Chinese artist Zhiyu You brings to life the plights facing women in her grizzly series of Hell Scene paintings that draw on her country's rich cultural heritage and imagery.
Eyeless heads stuffed in dumpling baskets. Body parts sizzle away in a frying pan. Little skeletons gleefully cut up a woman's torso. These are just some of the grotesque sights in Zhiyu's Hell Scene illustrations, which reinterpret the eighteen layers of Hell and the struggles facing women in a diabolically surreal fashion.
They're a prime example of the amazing artist's stock in trade: bizarre images that blend Chinese mythology, Western imagery, and the societal pressures facing women and minorities. Other works in her portfolio realise these elements in different ways, such as a series of portraits where a woman's mouth becomes a jail and the demands of modern life cluster around her in a flurry of window-like boxes.
And while her artwork realises some of her darker inspirations, Zhiyu tells Creative Boom that she finds ideas from all areas of her background. "Chinese culture influenced me in different ways," she explains." It's in the food I eat, the books I read, and the movies I watch.
"My series of Hell Scene paintings are inspired by the ancient Chinese book Hell Scene Painting, in which I fuse depictions of Hell in Buddhist scriptures with connect modern life and the 'imprisonment' of women in ancient culture. By doing so, I can highlight the plight and unfair treatment suffered by women throughout history."
Using Chinese characters in her drawings both as a nod to her past and as decoration, it's Zhiyu's goal to create work that looks like a cross between an illustration and a comic. "My painting medium is basically digital," she adds. "Initially, I often used a dipping pen to draw line drawings on watercolour paper and used acrylic ink to colour them. Since then, I've started using Procreate and Photoshop to complete everything."
Originally from the coastal town of Shenzhen, Zhiyu was exposed to the myriad of cultural references that would inform her work from an early age. When she was growing up, Shenzhen was a newly established and rapidly-rising area which underwent diversified growth. And it's these foreign influences which she says impacted her future life choices.
"Even as a child, I was very interested in drawing, and when I was in class, I liked to quietly draw my own imaginary world in textbooks," she adds. "Although my parents' profession had nothing to do with art, they supported me to draw a lot. They found me a good art teacher who taught me systematically. I have had many hobbies over the years, but the only constant one is drawing. I am grateful to my parents for supporting my career."
However, Zhiyu is keenly aware that her upbringing is sadly not typical in China, as many families still harbour a strong preference for raising a son. "When I was still studying in China, many of the girls in my class had brothers at home," she explains. "Mothers still need to give birth to a boy after giving birth to girls to improve their family status. In some areas, mothers who do not have sons are disrespected by the family.
"Fortunately, I was born into a family where my parents didn't devalue me because I am a girl. But many female friends around me are still struggling and treated unfairly by society and their families because they are women. I hope that through my work, I can help girls still being treated unfairly."
After studying at China's Central Academy of Fine Arts for a year, Zhiyu found that the exam-oriented education was not to her liking. To change things up, she moved to the United States to study illustration at the School of Visual Arts, which further broadened her cultural and artistic horizons.
"After graduating, I decided to stay in New York because there are many illustration-related activities in the city every year," she reveals. "I enjoy participating in these events because I always make new friends. Having lived here for a long time, the subjects of my paintings have also been affected because I like to record my observations and the trivial things in life."
Inspired by classical Chinese fine brush painters and contemporary Western illustrators, as well as her teachers at SVA – namely Yuko Shimizu, Marcos Chin, Mu Pan, and Sam Weber – Zhiyu feels she has been able to develop even more themes and directions in her work, all while retaining her signature style. Bringing the undetected emotions of women to the surface remains a cornerstone of her art, though.
"I hope to draw more attention to women in society," she concludes. "Everyone in modern society has different pressures, and not everyone can understand the pressures of different groups. I hope my work can construct a 'female vision' and record multi-dimensional information in an artistic way. I hope it lets more people understand the current situation and problems of contemporary women."