Portland artist takes on themes of surveillance, censorship and queer identity with work that subverts Chinese propaganda imagery.

COURTESY PHOTO: BLUE SKY GALLERY - Yuyang Zhang's photo collages are at Blue Sky Gallery through Aug. 27.

Photo collage artist Yuyang Zhang's show "Stupid Little Life," at Blue Sky Gallery through Aug. 27, pushes the medium to new limits.

Zhang, a 29-year-old graduate of the Pacific Northwest College of Art, mashes web graphic pop-ups with 1970s poster art with photos from his phone, in some cases laying them with Exacto precision on card inside deep frames, in others, blowing them up on vinyl that he sticks to the gallery walls.

In his thesis show in 2019, Zhang (pronounced Chung) used motion detectors, surveillance cameras and redacted text to summon the spirit of Chinese restrictions on freedom, showing how the state manages to gather information and manipulate it on the fly to keep tabs on its population.

The new show is rooted in more local concerns: Zhang's anxiety as he waited 20 months to hear if he would get his visa renewed or if he would have to return to Wuhan Province in China. He was also dealing with his identity as a gay man and as a Chinese artist in the USA.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - 'MOMA', one of Yuyang Zhang's photo collages at Blue Sky Gallery through Aug. 27, pays homage to Andy Warhol with Lady Gaga Oreos.

The result is collages such as "Earnestly Study the Congress Document" where always-cheerful hand-drawn propaganda people huddle around a gay magazine instead of a boring policy document. Zhang has inserted his own face into the group. (In another, called "Catfish" two hunky men hold aloft a lucky goldfish). All his works contain pop-up graphics. In this case, a small picture of Chairman Mao on a wall behind them is obscured by a WeChat pop-up.

The pop-up says something like "you have to agree to the terms of service before you can view the content." He took the Mao photo himself in China in 2018 on a summer break.

"It's like I am self-censoring," he told the Portland Tribune. "There's a notification of something ominous, a warning, it creates a tension between the Butt magazine, the propaganda figures and the photos. There is that underlying uncertainty or concern that you are still being watched by 'Big Brother.'"

Home for now

He chooses not to leave Portland and return to Wuhan. Asked if China is repressive for a gay male artist who plays with traditional iconography, he said:

"They don't openly repress the queer issues, but also they also don't openly support that. So you never know if your work is going to be taken down. It's very, very tricky and very touchy, you don't know what could happen. And that kind of uncertainty is it's the last thing that I want as an artist."

The main wall of the gallery is taken up by a grid of 20 screen prints of Lady Gaga Oreo cookie snacks. Zhang is a big Gaga fan and loved the promotional tie in when her album "Chromatica" came out in 2020.

"It was such a sensation among queer communities, everyone was trying to find Lady Gaga Oreos everywhere: grocery store, gas station convenience store. ..."

He photographed using his phone, and screen-printed it in red and yellow versions. The piece is called "MOMA" because he went to New York City on a college field trip where they hit 30 small galleries a day, as well as the big museums. In this work, characters in a mixture of different Chinese traditional outfits (including industrial boiler suit) crowd around the work. Their gender make up represents his art school class mostly female-presenting.

"At the Museum of Modern Art we saw Andy Warhol's 'Campbell Soups,' 20 something screen prints on the wall. I wanted to recreate that scene. I like paying homage to this great, gay artist that has a strong influence in our history."

Underneath the grid is a brown, irregular form. This is a photo he took of Death Valley.

"In this series of collages I always include three elements in each work: One, historical propaganda posters; two, my personal photographs; and three, screenshot notifications."

He usually takes photos with his phone, even though he is skilled with a digital and film SLR cameras, because the spontaneity suits his workflow.

"It's more about the person, those eyes behind the camera. I am more interested in the photo itself, instead of which tool I use to produce the photo."

One piece called "Cape Disappointment" shows a mom looking over her daughter's shoulder, at a list of 10 cars. They are all Porsches except for number nine, which is a BMW. "It's a little bit still stereotypical portrait of Chinese parenting, they want their children to achieve greatness. Nobody's perfect, but you have to be nine out of a 10."

He is saying parents have let up a little on the perfection now, and will allow the occasional B in a string of A grades.

COURTESY PHOTO: BLUE SKY GALLERY - Yuyang Zhang's photo collages are at Blue Sky Gallery through Aug. 27.

"My father was that overbearing father figure and that gave me a lot of pressure, that I couldn't make any mistake, otherwise he would be disappointed," said Zhang.

Asked how his father feels about him now, Zhang admits he hasn't spoken to him for two years since his parents' divorce, but he is sure they are both proud of him and his life as an artist in Portland.

"I think both my dad and my mom, they understand what I do. I feel very grateful for support from my family and also from the artist community in Portland."

Blue Sky Gallery is located at 122 N.W. Eighth Ave.

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