By KEVIN NANCE
In 1986, two young brothers, ShanZuo and DaHuang Zhou, visited Chicago to attend an exhibition of paintings they had created together in their home country of China. The brothers’ unique partnership—they collaborated on large canvases on which their sensibilities melded into a cohesive, though not always seamless, whole—had already made them rising art stars in Beijing. In Chicago, it was an even greater curiosity, in part because Americans think of visual artists as the ultimate individualists working in isolation, chasing intensely personal visions that no one else, not even a sibling, could possibly share.
Two painters, one painting: How could that work?
Twenty-eight years later, the Zhou Brothers are still in Chicago, still raising eyebrows with their seemingly counterintuitive process of making art as a team. The difference now is that piece after piece, exhibit after exhibit, they’ve proved the wisdom and fertility of their collaboration. They are fixtures of the international contemporary art scene, their paintings fetching prices starting in the six figures in the United States and Asia. (They also create sculpture, the largest examples of which currently sell for up to $8 million.)
The brothers also loom large in realms beyond the art world, making paintings as a form of performance art in front of business and political leaders at gatherings such as the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in 2000. In 2011, President Obama commissioned the Zhou Brothers to create a painting that he presented to China’s president, Hu Jintao, in a private ceremony attended by the brothers at the White House.
But even as the Zhou Brothers’ career has expanded into most corners of the globe, they have anchored themselves in Chicago, specifically in the South Side’s Bridgeport neighborhood. They live and work in a former Polish social club, which now contains a vast, airy, light-filled studio where they create their paintings, often working on up to 15 large pieces at once. (Sometimes the brothers paint with the stretched canvases lying flat on the floor, sometimes standing up, sometimes both at different stages.) And two blocks away, the Zhou B Art Center, a sprawling complex of galleries, artist studios and event spaces established by the brothers at 1029 W. 35th Street, is preparing to celebrate its tenth anniversary this fall.
“Chicago feels like home,” ShanZuo says in a recent interview in the garden of their Bridgeport complex. (DaHuang is the younger of the pair, although both brothers, who keep themselves fit and favor stylish, form-fitting outfits and hipster hats, appear significantly younger than their actual ages, which they declined to reveal.) “At first we didn’t intend to remain in Chicago, but once we got here, we felt like we need to stay,” DaHuang says. “Chinese artists are a little shy, a little humble, singing very deep. In America, it’s more powerful, more direct.” He smiles. “Here you show your muscle.”
In their earliest artistic efforts in China, the Zhou brothers trained and painted separately, but they came together as a team in 1973. “At first it was just for fun,” ShanZuo says. “Collaboration among scholars and calligraphers is a tradition in China, so we thought we would try.”
But the brothers quickly realized two things. One was that their collaboration wasn’t always fun. As part of the process, each brother has the freedom to cancel out—to “destroy,” in their blunt terminology—what the other has done by altering, augmenting or erasing it entirely. “He’s totally free to do anything,” ShanZuo says, “I am free to do anything, including to cover over what he did.”
From the start, then, their collaboration was rooted at least as much in conflict as in harmony. When they paint, the brothers’ separate identities neither merge nor disappear; rather, they engage in a dialogue, one responding to the other, and sometimes the conversation can become a bit heated.
“Sometimes he gives you a surprise,” DaHuang says of his brother. “You’re working very smoothly, developing something, feeling very comfortable with it, and then he comes in and goes pah-pah-pah-pah-pah! And everything is destroyed. It’s hard to take sometimes. You respect his talent, but it doesn’t mean you don’t get angry.”
But out of that destruction and those sometimes raw emotions also came something unexpected: a new form of art-making that produced results that neither brother could have accomplished on his own. “At the beginning, we knew it was interesting, but we didn’t know how special it was, how important it was,” DaHuang says. “But more and more as we worked together, we realized the value of the collaboration. People think we have the same idea and bring harmony to it before coming to the canvas. That’s wrong. The value of the collaboration is that it opens up things that couldn’t happen any other way. When you paint by yourself, no matter how great a painter you are—Picasso, whatever—you won’t have the courage to destroy your own painting. You think you are always right. But two people together, they don’t care. You paint something amazing, but he destroys it, because he sees it differently. And with this kind of fighting, something comes out in the painting that’s never happened before. It’s a mystery, and it creates a new magic.”
The greatest mystery, perhaps, is that for all the struggle implicit in their creation, the paintings often arrive at a place of harmony, or at least a balance of elements, however precarious. Sometimes the balance has the feeling of competitors battling each other to a draw; other times, a natural order is achieved, like planets threatening to collide but slipping, at the last moment, into alignment.
“It’s quite unique, what they do,” says Kuiyi Shen, Director of the Chinese Studies Program and Professor of Asian Art History, Theory and Criticism at the University of California, San Diego. Shen is also author of the introductory essay in Zhou Brothers: 30 Years of Collaboration, published in 2004 in connection with an exhibition mounted by the Chicago Cultural Center and the Elmhurst Art Museum. “They start from differences, from their own places, and then there’s a competition—a confrontation, actually. But gradually, the two sides get together, and that results eventually in harmony.”
Sergio Gomez, curator and director of exhibitions at the Zhou B Art Center, often finds himself awed by how the brothers repeatedly manage to find equilibrium. “What makes it work for them is their culture of trust,” he says. “Sometimes when you see them together, you have a sense that they’re connecting in a language besides the verbal. Many times they fight, but at the end, the whole comes together and it turns out to be incredibly beautiful.”
As ShanZuo puts it, “Sometimes after a while, you both see something, and it’s good. You stop right there. The painting is done.”
The Zhou Brothers’ work has evolved considerably over the decades. “As artists, when you start to feel like you satisfy yourself, you always pursue a different thing,” DaHuang says. “You always look for the best way to make your art go further, go beyond.”
“When you’re young, you think you can do everything,” his brother adds. “But it takes a long time to find your own style.” DaHuang nods. “The most important thing is what kind of artistic language you create for yourself.”
Their first collaborations in the 1970s were often representational and narrative-based, inspired by Chinese folklore—one early painting, currently on display in their dining room, shows a mythical beast being slain—and primitive cave drawings. In the ’80s, the brothers pushed their engagement with 5,000 years of Chinese art history into the realms of modern art, producing work that, while grounded in tradition, increasingly responded to the international art world in a way that combined the ancient and the cutting-edge.
After settling in Chicago, the brothers spent the ’90s soaking up influences from their new environment, producing a body of work that was both heavier in texture and more abstract. In those paintings—several of which remain on view through Oct. 4 at the Zhou B Art Center as part of an exhibit called Zhou Brothers: American Period—minimalist figures (often secret self-portraits) are prominent, strolling through somber color fields illuminated by lightning flashes of vibrant red.
Since the turn of the millennium, the Zhou Brothers’ paintings have become almost entirely abstract, decorative and free-flowing, most traces of narrative and the figure having been eliminated. Texture is more important than ever, the canvases rougher, the paint thicker and more three-dimensional. The paintings are more gestural, more intuitive and more concerned with a fluid kind of movement, than before—a fluidity not of things but of emotions, reflecting their philosophy that “feeling is liberty.”
“Our work is not about thinking, it’s about feeling,” ShanZuo says. “When we paint, something is flowing there, you just have to feel it. It’s like tai chi [a Chinese self-defense discipline now used primarily as exercise and stress reduction]. It doesn’t look powerful, but the power is there.”
Accordingly, the brothers engage in a minimum of chatter when they paint. “Originally we talked and planned,” DaHuang says. “Later we realized we don’t have to talk too much.”
ShanZuo nods. “The painting itself,” he says, “is the conversation.”
Image shown at top of page: The Zhou Brothers, DaHuang Zhou and ShanZuo Zhou, in their Bridgeport studio. Photo: Kevin Nance, 2014
Kevin Nance is a Chicago-based freelance writer and photographer. Twitter @KevinNance1