'To some, ash seems useless and insubstantial; it is a short-lived witness to human spirituality and spiritual practice. To me, it carries unseen sedimentary residue, and tremendous human data about the collective and individual subconscious. As artists and as individuals, we select materials as message-carriers to reconnect with the spiritual world outside of our everyday life. Incense burning touches and awakens the spiritual impulse embedded deeply in our subconscious. Therefore, the ashes produced already possess a great deal of potential for connecting the human with the spiritual. The task, for me, is to solidify these remains of the spiritual life, and allow this evidence somehow to haunt my pictorial depictions of historical events, people or earthly symbols'
(Zhang Huan quoted in Zhang Huan Ash, exh. cat., Haunch of Venison, London, 2007, p. 12).
Zhang Huan's Young Mother is a monumental portrait filled with pathos, symbolic and spiritual resonances. Exquisitely rendered with ceremonial ash and incense collected from Buddhist temples, the work has a hypnotic and transcendental quality that exemplifies the quiet lyricism of Zhang's ash paintings. The artist depicts a demure young woman staring out directly from the canvas, and her larger-than-life presence imparts a visually intricate image. What makes the scene intriguing is not simply its mesmerising rendering of ash; as seen in the lactating breasts of Zhang's protagonist, the artist lures the viewer in with his enigmatic psychological complexity.
With its monumental and haunting imagery, Young Mother abounds with connotations - it is a timeless image that reflects Zhang's concerns with the struggle between the individual and the collective, history and memory, identity and spirituality. Zhang has stated: "I select my imagery carefully and hope that, through this haunting process, it will invite a new examination of our collective awareness and experience." (ibid.). Here, the motif of a young mother invites multiple readings: it recalls the age-old Confucian ideal of filial piety, and also serves as a poignant reminder of China's One-Child Policy that was introduced in 1978. Moreover, despite the photo-realist quality of the work, a sense of anonymity pervades - Young Mother is not a record of an individual per se, but rather personifies a maternal ideal. Similar to Western depictions of the Virgin Mary, the work becomes a veritable icon of motherhood.
Zhang's ash paintings are a body of work that evolved after the artist returned to his native China from New York in 2005. The return to his motherland marked a major shirt in his art-making, one which saw Zhang move away from his performance art. Entranced by the evocative and metaphysical association of burnt incense during a visit to the Longhua Temple in Shanghai in the same year, Zhang began incorporating ash remains in his work as a means to connect the human with the spiritual. In Young Mother, the grisaille effect achieved by the subtly differentiated charred incense lends the work a visceral effect, and almost alchemistic quality. Indeed, the ash remains are the substance through which worship of ancestors and heaven are made - they are remnants of the communion between individuals and Buddhist deities. With its potent and abiding sense of spirituality, Young Mother is a tour-de-force that attests to Zhang's unique approach to art. ET