Exhibitions at Unit London are always glitzy affairs. Videos of the featured artists playing at the entrance, thumping music, a slick social media and strong digital presence make for what the commercially savvy owners, Joe Kennedy and Jonny Burt term “an immersive experience”. They’ve reached out to a younger crowd who queue around the block in their hundreds for opening nights.
To add to the “immersion” for the latest show here, Chinese artist Zhuang Hong Yi has decorated the gallery floor with painted flowers. He tells me it is “to spread some happiness especially amid the confusion of Brexit”. Flowers are Zhuang’s hallmark. His works are inspired by the giant Dutch bulb fields of Keukenhof near to where he has lived for the past 20 years. This is Zhuang’s third show at the Unit, a clear sign of his commercial value. It’s not difficult to see why.
His products have an instant appeal. They consist of meticulous floral forms – roses and tulips – intricately hand-folded from rice paper in a traditional Chinese way. Assembled in his studio in Beijing, they are finished off in Holland using oils and acrylics from seemingly every hue of the spectrum. You’re practically drowning in a riot of luscious colour.
There’s a clever twist too. By carefully painting the inside of the paper folds, the works undergo a complete change of colour when viewed from the opposite angle. It’s like two for the price of one.
The exhibition is entitled Earth as it has been coincided with Earth Day that focuses world attention on the plight of the planet. Indeed, the streets of London have only just returned to normal after the protests of Extinction Rebellion.
Nature is close to Zhuang’s heart and he is concerned at the environmental damage he has witnessed in China as it strives for economic progress through brutal urbanisation. There’s an interesting contrast between the upbeat, cheeriness of his paintings celebrating nature and the underlying themes of a world under threat.
The rose is an ancient symbol of peace and happiness in China. Zhuang’s pieces aim for positive energy that combines the influences of two differing but complementary cultures, east and west.
He studied at the Sichuan College of Fine Arts in China but soon discovered there was little appetite for abstract work like his in his homeland though he believes that attitude will surely change.
He went on to study Fine Art at the Minerva Art Academy in Groningen in the north of Holland. He became increasingly influenced by western Impressionist painters particularly Monet. His paintings have a sculptural quality and have been featured in more than 30 exhibitions and group shows worldwide including at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.
Certain of his paintings evoke memories. Dreamscape, for example, was inspired by a family trip to Indonesia where he watched the sun both rise and fall over the ocean. The sky is flat and spray-painted in direct contrast to the three-dimensional foreground that appears to burgeon from the canvas. Similarly, there are works which are inspired by coral reefs he has observed while diving.
Elsewhere there are seasonal depictions and memories of nighttime scenes and eclipses. “I use my brush and colour like a diary,” he tells me.
Another western influence is the German painter Anselm Kiefer. This is more evident in more spontaneous works like Divine Ecstasy with its splashes of paint and gestural impasto. In this particular picture, the broad horizontal brushstrokes to the left were made accidentally when the artist was moving the still wet painting from outside where he normally works inside into his studio. But he liked the effect and kept it. It seems to explode out of the picture. He then added an internal black frame, as he says “to control it”. These works have more of an emotional pull than the solely decorative ones. “I always enjoy this process,” says Zhuang. “I never know what will really happen.”
Earth is happening at Unit London, 3 Hanover Square, London W1S 1HD until 18 May.
All images are courtesy of the artist and gallery.