CMA Stories

“Children make art with a purity of emotion, energy, and joyful wonder” — 5 Minutes with Artist Lu Zhang

On Thursday, February 11 at 12 PM ET, artist Lu Zhang joins CMA Associate Director of Programming Raquel Du Toit for a virtual artist talk and studio tour streaming live on CMA’s Facebook page. The following day on Friday, February 11 at 1 PM ET, children are invited to attend Club CMA with Raquel, where they will make a sculptural object inspired by Lu’s work and in celebration of Lunar New Year. Read below to learn more about Lu and click here to learn more about the upcoming artist talk.

It Takes Ten Years Practice to be on the Same Boat, 2018

Can you tell us about your art practice and how working with children inspires you?

I started making art after transitioning out of working in the budgeting office of an electrical company and studying Economics in college. I like to see how different things connect. Working with various mediums and references allows me to explore unexpected associations and hidden meanings. I see my process as a way to make sense of materials, the psychological phenomena behind it, and figure out how visual logic functions. I often end up taking an “amateur” or “unprofessional” approach to the materials I choose to work with. Working with children inspires me because I relate to their heightened curiosity and fearlessness in trying something new. They try to make things work and create logic that makes sense to them.

Chinese Checker is Not From China, 2019

Your work recreates experiences, memories, and time through multiple art mediums. Do you have a favorite memory of making art as a child?

I don’t come from a family of artists or even one in which art was considered valuable. My parents and grandparents came of age from the 1930s through 1990s in China, an era of massive social and political turmoil and transformation — migration, wars, revolution, and economic upheaval. The only person I know in my family that had a relationship making art is one of my grandfather. He used to paint propaganda murals of Mao Zedong for the Communist Party in the 1950s. When I was a child, I spent my summer and winter holidays with him practicing calligraphy and making drawings in the first floor backyard. He also taught me mahjong when I was little. Since I moved to America, the memories the backyard holds always returns to me.

Another grandfather gave me my first point-and-shoot film camera — an Olympus — when I was 14 years old. Since then, I have been taking photos everyday and making visual diaries. Having developed a photographic practice from my grandfather’s gift, years later, I decided to study photography in the United States.

China 2012, You Right Next to Me But I Need An Airplane, 2012

Can you describe your Wildman Clab project?

A few years ago, I began wanting to make art that looks into forms of social relationships to counteract the traditional dynamics between artist, artwork and audience. Instead of placing the artwork and the artist at the center of the audience’s gaze, I sought to create situations in which people’s experiences and interactions with each other were the focus.

Wildman Clab was founded in 2017 with its inaugural work, Boat Date: It Takes Ten Years Practice to be on the Same Boat, where I created a platform for blind dates on a Chinese river boat installation during a residency at NARS Foundation in Brooklyn. People met on “dates” by signing up for one-hour time slots, not knowing who signed up to meet them. In my eyes, participants were matched through the Chinese concept of yuánfèn (缘分), in which one’s good deeds in past lives lead to the “fateful coincidence” of meeting another person in this current life.

The word “Clab” of “Wildman Clab” is a combination of the words “club” and “lab.” Each uniquely evokes spaces of study, research, experimentation, amateurism, and community. Social oddness defines the “wild,” which can be understood as primitive, ancient, or simply Asian. The work exists in the social engagement of the clab’s collaborators, audiences, and their experiences. Through its various projects, Wildman Clab questions what can be considered normal or civilized as defined by a Western centric world view.

It Takes Ten Years Practice to be on the Same Boat, 2018

What advice would you give to young artists who wish to pursue an art practice?

Keep experimenting, playing, and enjoying the process. I make things out of curiosity, often having to do with how materials can be manipulated. I like to experiment with new materials and keep a fresh, “amateur” approach to the proces. Sometimes this causes anxiety because people may look at my work and think I don’t know what I’m doing, but I keep going because I trust the process and the struggle. I feel that the art is actually within the process, as much as it is the end result.

But Lost Also A Lie, 2019

Why is children’s artwork important within the context of art history?

I have always been attracted to artists who have tried to override their skill and intellect, to push their playful and imaginative sides to the foreground. For instance, Misaki Kawai‘s work is inspired by working together with her child. Kawai’s work made me realize that it’s important to see through children’s perspective on working rather than have a prejudgement of what great / good / correct art seems like. Children make art with a purity of emotion, energy, and joyful wonder, which is something a lot of contemporary artists strive for.

Grandmother’s Grievance (left), Dad’s Tear (right), 2019

Why is it important to make art accessible to all children and families?

Art invokes the human potential of creativity, imagination, and empathy. It allows people to imagine the potential of beauty in unexpected ways. If people are open enough, going to a museum or an art gallery activates and tests our critical minds, eyes, and ears. We can see the world from different perspectives and can feel a sense of real freedom through conversations started by artworks. These are opportunities for engaging our senses and thought process that everyone, no matter their social status, should have access to.

How to Boil Time, 2019

If you could choose any artist to create a painting of yourself, who would it be and why?

I would choose Berthe Morisot, Alice Neel, Xinyi Cheng, Trisha Baga, Trinh Minh-ha, or Guo Fengyi. I like that their work contains certain degrees of intimacy with the material they are using, with themselves, and with the subject they choose to work with. They paint / film / sculpt people’s souls through their (portraiture) work.

View more of Lu’s work at luzhang.org

More in Interviews

Sign up to get updates and special invitations