Mengmeng Zhang’s work is informed by an intuitive process of colour choice, figurative gestural mark making and representations of self exploration through the act of psychogeography, compositional frameworks and Asian manga aesthetics. Zhang incorporates movement into the creation process through wandering and documenting the outer environment while also being reflective of inner emotions, thoughts, ideas and feelings experienced during this process. Through intuitive colour choices that gravitate towards expressing certain emotive qualities, Zhang then incorporates stylized characters to embody moods, actions and fictional experiences inspired by her personal reflections and reactions to everyday life.
Terakawa’s poem book, 2022, Oil on canvas, 60 x 80 cm © The Artist
Mengmeng Zhang – Most of my work explores daily moments, my personal experience and my memory. I don’t have a specific theme or work in a series. I stand in front of a canvas and think about a specific moment that I’ve experienced, and I choose the colour. I start with colour and paint intuitively, which gives the painting a framework. Then, I think about the composition and if I should include a figure or not. Some of my work is purely abstract. The brushwork adds layering, figures and contours. At some point the image feels balanced, and after many layers I will stand back and think about the work. It will remind me of a specific moment which comes to me very ambiguously and fluidly. I don’t want the work to describe something specific, but I want it to reflect a narrative fictional moment.
Kelly Foster – I noticed that colour was very important in your work.
MZ – Colour plays a lot with emotion and the energy of a work. In my figurative work, the colour can reflect a feeling that the figure might be expressing.
Girl on bike<, 2021, Oil on canvas, 91.4 x 121.9 cm © The Artist
KF – The work is not meant to be a direct reference to a personal experience, but are there moments in your life that have inspired the compositions or figures that you depict?
MZ – There are specific moments or feelings that I’ve experienced in my life, but I use the composition or figure to describe the feeling.
KF – You reflect on universal emotions and depict them through archetypal characters. The figures have a childish and playful quality to them. They remind me of cartoons or animations.
MZ – I drew a lot of Japanese manga characters for fun when growing up. I lived in China but I was very influenced by Japanese animation and comic books. I was trained at a professional art school to paint traditionally, but I started to paint very intuitively, inspired from manga. I’ve been doing it for many years and it naturally became my style.
Approach, 2022, Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 101.6 cm © The Artist
KF – What is your process like from the conception of an idea to depicting it on canvas?
MZ – The first stage of my process involves a lot of drawing without thinking. I studied graphic design, so I’m very sensitive to shape and line, and how they deliver information and emotions. I like to play with composition and brushstrokes. The second part of my process involves wandering around the city and taking photos. One of the main characteristics of my work is moving figures. I tend to have a lot of ideas when I’m physically moving, whether that’s sitting in a car, walking or running. When I’m wandering around, I’m drawn to things on a wall or compositions that interest me. It becomes a record of my daily life.
The process isn’t about a specific event, it’s just about daily nothingness. Sometimes when I look back at my photos, I find a composition that I want to use, or it will trigger an idea about a figure that I want to paint.
KF – I definitely feel the sense of motion in your work. Do you intuitively gravitate towards certain things or recognize any patterns that you’ve noticed while you are wandering?
MZ – The main observations I make are about myself and my existence in the present moment. I’m continuously changing and observing my psychological state in the environment. I can see my feelings, my mind and my body at the same time. This is what I want to visualise, these kinds of observations. I want to paint the figures in action, and express emotions and thoughts through brushstrokes and colour.
KF Since you are observing your inner psychological state during this process, are the figures that you depict placeholders for certain emotions?
MZ The characters in my paintings are just emotional containers for everything. I don’t want the figures to look too accurate or have a specific identity.
KF How does your graphic design background inform your compositional choices?
MZ I started painting a few years ago, and at the time I was making a lot of posters while I was studying graphic design. All of the posters were just abstract compositions, so that first inspired me to paint abstractly. Ultimately, I knew that I wanted to express a feeling in my paintings, so I decided to incorporate figures and recognisable elements in my work. I also started to embrace mistakes and imperfections in my work.