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Zhang Hongtu was like most youth of China in the 1960s. They initially believed in much of the ideological Communist propaganda of creating a better, equal world. Mao was an exceptionally charismatic leader. He talked and wrote passionately about the welfare of the people. A revolutionary leader often doesn't make a good peace time leader. The Cultural Revolution flame spread out of control and engrossed the entire country in ten years of chaos and destruction. Witnessing much of the incongruity and cruelty of the reality, people became deeply cynical.

Hongtu lived in Beijing, the epicenter of Party activity. The Cultural Revolution had a significant influence on him, his work, and his artistic development. Hongtu left China in 1982, only 6 years after the end of the Cultural Revolution with its deep imprint still fresh in his mind and eager to shake off all of its shadows. He was one of the first contemporary Chinese artists from the Mainland to leave China.

Upon his arrival in New York, he began studying at the Art Students League at the age of 39. For a few years he attempted to completely forget about the Cultural Revolution and its use of art as a political tool. He painted only abstract art. Art for art's sake. He was a struggling artist for many years working in masonry and at other jobs. He painted an immense amount of work, his desire to create was insatiable. He also experimented with many different styles and techniques.

Political events in 1989 jolted Hongtu back to the realization that he was still Chinese and the impact of the Cultural Revolution could not be ignored. It was then he started painting his Mao Series, which eventually gained acclaim through his solo show "Material Mao" at the Bronx Museum in 1995. For Hongtu, Mao's image has immeasurable power. "Mao is everywhere, except for the bathroom. There is not one room where we don't put Mao. You think you forget him, but his shadow is still following you."

Hongtu has now completed his therapy through the Mao series and has since 1998 been working on a Shan Shui series. It is a series of oil paintings where he combines the compositions of Chinese mountain water paintings with Impressionist brushstrokes and colors. These works are revealing of his continuous cultural negotiations. He is now standing in a distance looking at the China where he came from. His sentiments are expressed through a folklore poem that he paints on a recent self-portrait: Huang Niu Shan [Yellow Ox Mountain]. The story of Huang Niu Shan is about a traveler in the boat that departs from the yellow ox mountain in the mornings and arrives in the evenings still at the yellow ox mountain. After three mornings and three evenings, he is still on the same yellow ox mountain. This implies that you have traveled far and for a long time, to find that you are still grounded in your roots. For Hongtu, he has traveled a long way both artistically and personally. In a larger sense, the story of Huang Niu Shan also speaks about the experiences of immigration and journey through life, and looking back to one's roots --an experience shared by both Hongtu and Jian-Jun.


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