A spray of aerosol paint, jet black, erupts in conical fumes out from a single point. The cap is re-positioned, and it sprays again. You can hear the hiss in MadeIn Company’s Studio as Xu Zhen and a team of artists create his Turbulent series. The spray paint drips onto the raw canvas, creating a rigid pattern, something both handmade and industrial. Still, these are not made in a factory—unless it’s one alluding to Warhol—they’re created for a gallery wall, by an artist.
Xu Zhen was born in Shanghai in 1977, at the moment when the ideas of communism began to shift into capitalism. It was an auspicious time for a person who would go on to be one of the country’s most astute critics of these systems—an irreverent figure who blends the worlds of culture and commerce in a way like nobody else. Whether remaking an entire supermarket as an installation, or repainting old master paintings obscured by the flash of a camera, Xu is at the forefront of how art operates in today’s world. Case in point: he incorporated his practice in 2009 as MadeIn Company, which then released “Xu Zhen” as a brand in 2013. This sensitivity to powers surrounding art has not gone unnoticed; he has exhibited at museums worldwide, represented China in the 2005 Venice Biennale, and was the commissioned artist at the 2014 Armory Show. Throughout his varied practice, one question emerges again and again. How can we approach something differently?
The Turbulent paintings sit within the gallery with a natural unease. They link the measured geometry of minimalism to the performative act of painting that defined abstract expressionism. Yet it is the use of spray paint that defines them, that links them both to the walls inside the gallery and those out in the city. It was this connection that caught the eye of another group, based around the world, who continually redraws the boundaries between different forms of culture. Led by musician/entrepreneur Will.i.am and designer Graz Mulcahy, ill.i brings together a team of musicians, artists and designers collaborating on new types of eyewear. Rooted in the history and ethos of hip-hop, ill.i was drawn to Xu Zhen’s use of spray paint, and approached him to collaborate. The artist, intrigued by the new context and medium for his work, accepted.
The resulting collaboration is simple and refined. The bold, geometric patterns from the Turbulent series were embedded in the ill.i’s custom acetate frames. One of the paintings was turned into a dress, allowing the formal pattern to accentuate the female form. And then Xu Zhen took it further. With his trademark subversive humor, he crafted a two stone lenses for an ill.i design —a pair of full moons that turned sunglasses into an objet d’art. The result of this collaboration is unprecedented in the world of eyewear, but that’s the nature of creative collaboration. In a cultural landscape defined by both intense specialization and ceaseless fluidity, certain questions have begun to dominate the conversation: How does one artist influence another? How does a designer think about something differently? How can a company present it in an unexpected way? How do you create a new experience?