Yi Zhang was born in China and works and lives in both New York and Beijing. She graduated from the New York Studio School with an MFA in Sculpture in 2014. Her solo show at John Davis Gallery is on view July 23-August 14.
Rachel Rickert: Tell me a little bit about your background and your path to becoming an artist. What led to your commitment to being an artist?
Yi Zhang: To draw was my only interest when I was a child. I studied Chinese ink painting, calligraphy and, using the limited available catalogs, I also enjoyed copying many of the Western old masters’ works. When I was 15 years old, I started intensive academic art training at the Central Academy in Beijing. Those five years of classical/realistic studies provided me with good skills, however, gradually I lost the joy of drawing. By the end of the second year in college I got so tired of making pictures, that I chose to study sculpture as my major instead. Later on I followed my tutor who was one of the top conceptual artists in China. This was a transitional period for me. I left what I had been trained in and embraced the contemporary art world.
During that period I was suffering from depression. I had to take medicine, which wasn’t helping much. I felt as if I wanted to break something and yell out. Gradually I realized that the art making process, which had always been part of my life, but without much meaning, had become medicine to me.
Around that time I made the first work which I call art. I casted my fingers with wax and painted them. They were full of bloody wounds gnawed by myself. I put them in a small silk case and titled it “The Souvenir”. I felt much released after the work. It had been the first time, during which I was motivated by making something from my inside, from desire. Art is not decorative, it is my medicine.
RR: What is your starting point in the studio when you begin a new work?
YZ: When I arrived to New York I discovered that the city was a heaven of materials. I always looked for stuff in the trashes on the street. My little studio was a storage of found objects. That was my starting point: material! After some time I also began to be interested in natural materials such like a piece of bamboo or a piece of stone. I questioned myself what were the characteristics of the objects or found objects that really interested me? I realized it was those types of forms which suggested human touch, relating to the human body or some particular structures that suggested rhythm. The sensuality, evoked by an object or material is my real starting point.
RR: Your work seems to embody human fragility in spite of the rigidity of the metal materials. Is there something about that dichotomy that you seek?
YZ: Yes, there is. Although the words fragility and rigidity are opposites, in materiality there is no such border. Probably everything in the world is relative. Is lead fragile or rigid? Is plaster fragile or rigid? Or any natural materials, wood, bamboo… I think fragility is a fascinating subject. Human fragility is part of the duality of human nature. Dealing with human fragility or emotions in art is as beautiful as it is brave.
In terms of making sculpture, I work with the relation and balance that exists between the structure and the material. When the structure is leaner or transparent, the materials and their join points keep it relatively strong and stable. The stability of material secures the fragility of the structure. In contrast, an airy sense of a structure gives surprise to the material. These relationships would make the subject of fragility more sculptural.
RR: The body of work at your show at John Davis Gallery is chromatically and materially narrow in range. Can you speak about your material and color choices?
YZ: For me, color is physical. Every material has color, so I rarely need to paint my work. If I do, I take it as an action of painting rather than of coloring. I don’t have a painter’s sense of color, which is a pity. I do believe each color has its specific relationship with light and it is the result of light. So, I consider color as one of the features of the material.
The choice of material is of utmost importance to me. In this series I worked with a variety of materials but predominantly I was interested in lead, partly because of the sense of quietness and isolation and partially because of its ash gray color. To me, it feels as if light were hidden within the material. These characteristics really talk to me, which I think are good to represent form as stemming from an inner world, since I always make forms from inner feeling.
Secondly, the dichotomy between flexibility and stability also interested me. Lead is surprisingly malleable and flexible. I could model it like a piece of clay. A very thin sheet is almost as soft as paper; a thick sheet is as resilient as a chunk of meat, to work on which requires a good amount of physical energy. When I forged it with a hammer, the material recorded every movement of my body and constantly changed its form with every single hit.
RR: I’ve noticed an accordion folding theme in your work, as well as weaving and piercing motifs. Where do these methods come from?
YZ: When I used found objects to make assemblage work, I liked lamp shades, because of their rhythmic repetition. Same as the foldings on lead, the repetition of the form creates a rhythm, which is as simple as the rhythm of a heartbeat or as that of a breath, which is accompanied by emotional changes.
Weaving, piercing and sewing are common methods in needlecraft. I like these methods because they create district textures, mini spaces and structures. When a material, for example wire, weaves through multiple layers of a structure, in and out, up and down, my hands and eyes follow these movements and the space through which the material moved, felt as big as the universe.
RR: It’s been only two years since your graduate thesis show. How does it feel to be having solo exhibitions? Do you create your sculptures as individual pieces and then curate them into a coherent show or do you think about the larger body of work as a whole and then begin to develop the individual works?
YZ: It is the second show I have at John Davis Gallery, the first one was in the back gallery in 2014. This is the first one I have at the front gallery. I really appreciate that John entrusted me with, and provided for me this wonderful space. It is so beautiful that it pressured me to live up to its expectations.
When I work, I like to respect the material and talk to it. The making process is like to capture some moments between the various materials and my emotions in response to them. I work on different substances, leave them all on the floor of my studio. I try to keep open the wellspring of potentialities that tends to emerge from any material or structure and its combination with others, until the “moment” creates a surprising story, the final form. I can never predict the course my work might take, nor its final form, neither am I interested in that. I am after the bigger concept, which is the meaning of the material.
In order to curate the show and install the work I need to feel the space and the walls, to let the sculptures work with the space and tell their story in a specific way.
In this show John Davis was very helpful in this regard, as he said he is really familiar with the space and knows his walls. He helped me to decide the varying heights and distances for each piece, in order give the overall show a feeling of movement. We installed some works on the first floor where it is a more open and public space. Those works’ structures are referencing relatively closely nature. On the ground floor, the space feels more private. There we installed those kinds of works, which more closely reference the human body.
RR: What are some of your favorite memories from your time at the Studio School that still influence your practice today?
YZ: When I studied at the New York Studio School, I worked with Bruce Gagnier in the morning drawing class and with Garth Evans in the afternoon clay sculpture class. Both used a life model. Although these two masters had very different perspectives and styles in their arts, I did find similarities. They both asked me to change the figure constantly. In the beginning I did not understand, because my realistic technique was good enough to finish a figure quickly and to make it resemble quite closely the model. Then, after seemingly endless times of changing, I realized that the goal had never been to make a figure that looks like, or attempts to account for all the facts of the model. The process of creating, working with or without a model, was always a journey. What they tried to teach me was to let myself be thrown into this adventure, to keep searching the infinite mystery of form and its meaning. This is still crucial in my studio practice today.
Work from Yi’s Thesis Exhibition at the New York Studio School.