Contemporary Chinese artist Zhang Yunyao’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong at Perrotin gallery is called “Nec Spe, Nec Metu”, a motto borrowed from the artist Caravaggio, meaning, ‘Without Hope, Without Fear’. From his Shanghai studio, in which he’s worked for the last nine years, 32-year-old Zhang explores the language and processes of painting and materials – his work has been rendered in manuscript, canvas, wooden board and for some of the new works in this exhibition, felt. He has appropriated figures from Greek mythology – Hercules and Diomedes wrestling, a music contest between Apollo and Marsyas, and rewoven them in felt, but superimposed scratches and smudges and obscured the perspective with a draughtsman’s sense of foreground and background which adds depth to his two-dimensional paintings. #legend spoke with Zhang.
Why Caravaggio and that motto?
His personality is very attractive to me. I think he was probably a very crazy person. I think good artists should be like this. I think he’s a genius. I visited Italy several times and saw his original pieces. He’s a master of how to use the light in painting, and shadows.
Why do you use felt material rather than traditional canvas?
I first used this material in 2010, when I joined an exhibition in Ireland, and was staying in a hotel in Dublin and found a napkin made of felt. I like that the painting or the images are very strong, tough emotions, yet the felt is so soft. I think it’s very special.
I’m struggling to recall another artist’s work I’ve seen in felt.
Joseph Beuys. When I studied at university, my professor gave us a video to watch where Beuys is living in a New York space with a wolf. So the film is his relationship with a wolf. I think it’s very cool. He used felt a lot.
Tell me about this pair, Study in Figures.
This is the biggest piece. I used four sculptures all from Greek mythologies. All about fear, emotion.
Yes. I feel chaos, disruption, destabilization. It wouldn’t be easy on the eye in my living room.
I really love chaos in real life. When painters paint, there must be a kind of chaos. I really like that.
Do you drink when you work?
I do. Actually, I experienced an artist in residency programme next to the Glenfiddich distillery in Scotland. So this painting (Portrait of Zhang Yunyao) is like after drinking. That’s a self-portrait. But I always drink whisky, not red wine or Moutai.
Hardcore. Is this your first art selfie?
This is like a reflection of self-identity, the first one I’ve ever attempted. I want to put out myself as both an objective and subjective look. It’s very personal. But I think the contrast is very interesting. Look out of the window here in Hong Kong (17/F, 50 Connaught Road Central), it’s business, everything commercial, yet this image seems very poor, with nothing, just a drunk. I find that contrast with the outside window very interesting. I want that feeling. Chaos.
This picture couldn’t be more different. I love it.
This is an oil painting of Hermès.
It’s glossy, super real, hyper real, tell me more.
The body is Hermès, so it’s luxury and shiny - the colours.
Were you tempted to put wings on him?
I cut the wings.
I don’t want people just to instantly say: ‘oh, it’s Hermès’.
So more chaos.
Yes. But it’s also a direct reference to luxury. The messenger god in contemporary context in rich colours of green, purple and contrast. I made it in 2014 - 2015. It has never shown before. Only artists have seen this piece.
Is there a sense of superhuman? The colour you use for his calf looks transhuman-ish, or very AI-style. Like he’s moving from classicism to biotechnology, stepping into the future.
I never thought about that, but you might be right. I just think it’s very instinctive as a colour. The title of this piece is: Inward Centrifugal Force.
Your works Hope and Fear are an interesting pair. The colour palette of Fear is redolent of Francis Bacon? And Hope feels like it’s still wet, or drying, or just been rained on.
I’m so flattered by that. After Caravaggio, Bacon’s my favourite artist. For Hope I used some digital technique, with water, which gives it that wet feeling.
Have any luxury brands approached you?
Only Glenfiddich. I left some pieces for them. I use felt as fabric to make a kilt. But no luxury brands.
Are you more Jeff Koons or Takashi Murakami on that front?
I prefer the work of Takashi Murakami. He’s the best example of an artist/luxury brand crossover.
What about recommending a young Chinese artist whom I should get to know?
My social circle is very small. I just focus on myself, from my home to the studio.
(Until August 19).
Perrotin, 50 Connaught Rd Central, 17th Floor, Hong Kong. perrotin.com