Wang: Zhou brothers art center masterpiece of art, life

The Zhou brothers inside their gallery. (Ian Wang for Rantoul Press) 

 

Every summer around this time I write one of my Art=Life columns about an art trip outside of the Rantoul area. Primarily I have written about my visits to a national-level or world-renowned art museum such as the National Art Gallery in D.C. and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

For this month’s column, I am writing about the Zhou Brothers’ Arts Center and art district in Chicago, which are physically and culturally close to us in Rantoul. 

The Zhou brothers are nationally and internationally well-known contemporary Chinese American artists living and working in Chicago since the latter 1980s. I have read about them and attended their art exhibitions. However, it was only last month that I had the unique opportunity to meet them, and they gave me and a group friends a personal tour of their residence, home studio, arts center and the art district named after them in Chicago. 

It was one of the most interesting and eye-opening art trips in my career and in my social-cultural life. Due to the limited space for my column, I will only write a few highlights of what I learned from this visit.

The Zhou brothers were born and grew up in the Guangxi Province of China. In the latter 1970s they studied stage design at Shanghai Theatre Academy. 

Initially, the older brother was formally admitted as an undergraduate student and the younger was to accompany his brother. But moved by his passion and eagerness to study art, the academy authority arranged for him to serve as an unofficial observing student for about two years. 

Since graduation from the college in 1982 they have been practicing art together as The Zhou brothers ever since. Nowadays, they are regarded as the world’s most successful and longest-collaborating art brothers. 

As Chinese American artists, they have been living and practicing art together in Chicago since 1986. What I am especially interested in sharing in this column, and hope Rantoul can learn from, is how they made significant contributions to the art world and local social, cultural and community developments. 

One of the most important milestones happened in 2003 when they purchased a vacant former factory storage-warehouse building in Chicago that spans five stories and about 90,000 square feet. They redesigned and redeveloped it with art galleries, art studios, workshops and offices. As Modernism artists, the brothers incorporated both their Chinese cultural heritage and contemporary American art concepts into the design and creation of their art facility and programs.

The first time I walked into the first-floor art gallery of the center last month, I felt I was walking inside a gigantic Minimalism sculpture surrounded by huge Modernism abstract paintings on canvas because the concrete walls, floors, columns, ceilings and water pipes are naked without any decoration. It reminded me some of the leading masters in the Minimalism art movement. 

The geometries of Mangold, the textured monochromes of Ryman and the linear studies of Agnes Martin are a distilled “presence, where composition and even color and form are reduced to a trace. However, it is in sculpture that Minimalism achieved its supreme expression. Composed of simple, geometric shapes, the modern materials -- fiberglass, plastic, aluminum -- are untreated or colored with primary-color or monochrome industrial paints.” 

In essence Minimalism highly condensed its concept into an absolutely simplified form and color; in its turn Minimalism is to eliminate the “inside” (the artist’s personality and gesture) as well. 

However, the most eye-opening to me is at the same time on the gallery walls are displayed the Zhou brothers’ huge abstract paintings. Fundamentally, their Modernist abstract artwork become increasingly eschewed allusions to the outside world of representation. 

When asked, the Zhou brothers said the art center “is a center for art, for life, for people and for the future.”

After 16 years, their art center and its programs have become well-known cultural fixtures not only in Chicago but also internationally. Apart from regular art programs, such as their own selected art displays in the first-floor gallery, invitational or juried art exhibitions and Chicago’s the Third Friday Art Gallery Tour programs, from time to time their art center has organized and held special programs, such as, special exhibitions, concerts, art events, organizational banquets and fundraising events. 

During my visit, one of the Zhou brothers proudly told me that on Dec. 5, 2017, President Obama personally held a fundraising event in the arts center and made the event a huge success. Coincidentally, two days later, it was announced that the Zhou Art Center was named the No. 1 best art center in the nation. 

In recognizing their great achievements and significant contributions, in 2014, the state of Illinois declared Oct. 16 as Zhou Brothers’ Day to commemorate the establishment and opening the Zhou Brothers Arts Center on that date in 2003. A year later, the city of Chicago named the front street where their arts center is located as Zhou Brothers Street.

While taking a group photo of our visit in front of the art center in the art district, what came to mind were London’s energetic Soho streets, Beijing’s 798 Art District and my dream and pursuit of an international arts center since I came to Rantoul.

Dr. Ian Wang is the curator of the Spurlock Museum and may be contracted by email at wangyu@illinois.edu