How Artist Ernest Chang Blends Traditional Chinese Art and Contemporary Culture
Found amongst studio-gallery space The Stallery WCH’s usual neon hues and contrasting palettes is Ernest Chang’s new pop art series Bling Dynasty. At first glance, one can see the contrasting shades and hard-edged colouring that define pop art in the 1950s. But unlike the works by Andy Warhol, Chang’s paintings have layers of fading colours, distinct subject-background compositions, embroidery, calligraphy and dark brown wooden frames––all of which are hints of traditional Chinese art. What’s even more unusual is Eric Cartman from South Park at the centre of a portrait dressed in a Yuan Dynasty robe, as well as other visual references from Rick and Morty, Family Guy and many more animation and gaming titles.
Chang, a Chinese American artist now based in Hong Kong, reveals that the amalgamation of western, Chinese and pop art is a reflection of his modern family set up. “My parents have a huge part in my becoming an artist,” he says. “My mom is more western style. She loves and still paints with oil pastels and acrylic and Western calligraphy. My dad likes Chinese calligraphy. He’s super into Chinese opera and he listens to it on iPad. As for myself, I grew up watching shows like Rick and Morty. They are the kind of half-adult-half-children shows. South Park, for example, talks about very, very dark things. When I was watching the cartoons, I paused [at the moment of darkness], and then I took a photo of it, and I drew off that photo. In a way, I put a moment in a cartoon into another place. These characters are icons of my childhood. They represent me in a way.”
Chang had his share of darkness before he became the founder and creative director of The Stallery WCH, a gallery-studio space presenting multicultural art in 2014. Today, he has landed five solo shows with his gallery and elsewhere, including the Hong Kong Affordable Art Fair and the Hong Kong Correspondent’s Club. Yet back in 2012, during his first year studying photography at Ringling College of Art and Design in Florida, Chang suffered from depression.
He dropped out the following year. In 2013, he returned to Hong Kong and studied Fine/Studio Arts at Savannah College of Art and Design, which he also quit after a year. “School gave me a lot of anxiety,” he recalls. “This style of pop art came from the struggle that I went through. Like Takashi Murakami’s work where there is a darkness in the colours, I use colours to attract people in order to discuss these problems. We keep hiding all these [emotions], and it’s really not healthy. I think they are worth exploring in our society.”
One of the greatest challenges Chang underwent as artist was his deuteranopia, or red-green colour-blindness. “I started as a commercial photographer. The feedback I was getting on my shots was that all the colours of the models were off, like their skin tones were green or orange or something,” he says. That’s when Chang decided to become a full-time artist. “My assistant helps me do colour charts. She writes and labels all the colours for me so that I can match them back.”
Chang also works digitally. “My colour-blindness is both a gift and a curse. Mechanically, I have an advantage because I can see and modify these colours. In Photoshop, it’s much easier to highlight and copy the HEX code (the code for colours) and ultimately use that as a reference to what I use in the future. I also favour doing silkscreening, because it helps me separate layers of colours. In painting, you mix these different colours together and create gradients. For me, the only way of mixing colour is by overlaying dots.”
Chang explains that overlaying dots is how comic books are printed. In the '60s, newspapers and comics were printed with only black, yellow, blue and red. Printing a green colour required overlaying yellow dots on top of blue. When our eyes see it, it tricks us into thinking it’s green. “That’s my kind of mixing,” Chang says. “I use mostly lines and dots to create gradients and shading.”
Aside colouring, popular culture has a huge influence on his works’ subject choice. Talking about the inspiration behind Bling Dynasty, he says, “I was watching a documentary about the Silk Road and learnt about the influence and trades from China. That’s about the time when Covid hit, and I was stuck at home. I just kept going online and shopping. Instagram is very effective at selling things. I realise how everyone is going through this bombardment of ads at home.”
What he found online are global products with a Chinese influence. “China is the second largest economy in the world. You see a trend of Western luxury houses moving towards using Chinese motifs and festivals as launch dates for their sales. Last year was the year of the rat, and Calvin Klein launched a line of like t-shirts with a little rat logo. That would have never happened 20 years ago,” Chang says. “It’s definitely a shift in culture, the West is being influenced by China’s luxury market because of its buying power. Now Instagram is our new Silk Road. I find that soft cultural power very interesting. That’s why I put a lot of these fashion brand logos, Chinese reference and motifs into my art which is full of characters that we all grew up with in our generation, who struggled with consumerism.”
In Bling Dynasty, every piece of his paintings has instantly recognisable images from global pop and consumer culture such as characters from animated sitcoms and video games. Chang hopes to offer tongue-in-cheek commentary on the dominating influence of Chinese consumer power on the global marketplace. Don’t Say Anything Mean (2020), for instance, reimagines a character from the South Park wearing luxury designer clothing in a portrait inspired by the painting of Kublai Khan from the Yuan Dynasty. By placing historical work from Chinese art and contemporary cartoons together, Chang reflects on today’s society that is heavily influenced by mass consumerism, corporate advertising and the streaming platforms.
“The word is apathetic,” he concludes. “For us as a generation, there’s all this bling outside, but there’s apathy underneath, because we are confused by our times, and by the values of what society has imposed on us.”
Bling Dynasty is shown in The Stallery WCH from February 20 to April 4, 2021. Find out more at thestallery.com