An appreciation for the garish, gruesome and striking aesthetic of horror films has propelled much of Louise Zhang’s artistic practice to date. The Sydney-based artist is interested in the push and pull between attraction and repugnance, good and bad, grotesque and intriguing. This creative approach, and the idea that what repulses us also attracts us, is heavily inspired by director and horror legend David Cronenberg – the man behind timeless scary films like The Fly and Videodrome.
“Cronenberg believed if you aestheticise the ugly, it ceases to be ugly,” says Zhang. “That’s kind of what I base my practice on.” Zhang works across painting, sculpture and installation, and, via an ongoing fascination with various synthetic paints and horror props, has produced a captivating series of chemically fused, thickly textured, blob-like sculptures. Having very recently completed her Master of Fine Arts, Zhang has settled into a studio space at The Nest creative studios in Alexandria.
Aptly titled Monstrous Masses, Zhang’s most recent solo exhibition at Artereal Gallery was the culmination of two years research into the horror genre. “I was looking at theories in body horror as a genre, and seeing how I might be able to adopt that into a contemporary art practice,” she explains. “I would be using things like colour and cosmetics and plastic, and trying to turn that into something really seductive.” Zhang cites the 1993 B-grade Australian horror flick Body Melt (literally about melting skin) by director Philip Brophy as one of her favourites. “I don’t think enough people know about it!” she laughs. “I like things outside of the horror genre too, like Pan’s Labyrinth, when the toad regurgitates its own stomach. I love the child’s perspective of things; it’s so untainted and really playful.”
Zhang’s work is made up of oozing, bright blobs forged from Polyfoam, polyurethane, enamel, glitter, resin, plastic and glass beading. A piece titled More Than a Few Moons looks like a pastel-coloured moon rock, the imprint of chemical effervescences still evident across its surface. As for how her sculptural pieces come together – the process is largely experimental and exciting, happy accidents. “People often ask how I create these things,” Zhang says. “It sounds clichéd, but you’ve just got to play around, and then you’ll discover some crazy effects.
“There’s no control with the materials I use – when you pour it out, it acts on its own,” she says of her chemical and paint concoctions. “Some of the materials have their own setting, some of them set in 30 seconds, and some will set in 20 hours. I can’t ultimately control it, which is what I kind of love.”
Beyond the allure and distaste of horror and gore, Zhang is especially inspired by her creative contemporaries, which informed her choice of studio space after exiting art school. “I decided to settle here because it’s not full of artists,” she smiles. “I’m used to being in a very insular artists-only environment, which is very critical. I loved it, and I kind of miss it, but I didn’t want to be pigeonholed.” At The Nest, Zhang is neighboured by ceramicists, prop makers, florists and a sign writer. As we chat, one of the other studio residents is conducting a floristry class. “Everyone knows each other in the art world; it’s amazing to meet other creatives as well.”
When we visited her studio, Zhang was busy producing work for a new solo show at Gaffa Gallery titled New Year Rot. The show is a part of her prize for the Yen Emerging Artist Award last year. The exhibition explores images used in New Year traditions, as well as the visual language of the realm of purgatory known in Chinese mythology as Diyu.
“I’m interested in exploring new things, I’m ready for a change,” she smiles. There’ll be more experimenting, and more investigation of horror, but she’s also hoping to take a more considered, personal approach to her new work. “I’ve kind of denied my Chinese heritage so far, and I’ve been interested in exploring this. I went to China and traced my family history. It’s a part of me, and I’d like to really recognise it.”
Louise Zhang will exhibit at Gaffa Gallery from August 18 to 29.