Diana Zeng: Outside In, A Solo Exhibition Presented by the Bonsack Gallery


August 23 – October 1, 2019

The Bonsack Gallery presents Outside In, a solo exhibition by Diana Zeng, featuring new works that explore the different elements we welcome in from the outside world. Zeng probes the extent to which what is foreign becomes familiar, from nature to unknown cultures. The selection of works brings together vibrant large-scale oil paintings on canvas, gestural expressions on paper, and a gathering space centered around a reimagined fire pit infused with the cultural motifs of her interracial family. Zeng employs this spectrum of approaches, from the concrete to the abstract, mirroring ways in which what is found outside becomes taken in, changed, and reconstructed. Unifying her lived experiences between the American Midwest and her ancestral home in China, Zeng confronts innate reactions toward the Other, not as stranger, but as kin. 

In her life size oil paintings, Zeng juxtaposes her familial experiences, depicting her husband in a courtyard in her father’s hometown of Linxia in the Gansu province of China, and herself in the backyard of her fathers-in-law’s home in Grinnell, Iowa in the United States. The flat figures in her paintings sit centered and surrounded by their lush and intricate environments, casting the focus away from the individuals and onto the complexities around them. Rendered through their contours, the identity of the figures are discernible only to those who know them intimately. This anonymity creates space for the viewer to inhabit the scene, mirroring how Zeng and her husband have traded places and turning a personal history into one that is universally accessible.

Influenced by Chinese calligraphy and ink-wash painting, Zeng distills nature onto paper in her Seasons of Change series combining acrylic with charcoal, china maker, and soft pastel. The abstraction of nature through instinctual gesture captures a moment in the changing of seasons, creating a new depiction from this cyclical process. Zeng worked in a fast and intuitive manner in this series, whereas a slow and deliberate process was used in rendering her oil paintings. Her practice is a physical embodiment of how certain aspects of the outside world are readily accepted, whereas the integration of other differences requires time and consideration.

In the center of the gallery, Zeng reimagines the fire pit — a gathering place initially used for human survival and one her husband introduced as a family tradition. This installation, The Kindling, is composed of a Chinese porcelain fish bowl planter, wood vase stand, concrete garden benches, semi-gloss exterior paint, paper, and pen. The porcelain vase standing in the center, procured and haggled for from a Chinese vendor at a local Asian supermarket, is reminiscent of the various oriental planters in Zeng’s childhood home. The concrete benches, while found at local garden stores and backyards, harken back to the traditional folk art of brick carving Zeng discovered in her father’s hometown of Linxia in the Gansu province of China. The entire fire pit is painted red ‒ the color of fire, an auspicious color in Chinese culture, and the color of blood, which is reverently shared in a family lineage and violently spilled between humans.

Around this fire pit, Zeng encourages visitors to sit and add in their own kindling in the form of regrettable inflammatory actions or remarks to be burned away.

Dear Gatherer, 

Write down a time when you treated someone as an Outsider. Throw it in the fire pit to be burned away as kindling. Let’s create a warm place for gathering.

The artist invites viewers to work through the tension between belonging and alienation that defines identity. Zeng questions the arbitrary boundary we set up between ourselves and everything outside ourselves, examining the different degrees to which certain elements become welcomed or Othered.

Thank you to Donya Allison and Jessica Hunt for making this exhibition possible.

Images provided by the artist and Jennifer Korman Photography.

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