Poppy Fields
Poppy Field No. 12, 2012, detail (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

Zhang Huan’s new exhibition at Pace Gallery, his first since 2010, revels in the artist’s newfound love of lush dollops of creamy oil paint. He’s not the first one to slather on thick and buttery pigment, but his Poppy Field canvases evoke an abstract impressionistic feel; the effect is akin to Pointillism gone wild. Viewed from a distance, they break down like molecules into the sum of their atomic parts.

Huan’s palette ranges from black and white to hues of grey, or a riotous festival of clashing colors. It’s astounding that according to his dealer the layout of these images was originally computer generated, as they appear spontaneous and unforced. Viewed up close the pointillist dots transform into arcane adamantine grins of the Chitipati (Lords of the Funeral Pyre), skeleton dancers common throughout the sacred Tibetan cham practice and various other aspects of folk dance. This choice of content emphasizes his fascination with aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, particularly the practices of “sky burial” and chöd, wherein skeletons and skeleton faces figure prominently.

Poppy Field in scale

Poppy Field  No. 14, 2011 viewed from a human scale

Repetition is an undercurrent in these paintings. It’s not the same as the repetition employed in Pattern and Decoration movement of the 1970s, but the structural elements of another Tibetan art, that of the minutia of sand mandalas.

Huan, a member of the East Village artists’ community in Beijing, was originally known for his ascetic, monk-like piece “12 Square Meters,” where he sat in an outhouse slathered in honey attracting and retaining flies all over his naked body. More recently, in an interview with Pernilla Holmes, Huan stated he became a Ju Shi or “householder” Buddhist about eight years ago receiving the name ci ren’ or Sky Human. He has also studied Chán Buddhism, the Chinese precursor to Zen, with Master Sheng Yen in Queens, New York.

Detail of Poppy Field X

Detail of Poppy Field No. 14 from above

It is uncommon but not unknown for Chinese contemporary artists to incorporate aspects of tantric Tibetan Buddhism in their work. Those who do rarely achieve the fame or access to the West that Huan enjoys. Its a theme he has been exploring for decades, and includes his 2002 Whitney Biennial performance piece “My New York” where he strode through the city in a raw meat suit (before Lady Gaga poached the idea), and “Pilgrimage—Wind And Water In New York” his 1998 performance at PS 1 where he enacted the traditional Tibetan full-body-prostrations, or ngondro, before stripping naked and laying facedown on a block of ice surrounded by a cluster of yapping pet dogs.

Huan has jumped into the discipline of oil painting in a refreshing, and for him, sensuous style. He has softened his hard-fought austerity the only way an artist really knows how, by working it out through his art. Along the way he has reinvigorated a medium, avoided imitating his predecessors, and stuck close to his roots.

Zhang Huan’s Poppy Fields continues at Pace Gallery (534 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 26th.

Ellen Pearlman is a writer and new media artist who lives between New York and Asia, where she is a PhD candidate at the School of Creative Media, Hong Kong City University.