East Asian lacquer or urushi in Japanese should not be confused with any of the common Western lacquers. It is derived from the sap of the lacquer tree (Toxicodendron vernicifluum) native to central China and has no relation to Western lacquer chemically or in its application techniques. The main constituent of this lacquer is a hydrocarbon know and urushiol which polymerizes when exposed to oxygen. It is therefore a kind of natural plastic that when properly applied forms a rich and smooth yet remarkably hard and durable surface. It must be applied, however, at exactly the right thickness and dried very slowly at the correct temperature and humidity through many successive layers. It then must be polished in an elaborate process employing ever finer abrasive materials culminating in a multiple rub-down with a fine bone ash and the natural oils of the maker’s own hands. Thus applied, lacquer will almost effortlessly last a thousand years, its colors only deepening with the passing centuries.
Lacquer making in East Asia is an art that stretches back some 5,000 years, and the “dry lacquer” techniques used by Guo-Qing Zhang have been in continuous use for at least 2,000. Because of its extreme difficulty*, expense and time requirements it was regarded throughout history as a luxury reserved for the very few. Its importance in the lives of the ruling class in China meant that it was often regulated by imperial authority, an the artists who made things with it registered with the government so their inventions would not pass into inappropriate hands. In the latter half of the 20th Century China’s political upheaval seriously degraded many of the traditional arts, especially those like lacquer making whose difficultly, labor intensiveness and high cost make them unsuitable to mass production. Also lacquer’s association with imperial luxury and wealth also made its practitioners a target during the Cultural Revolution. It was regarded as an anti-revolutionary art.
Japan, by contrast has labored to maintain both the techniques and prestige of lacquer. The history of lacquer making in Japan also stretches back beyond the down of recorded history, and Japanese lacquer is notable for its inventiveness and delicacy. Dry lacquer techniques came to Japan in the 7th century from Tang China and today Japan remains at the center of not only the scrupulous preservation of these ancient lacquer techniques, but also the continuous reinvention of the medium. For these reasons Guo-Qing Zhang left her career in 1980’s China to study lacquer at the Kyoto University of Fine Arts, then the world’s premier institution for advanced lacquer instruction.
Guo-Qing Zhang’s work draws deeply from the above described East Asian lacquer making tradition, but her artistic inclinations are personal and contemporary. While her hands are aided by the deep grooves of her predecessors from the past few thousand years, the mind that guides them is clearly grounded in the late 20th and early 21st century’s own art. Her vision takes inspiration from nature as has all great Chinese art from the past, but it also pays homage to pure abstraction as it is understood in the West. She is inspired simultaneously by the ancient and nameless Han Dynasty masters and by the great sculptors of the late 20th Century and our own time.
* Adding to the difficulty of handling lacquer from a technical perspective, raw lacquer is also poisonous to the touch. It inspires a severe skin irritation and rash similar to it close botanical relative: poison ivy. Once fully dry though it becomes inert and harmless.