In a new exhibition titled “Bling Dynasty”, Hong Kong-based artist Ernest Chang unveils 18 new works that superimpose cartoons and gaming characters of popular culture against backdrops rich with Chinese tradition.
TEXT: Olivia Lai
IMAGES: Courtesy of The Stallery
Surrounded by vibrant, colourful portraits of Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty, Lois Griffin from Family Guy and Eric Cartman from South Park, the cosy interiors of The Stallery in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, can easily be mistaken for a Cartoon Network studio. On closer inspection, these characters are not presented as they usually are, but rather dressed in historical Chinese attire, printed with luxury brand logos, and set against varying backgrounds typically associated with Chinese art from Tang and Han dynasties. These are just some of the examples from Ernest Chang’s latest works showcased in “Bling Dynasty”, which sees the American Chinese artist pay tribute to his two cultures by superimposing Western cartoon characters onto traditional Chinese settings.
The Hong Kong-based artist, who founded gallery and studio The Stallery in 2014, first made an impression in the local art scene back in 2016 with his “Blue House” photo series capturing the beautiful decaying interiors of this historic building in Wan Chai ahead of the site’s revitalisation project. Though not one to stay static creatively, Chang has experimented with graphic design and interactive art before diving into creative avenues such as digital painting and new technologies like deepfake—manipulated media that allows an existing image or video to be replaced with someone else’s likeness. His 2019 series “Famous by Proxy” saw the heads of figures in Renaissance-style works be replaced by manga characters. “By flipping the value of Renaissance art into an Asian context,” says Chang, “it sparked a new train of thought for me which is to bridge these cultures together but in a way that is contemporary and humorous; to create work that says I am Chinese and I am American.”
Prompted by his father’s love of calligraphy, Chang began to experiment with various traditional Chinese art practices such as embroidery and paper cutting. Through trial and error, Chang sought for the perfect middle ground in marrying Chinese art practices with Western popular culture. For his new show “Bling Dynasty”, Chang has essentially created his own version of deepfakes by replacing Chinese figures with popular Western cartoon characters. “In the beginning, I really wanted to make things that were undisputedly Chinese,” Chang explains. “Some Chinese paintings don’t work on Western art—from the fading of the colours to the softness of the palette and the fluidity and expressiveness of the ink. It’s really difficult to translate it into a Pop art setting. What I like the most about cel-shaded comics is its self-contained colours but it’s the opposite of Chinese culture and paintings. [Furthermore] I had to pick motifs from Chinese art that were so iconic that even when you put it in a Western setting, they would still read as Chinese.”
But meshing East and West art practices comes with its own challenges whether it’s moulding a resin sculpture to achieve the beak of Kirby’s hat or achieving the effect of silkscreen via plexiglass. Translating the typically muted tones of Chinese paintings into bright contrasting colours to fit a Pop-art context is additionally difficult for Chang, who has red-green colour-blindness. “I usually try to put all the colours first in black and white so I can see them in gradient,” Chang explains. “Instead of mixing actual colours, I just overlay another colour on top of a colour, so that I can understand what happens afterwards. It’s pretty mathematical for me. But Pop art provided a surprising benefit in this case. There’s a lot of dots involved and it’s fascinating to me that dots can help make you differentiate colours. Taking Roy Lichtenstein-esque dots into my work really helps with my colour-blindness.” In expressing the fading and misty mountains that are iconic in traditional Chinese works, these dots were crucial in mimicking the effect too.
From acrylic paintings on a plexiglass layer of Lois from Family Guy—which provided an added commentary on 2020—to Chinese paper cuttings of Disney characters and sculptures of the popular Nintendo character Mario, it’s undeniable that cartoons play a major role in this new suite of works. But Chang chose each character carefully to create a specific visual harmony and audience connection. “It’s ingrained into a generation of people who saw these cartoons as celebrities,” the artist says. “And because cartoons are so minimalist, the way that you draw a slight tilt of the mouth is going to affect a lot of people’s interpretation. With these icons, I try to match them into the these settings.” Take the portrait of Eric Cartman from South Park for instance, which is modelled after Kubali Khan, the first Yuan dynasty emperor. The character Cartman is known to be a selfish brat and Chang found it fitting to have him replace a conqueror except donned entirely in luxury. “It adds to the harmony of the themes and visual paradox,” he explains.
While the heart of the show may be Chang’s celebration of his two cultures and identities, his new works also have an overarching message about the blatant rise of consumerism and how it impacts art. “Our times are changing and the marketing techniques are changing,” Chang claims. “For me, it was constantly being bombarded with logos, [which is] a way to be more identifying for brands. Then there’s the interest of Chinese consumerism of anything with a logo, so now you have luxury design houses driving their own design concepts behind that. It’s very interesting, this sort of ebb and flow of influence. So I’m using appropriation to talk about cultural appropriation.” Amidst the silkscreen and embroidery, audiences can find luxury fashion brand logos scattered throughout, whether it’s Rick from Rick and Morty sporting a Kenzo branded robe or Tweety Bird surrounded by Hermès and Supreme clothing tags.
Chang takes joy in incorporating these pop culture references in his artworks rather than producing conceptual works in the age of digitalisation, and regards it as an effective tool to connect people. “As Pop artists we try to use things that are readymade so that people can have an immediate connection with something that we make,” he says. “It’s really important for people to connect with my art. Using these characters, you’re speaking to a whole new generation of people, and yet using these traditional compositions, you can speak to an older generation of people. I think humour is the best way to connect with someone. When you laugh at a painting, you already like it.”
20 February – 4 April 2021
The Stallery WCH, G/F, 82A Stone Nullah Lane, Wanchai, Hong Kong