[2008 Arne Glimcher] Preface


Arne Glimcher


The early 1990s witnessed the emergence of a revitalized Chinese contemporary art world. As with all such historical moments, it began as a reaction against the existing Social Realistic style which conveyed government approval. Zhang Xiaogang was amongst the first group of artists to establish a style that embodied this break and was categorized as Cynical Realism. It illuminated the break with Social Realism, a term used by authoritarian regimes to describe the political purpose for artistic styles in the service of social betterment. Now, fifteen years later, the artist's aspiration to create a personal vision has long since subsumed his desire to make a political statement. Indeed, Zhang Xiaogang's works are anything but cynical. To the contrary, the work's metaphysical nature displays the innocence of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, with all its pain of loss and relief of recovery. It conveys an urgent narrative of his life before the world as he knew it, was destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. In an obsessive, monumental recreation of time past, his famous “Bloodline” series, service as a collective family album posed like photographs in truncated space, he memorializes previous existence.


Some paintings have blotches of color on mostly monochromatic frozen images that are reminiscent of the long exposures of early photography.


The blotchy imperfections humanize the paintings as if food specks or tea stains reclaim a living history greater than the isolated image. The awkward red “bloodlines” bring to mind cracks in the emulsion of photographs as if these family photographs were stuffed in a pocket to be viewed secretly again and again.


Formally they also recall the portrait paintings on silk of dynastic emperors and dignitaries in which the minimum use of detail captures the essential elements of identity. But instead of individualistic imagery Zhang Xiaogang’s portraits are collective metaphors mirroring the society in which they were created.


But why are these essentially Chinese paintings presented in western style? They are reminiscent of the early black and white airbrush portraits of Chuck Close, both in their scale and frontality, and the photo-derived paintings of Gerhard Richter where the brushwork has been blended into an anonymous surface. Indeed, Zhang Xiaogang visited Germany and met Richter.


Zhang Xiaogang’s long-time friend and dealer, Leng Lin described that when the doors to the west opened the entire history of western art was revealed as one heroic adventure from the Renaissance to the present. It was not analyzed episodically, but rather the multiplicity of found styles influenced Chinese artists. Style was selected and employed in the service of a greater Chinese narrative. It was not unlike Picasso and Braque looking across the chasm of time and space at African sculpture and responding to its stylistic elements rather than to its societal function. Although they may have recognized its inherent magic, it didn’t possess the utility as did the structural form for the invention of so analytical an art as Cubism.


In a counter response the Chinese were not responding to the legacy of Modernism, they were creating a narrative art uninfluenced by Modernist theory. Zhang Xiaogang adopts western style to convey an eastern narrative, and in doing so, he opens the door to a global artistic universe where style (like African sculpture for the Cubists) is interchangeable but the message remains endemic and unique to each culture.