Rachel Zhang b. 1998

My works are explorations of the absurdities and existential anxieties surrounding questions of personal autonomy and the social roles we occupy in relation to various systems of power. Through surrealist figurative scenes, I’m interested in reflecting on and metaphorizing the evolving beliefs that have structured societies and their social hierarchies, moralities, and manifestations of control over our bodies. 


The main focus of my practice is my oil paintings, which I see as symbolic versions of contemporary genre paintings, taking place in public spaces in an endless city. The figures in my works are often in stages of conflict or metamorphosis into man-made objects or states of being, and they occupy various positions of power as they navigate mysterious tasks, rules, and their resulting judgment or punishments. I’m interested in situating my scenes in public spaces, especially spaces of transience or ‘non-places’, for their inherent codes of conduct and density of associations; I consider these locations as ripe for exploring detached social relationships and power dynamics in metaphor. 


My imagery is informed by a variety of sources, including satirical and dystopian fiction stories, 20th-century absurdist theater and literature, social psychology research especially on conformity and obedience to authority, religious allegories, and lineages of personal histories as they relate to current events, at the intersections of Asian American histories, family narratives during 20th-century China, US history, and histories of women’s roles throughout time. I see my perspective on society through my works as coming from an Asian American female consciousness, with its complex relationship to visibility and othering. 


Within my scenes I treat everyday happenings, current events, and history as a form of mythology, seeing their recurring themes and hauntings as narrative motifs to transform. I’m interested in the dualities of rigidity and instability, conformity and transgression, the individual and the crowd, tenderness and cruelty. Working with imagined figures and narrative scenes is my way of reflecting and making sense of cycles of structural violence as they surface in present-day spaces and actions, as well as questioning the future of our societies. — Rachel Zhang