (-lime, or -limen). Zhang’s own work has brought him up to both the physical thresholds of the natural terrain and figurative thresholds of a cultural terrain.

Our piece of the week, Canyon Solitude, shows an image of one of these natural terrains, which he found while backpacking in a Utah national park. He poetically describes the experience with the language of the sublime:       

“I was shocked by its vast beauty and greatness, but was puzzled by my inability to realize in my work my powerful feelings about the great canyon landscape. One night I stared at the dark mountains all around and talked to them silently from my heart. I was suddenly struck by a very strong emotion.”

The “solitude” aspect of Canyon Solitude comes from the difference he saw in the same canyon at nighttime versus in the daytime.

“In the daylight, the canyon was beautiful and great, but not a close friend. At night the dark canyon shocked me by not only its greatness but also its solitary presence and its sense of isolation,” says the artist.

The rocky terrain lends itself to the natural beauty of the world but also has a suggestive connection to his own background. Beyond the landscape, the painting also represents Zhang’s own understanding of art and its purpose.  

When Zhang was 17 years old – a self-proclaimed “impressionable teenager” – he was swept into the Red Guard, a Communist group established by the Cultural Revolution in China that began in 1966, where he produced and was influenced by propaganda.

“My artwork was greatly influenced by state-sanctioned propaganda, which consisted of painting exaggerated propaganda posters depicting images of Chairman Mao and “heroic” revolutionary leaders that glorified the Communist Party,” he says.

Monument Valley

Zhang had no access to art beyond the strict regime of artistic censorship, national isolation, and visual gamesmanship of the Red Guard.

“I had no concept of what Western Art was,” he says.

A decade later, at the end of the Cultural Revolution, Zhang and his peers were finally exposed to the floodgated cultural cascade of Western art.

This was undoubtedly a high-impact hit. Imagine an all-at-once influx of –isms – impressionism, cubism, fauvism, and so on. From all directions, suddenly, learning schools of thought and artists. This realization that he was standing on the edge of this unknown vastness is certainly sublime.

Fully Moon

In 1989, in continuation of his thirsty pursuit for an occulted Western art form, he moved to the United States are where, as he puts it, “the possibilities were endless.”

He recounts one particular instance in art school at University of Utah, to fulfill a homework assignment to draw something in the “hyper-realist” style, one of his out-of-the-box thinking peers presented a crack he made in the studio wall.

While moments like these rocked his view of art, he still remains rooted to his own artistic origins.

Black Stallions 

Zhang’s prints have a calligraphic proclivity – which is more overt in his equestrian works such as The Races, Race Track and Black Stallions – that harkens back to his own Chinese artistic background and its traditions in calligraphy.

Zhang’s work embodies his unique, liminal position between Western art and traditional Chinese art. His art has some distinctly Western qualities: oil-based ink, Utah vista, and a supreme art-for-art’s-sake-ness. But, it also deeply Chinese in technique: a water-based ink, Asian rice paper, an ancient Chinese printing technique, and an Asian mounting technique.

The blend of oil-based ink and water-based ink crystalizes his unique cultural dualism.

On the future of these two melding cultures he says, “over time, all aspects of China will become more open to the rest of the world, as well as mutual understanding from a cultural and hopefully, socio-political angle.”

See more of Shao Yuan Zhang’s work on UGallery