Hong Chun Zhang’s “Reset” (2021), a work in Chinese ink on Alcantara, 42 x 116” with scrolls, is part of her exhibit, “Extensions: New Work by Hong Chun Zhang,” on view through April 24 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College. (courtesy the artist)
Since 2002, Hong Chun Zhang has focused on hair as the central theme of her work. Hair as image or metonym has a diverse visual and social history. Nineteenth-century Victorians created elaborate mourning jewelry from hair, and as fetish, a lock of hair may represent the absent body. As a form of social protest our hairstyles may deliberately flaunt the parameters of certain jobs, politics or public schools.
Working in charcoal and Chinese-style fine ink on Italian paper, Hong draws from Chinese culture. She notes, “According to Eastern culture, a young woman’s long hair is associated with life force where the image of hair can express personal feelings and emotions. I continue using long hair in figurative and portraiture formats to record growth and change over time as well as commenting on experiences associated with these events. The (exhibit’s) title, ‘Extensions: New Work by Hong Chun Zhang,’ refers to the extended use of my hair theme like hair extension(s) as well as additional encounters (that) happened during the pandemic time with new expressions in my work.”
Through this new work, Hong has processed the pandemic and the social unrest of the past two years. In addition to illness, the pandemic further exposed global inequality, represented in America by the Black Lives Matter movement, which Hong considers in the raised fists of “Solidarity” reminiscent of Chinese revolutionary imagery. “I have also thought about many people around the world, especially women in the Middle East and in the poor rural areas with no internet and social justice during this crazy and twisted global pandemic in (the) charcoal drawings “Veiled” and “Twisted,” she explains.
Hong’s hair imagery often expresses the corporeal body itself. In many of the new images, two figures, often represented just by their heads, can only interact through a mask of hair, frustrating intimacy. She imagines that during lockdown we’ve let our hair grow so long as to use it as a protective mask or shield. In “Pandemic Hairdos,” two faces are obscured by hair masks, which also cover their eyes, making them appear alien and disconnected from even themselves. Hong’s figures, despite being in pairs, still appear isolated; their hair masks preventing true physical communion; or instead, a new, lesser intimacy.
Hong seeks balance between the highs and lows of the pandemic through her black and white (yin and yang) painting “Reset.” At 42 x 116 inches, the monumental piece may also suggest the bifurcated emotional, physical and transcendental state we may find ourselves suspended in as we attempt to wait out or outwit illness and fear and summon optimism.
“Extensions: New Work by Hong Chun Zhang” continues through April 24 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park, Kansas. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, 913.469.8500 or www.nermanmuseum.org.