Ren Hang was creating some of his most powerful art when he passed away last year at the age of just 29. It’s one of many reasons why the self-taught Chinese provocateur is still so profoundly influential, informing the work of new-gen artists all over the world. And not just photographers either: Young Thug referenced Hang’s striking body compositions — including a simple scene where one woman lies in another's lap — in his video for eccentric banger “All the Time.”
The third edition of Strange Plants, a book series about botanicals in contemporary art, features 11 artists carrying on Hang’s legacy. One of Hang’s photo stories was published in Strange Plants II in 2015, the photographs largely informing the overall mood of that edition. “His images of friends floating in lily-pad-filled ponds at night added an eerie romanticism to that volume — he liked photographing plants, he told me, because he wanted ‘things of life, vitality’ in his work,” editor Zio Baritaux says. Baritaux was inspired to create an ode to Hang, titled “Regrowth,” after he passed away in 2017. “‘Regrowth’ is my modest attempt to pay tribute to his life and art.”
The eleven artists involved in the tribute include Julie Curtiss, Sean Phetsarath, Ram Han, Kyle Vu-Dunn, Katarina Janeckova, Fin Simonetti, James Jean, Kate Klingbeil, Kristina Schuldt, Winnie Truong and Brittany Asch. Their focus is more figurative than that of previous Strange Plants contributors, changing how Baritaux approached the curation process for this feature. “My hope is that this book continues the dialogue that the first two volumes began,” Baritaux says, “about how we understand nature and about art as a tool for interpreting and questioning our surroundings.”
All 11 artists created new work for “Regrowth,” each moved by a different aspect of Hang’s work. French artist Julie Curtiss, who paints seductive, surreal explorations of the female body, found a strange beauty in those turbid corners of the lotus pond where the light doesn’t touch. “I was drawn by the negative space in Ren Hang's photographs of the lotus pond,” she says. "The contrast between the beauty of the flower and the dark, murky void surrounding them was at once attractive and repulsive. I decided to explore this ambivalence for Strange Plants III.”
Other artists have long been inspired by Hang’s Asian identity. Sean-McGee Phetsarath paints absurdist spectacles like a “little Asian baby kid” sliding down a gigantic butt with his arms outstretched. They’re actually rather complex interpretations of his early years growing up in Texas with strict parents who emigrated from Laos. “Being an Asian artist myself, Ren Hang's depiction of the power found in the Asian body has consistently been an inspiration in my life,” Phetsarath explains. “His pure and honest images inspire me to create worlds of yellow landscapes that I have always dreamed about living in.”
Korean illustrator Ram Han cites Hang’s “animal gaze without prejudice" as a huge inspiration. Han’s luminous Alice in Wonderland dreamscapes envision worlds where lambs in leather daddy accessories cuddle up for story time, and a nude giantess cries milk-white tears onto the face of her miniature lover. “I took inspiration from the fact that he expressed the human species the same as nature,” Han says. “Humans, plants, and animals in his work eventually felt the same value and neither superior. An animal gaze without prejudice was always felt in his work. Although someone could imitate his narrative, there have never been any comparable works. It is the same for me. I literally imitated him. My work is only about how I loved his work.”
Strange Plants III is available via Zioxla’s online store.
Works in order of appearance by: Ren Hang; Ram Han; Katarina Janeckova; Winnie Truong; Sean Phetsarath; Kate Klingbeil; Kristina Schuldt; Kyle Vu-Dunn; Julie Curtiss; James Jean.