Charles M. Schultz at Art in America:
It is ironic yet unsurprising that politicians in both China and the U.S. have censored Zhang Hongtu’s paintings. Ironic because there are not many artists more dedicated to merging the cultural traditions of the East and the West, and unsurprising because Zhang’s work often wryly undermines authority.
Zhang, who has lived in New York since the early 1980s, is primarily a painter, though he also makes sculptures and installations, and has even dabbled in fashion, creating Mao-inflected designs for Vivienne Tam. This retrospective, guest-curated by Luchia Meihua Lee, is the first major survey of Zhang’s work in the U.S. It spans more than five decades, stretching back to the watercolor paintings and charcoal studies he made in the ’60s as a student at the Central Academy of Arts and Crafts in Beijing and extends to work made in 2015. The almost 100 pieces on view are grouped thematically, highlighting the conceptual issues in the artist’s oeuvre rather than its chronological development.
Several large works, all jesting critiques of China’s historically patriarchal culture, occupy the museum’s atrium. In a monumental 2015 photomural, the artist has added arched gateways along the Great Wall of China, transforming a classic symbol of exclusion into one of openness. Nearby, The Big Red Door (2015, after two previous versions, 1992 and 2002) re-creates a portal to the Forbidden City. Zhang has replaced the real door’s rows of huge hand-hewn nails with metal phalluses, most of them hanging limp. These pieces are a suitable entry point to Zhang’s oeuvre, which can be jocose even when dealing with severe subject matter.