“Earth Born,” a two-person exhibition by Rhode Island School of Design painting students Caroline Zhang ’25 and Karen Fan, ran from Jan. 14 to Feb. 19 in New York-based art gallery Gern en Regalia, according to a press release.
Gern en Regalia is a small, independent “artist-run project space,” according to its website. Despite displaying their work in New York for the first time, Fan said that there “wasn’t a big difference” from RISD because of the gallery’s small size.
Joe Speier, the gallery and show organizer, directly contacted Fan and Zhang, who were “really surprised that we were paired together because we felt like our work was so different,” Zhang said. The artists’ different technical approaches to painting influenced how their work was installed in the space, she added. “I had one wall and Karen had theirs, and we had two paintings on the intersecting wall to bring them together.”
The show’s theme “Earth Born” draws inspiration from the work of French philosopher Bruno Latour and his book “Facing Gaia,” according to the gallery’s press release. The book explores “the fragile, complex system through which living phenomena modify the earth,” according to Latour’s website.
Fan “happened to have just read (the book)” when the gallery reached out to both artists, and they proposed the “Earth Born” theme to Zhang to create a link between their paintings.
Quoted in the press release, Latour wrote, “We are idiots; everything that happens to us happens only once, only to us, only here.”
For Zhang, the “sense of irony” in her paintings reflects this idea: “We’re all idiots on earth,” she said, considering her paintings “serious, but not serious.”
“The idiot aspect” in Fan’s paintings concerns “the sense of wanting to escape (the earth),” but failing despite fantasies of doing so. They described these ideas as “the driving force behind a lot of the things I was thinking while making these paintings.”
Interested “in cropping from environments,” Fan said they regard their paintings as “stills from an environment,” which are meant to imply the ability to extend the experience of the environment in 3D space — similar to “interactive gaming.”
“When I was making those paintings, one of my objectives was to stay away from being overly painterly,” and instead “put more emphasis on the image.” To do so, they created flat images that appear to have “no layers of paint,” they explained.
Still, Fan doesn’t “like to stick to a single thing for a long time,” and will explore an idea through one or two paintings. After, they “just move on,” they added.
Zhang described stumbling across photo albums of babies on Flickr while sourcing imagery for her recent work. “There was a period of a couple of months where I was making a lot of baby paintings,” which she enjoyed doing because “babies are weird and unfamiliar to painting — they’re like objects rather than figures.”
“I also like when things are erotic, but not erotic,” she said. Her painting “Throwback” depicts a baby breastfeeding, the perspective of which lends it “an element of eroticism,” she explained.
The perspectives in her recent work reflect an interest in amateur photographs with “weird angles” that often “make things more interesting,” Zhang said. “Insisting on a certain perspective or giving more consideration to perspective” makes the process challenging, but “I like when paintings are really hard for me to paint,” she added.
In addition to studying painting at the RISD, Zhang is a dual-degree student pursuing applied mathematics and computer science at Brown. “I don’t like forcing interdisciplinarity onto things … but I think it will eventually aid me in my work somehow,” she said.
Both artists attended the opening reception on Jan. 14. “It was definitely overwhelming at the beginning because we weren’t sure how they were going to receive (our work),” Fan said. “But I think it turned out to be not as stressful.”
Initially worried about being “forced to talk about my paintings in some smart and articulate way,” Zhang said she felt that the people who attended the opening “accepted my work and were able to appreciate it.”
“It was a really positive experience for me,” she said. “It felt like so many things that I had been doing beforehand ended up being worth it.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated Caroline Zhang's class year. The Herald regrets the error.