Ten years ago, the world of the Zhou brothers was no larger than their province in southwest mainland China. People there are known, not for their painting, but for their singing. “Where we were born,” says Da Huang, 30, “if a person has something important to say, he sings. But my brother and I, we always wanted to paint. When we were very little boys, we painted pictures on the sides of our neighbors’ houses. ”

The Zhou brothers sip instant iced tea in the East/West Contemporary Art Gallery, where they are exhibiting through July 11. It’s not a group show; the brothers have been collaborating for the past 15 years.

Their speech sounds the way their paintings look: in newly learned English, they say only the essential things, stating them in clear but unexpected ways. The older brother has the habit of pointing to his eyes when he speaks.

“The painter must have big, long eyes,” Shan Zuo, 35, says. “The painter must have world eyes.”

In 1978, the brothers left their village to study fine arts in Shanghai and Beijing. Four years later, at their first major exhibit, they gained immediate recognition. Guang Xin Qian, art director of East/West Contemporary Art, wrote to them after seeing their work in a magazine. At Qian’s invitation, they have been painting in a studio in Chinatown since their arrival in Chicago earlier this year.

How do they compare living in the United States with life in the People’s Republic? “There is no difference,” says Da Huang. “The real world is inside.”

The 19 paintings on display at East/West Contemporary Art bear this out. The work is strong in symbols that appear to be neither Eastern nor Western — yet, at the same time, both Eastern and Western. In Song of the Ming River, two dark figures make their way along a brown waterway in an ancient boat. In Pastoral, a fanciful horse leaps from a world teeming with blues and yellows. Many of the paintings contain a line of black or burnt sienna below at the feet, and above, the golden sunlight to be reached for. Shan Zuo relates a myth from his native province about creation: The world was destroyed by fire. Only a brother and sister survived. Since they were siblings, they could not marry, so they separated, each following the river in a different direction to search for the sun. Many years later they met, but because they had not seen each other for a long time, they had forgotten that they were brother and sister. They married and had many children, and the earth became full again.

“This is like us,” Shan Zuo says, nodding to his brother. “We are different people, but when we come together, we create a new world on our canvas. Both brothers apply paint to each canvas. Sometimes they agree immediately on an image but not always. “One brother may have the feeling,” Shan Zuo says, “the other may have the logic.” Regardless of the roles they play — muse or critic — or the number of times they reverse the roles, eventually their main theme brings them back to agreement.

“We are always looking for the hope, the wish, the dream,” Da Huang continues, picking up exactly where his brother has left off. “We are always searching for the sun.”

Shan Zuo laughs. For the past two weeks he has been trying to wake up early enough to see a sunrise over Lake Michigan. Several mornings, he made it to the lake, but the days were overcast. He finally saw the sun, he says, but he had awakened late and had to run the last few blocks as the sun was coming up.

They are asked about the meditative, intellectual dimension that appears in their paintings. One, titled Light of Life, seems to replicate a menorah. Others, like Soul and Pastoral Song contain figures stretching upward toward a higher place. Have the brothers been influenced by a particular religion or belief system?

At first, they don’t seem to know the word “religion,” then Da Huang says, “Yes, our religion is the people and the sun.”

One wonders, have they misuderstood? But no, after another stroll through the gallery, it appears that they have answered the question very well.

Paintings by the Zhou brothers can be seen at East/West Contemporary Art, 356 West Huron, through July 11. Hours are 11-5 Tuesday through Saturday. The gallery will be open July 4.

Guang Xin Qian, former curator of the Shanghai Art Museum, anticipates bringing other contemporary painters to Chicago from the People’s Republic of China. For more information call the gallery at 664-8003 or Kathleen Van Ella at 234-4354.