The Legend of the Zhou Brothers [周氏传奇]

The Zhou Brothers are among the most legendary and established cultural figures in the contemporary art world. Originally from China, they have been residing in Chicago for the last thirty years. As artists, they live in a world of the self. Their art is made to explore the topic through inquiry about humankind itself. Their life reflects their pursuit of art, which is a heroic journey to conquer the world.
While enjoying a successful art career spanning decades, they also built a successful business based on their art practices. There is a big warehouse building located in the Chicago neighborhood of Bridgeport baring their names: “Zhou B Art Center”. They bought the place twelve years ago and have gradually developed it into the most popular private art center in Chicago. In the meantime, they started their own art foundation and opened an artists residency exchange program. Recently they have been developing a new international Zhou B Art Center in the most popular downtown area of Beijing China.
Artsy: “At what point did entrepreneurship become an important part of the ZhouB practice?”

Zhou Brothers: “We don’t think this way. Art is life and Art is our journey. We just create and move forward.”

It is surprising to learn that the Zhou Brothers didn’t think of themselves as entrepreneurs or “Artreprenuer”, the trendiest label nowadays for artists, even though their business endeavor is a real case study of how to become a successful “Artreprenuer”.
In the public eye, they are the prototypical artist, mysterious, eccentric, and not shy of enjoying what their successes have brought them. They are famous for their lavish galas at home where they rub elbows with tycoons, politicians, and celebrities. Their works are sold for millions to private collectors around the world. In the media, the Zhou Brothers name is always associated with wealth, fame, and big success.
Yet if you are fortunate enough to be close with them and manage to overcome their dazzling aura, you will find that they are indeed very serious artists who have devoted themselves to their art for 45 years. The visual effects of their paintings are beautiful, magnificent, and powerful. The layered surface on top of the monumental-sized canvas expresses the creators’ complexity, determination, toughness, and tenacious individual will. To them, their business endeavors are also part of their artistic creations and expressions, and as a result, they are equally daring, surprising, and original.
Artsy: “Your aesthetic is often described as a symbiosis of East and West. Where would you locate your practice on that spectrum?”
Zhou Brothers: “It is always fluctuating based on our feelings. Sometimes it reaches to a great balance, other times it may lean more towards one side than the other.”
The Zhou Brothers, Zhoushi ShanZuo [周氏山作] and Zhoushi DaHuang [周氏大荒], were born into a well-educated family of the Zhuang ethnic minority in China’s western Guangxi province, in 1952 and 1957 respectively. Since their early childhood, they have shown talent in painting and drawing. However, the Cultural Revolution in China from 1966 to 1976 turned the lives of the Chinese elite class upside down, and the family of the Zhou Brothers were no exception. The brothers experienced unimaginable hardships in their teenage years. With wisdom beyond their years, they decided to look towards potential opportunities rather than wallow in self-pity. Such a spirit has never abandoned them, and to no surprise it is reflected in their paintings as well.
They developed the aesthetics of primitive tribal art of ancient China that symbolizes the passion and power of life. Later inspired by the cave paintings on the mountain of HuaShan in their hometown, the Zhou Brothers formed their collaborative abstract painting style that was so unique and fresh, different from anything coming out of the academic art system of China. During that time social realism was favored over all other forms of representation. The HuaShan mural painting series won them a major exhibition in the National Art Museum of China in 1985. At the age of 33 and 28 respectively, the Zhou Brothers gained national acclaim and were invited to Chicago for a solo show.
With only $30 in their pockets but limitless ambitions, the Zhou Brothers gave up everything they just earned in China, and came to a new world to face an unknown destiny. Luckily their first show caught the attention of the Chicago art world, as the critic Margret Hawkins wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times, “… The whole thing is a pattern of ritual celebration that owes nothing to Renaissance perspective or the Western tendency toward narrative…” The style of the Zhou Brothers’ paintings not only fell in the context of gestural abstraction that was easily understood by Westerners, but also carried a mysterious atmosphere from the prehistoric civilization of ancient China. Commercial success followed. By 1990, they had already exhibited in prestigious galleries and museums all over the world.

Mo Chen: “You are known to host annual galas at home for celebrities, politicians, and tycoons, which gives us an impression of chasing money, power and fame that against the ideology of a “pure” artist. How do you face to this seemingly negative public image?”

Zhou Brothers: “We advocate heroism with a magnanimous attitude in the face of human nature, to enjoy life, and to actively embrace the bright side of the life. Even during our periods of suffering, we still carried a forgiving heart to forget the dark side of history. We only look forward, never look back. Because our ancestors were once rich, we had a bold vision of spending since our childhood. As LiBai’s poem said, ‘ The things that Heaven made must have a use; Though I squander a thousand gold pieces, time may restore them.’[李白: “天生我才必有用,千金散尽还复来。]

This attitude is derived from the ancient Chinese culture of the literati class, favoring self confidence as the Chinese aesthetic heroism. Exactly as to what the painting expressed, the one that we have done for the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland in 2000 we praise the bright positive side of human nature with open arms, embracing the new world bravely like a child.”
In 2000, the Zhou Brothers were invited to paint live in the opening ceremony for the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland in front of the world’s politics and economics leaders. The painting was 10 feet high and 25 feet long, named “A New Beginning”, a dedication to the millennium.

Artsy: “You’ve been collaborating for almost 45 years. Have there been significant ups and downs or have you found it to be a relatively straightforward trajectory?”

Zhou Brothers: “Like everything else in life it has its ups and downs and there have been many. But our success would not taste as good if our journey had been too easy.”

Like all talented artists who keep departing from their signature styles and exploring new possibilities, the Zhou Brothers’ works has evolved considerably over the decades. Since the turn of the millennium, the Zhou Brothers’ paintings have become almost entirely abstract and free flowing. The color becomes brighter and richer. Most traces of narrative and figure have been eliminated. Texture is more important than ever. The paintings are more based on material and are process-driven, and are more concerned with a fluid movement than before—fluidity not only of physicality but also of emotion.​

Unlike their early paintings, when the struggles and fights were shown clearly on the canvas. The new works show a uniform, calm ornate style, with all movements hidden beneath the surface. As they say, they now seek more intangible sense of movement driven by an invisible flow. Entering the fourth decade of their collaboration, this may mark the successful maturation of their personal philosophy of “Feelingism”. From looking at the images, they have made choices in life and handed themselves a satisfactory answer sheet.
Their latest works, THE WATER LILY POND OF LIFE [生命的莲花池 is a new series in this direction, soon to be shown in China, following their last retrospective at the National Art Museum of China in 2007.

Artsy: “How would you describe your respective roles in this creative dynamic?”

Zhou Brothers: “We don’t have particular roles in our collaboration. It is more like tripartite conversations between ourselves and the canvas.”

The Zhou Brothers have a very unique collaborative process of making paintings, and what most attractive is the complex spirituality reflected in this process. “People think we have the same idea and bring harmony to it before coming to the canvas. That’s wrong. The value of the collaboration is that it opens up things that couldn’t happen in any other way. When you paint by yourself, no matter how great a painter you are—Picasso, whatever—you won’t have the courage to destroy your own painting. You think you are always right. But two people together, they don’t care. You paint something amazing, but he destroys it, because he sees it differently. And with this kind of fighting, something comes out in the painting that’s never happened before. It’s a mystery, and it creates a new magic.”
From close observation, these two individuals have very different, almost opposite personalities that challenge and complement each other. At the same time, each of them carries an intriguing combination of the strategic mind of a businessman and the pure heart of an artist. During their painting process/live performance, the canvas becomes a battlefield to bare their fierce fights and struggles. It is amazing that each battle will reach a singular vision of stopping at the right moment, or yield a truce at the end. To watch the residues left on their canvas is to experience “道Tao”, which describes such scene as “道生一、一生二、二生三、三生萬物。萬物負陰而抱陽、沖氣以爲和” in ancient Chinese philosophy.
[The Way produces one, one produces two. The two produce the three and the three produce all things. All things submit to yin and embrace yang. They soften their energy to achieve harmony.

Commercial success and pure artistry are usually considered mutually exclusive. To them, however, it’s not a conflict. They just live their life with the same artistic feeling of making their paintings. They call their philosophy “Feelingism,” [感觉主义] and elaborate it as “feeling is liberty.” [感觉是自由神] It can be interpreted as going with your guts, blindly believing in yourself, and following your heart. As painters, they make decisions spontaneously based on their intuition in the moment. In that sense, they are just simply applying this “feeling” to other areas of their life practices, including business. Labels such as Artist or Entrepreneur are irrelevant to them. Before the secret of how human’s intuition works is unraveled, they can only be defined as geniuses in life.

Artsy: “How does the new Zhou Brothers Studio in Beijing fit into your creative vision?”

Zhou Brothers: “Our Studio in Beijing is a natural result of our creative development. We want to share our work, our vision, and our philosophy that ‘Feeling is Liberty.’ “
In 2015, the Zhou Brothers opened a new studio in Beijing. Returning to the homeland they left four decades ago, this new studio will be their major site to live and work from now on. The astonishing interior of the new studio is once again the product of their wild imaginations. A year later, a new international Zhou B Art Center broke ground in the center of downtown Beijing. For people who know them, this new chapter in their legendary journey comes with no surprise.

“Mystery within mystery; The door to all marvels, ” [玄之又玄、衆妙之門]” a quote from the Tao Te Ching by ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi, may be the best summary of this close observation.