[2008 LengLi] Zhang Xiaogang’s New York Exhibition

Zhang Xiaogang’s New York Exhibition

Leng Lin

In today’s art world, Zhang Xiaogang seems like a relatively conservative artist. He insists on painting having a narrative and believes in painting’s contemporary power. He strives to bring an art historical dimension to each of his works. Zhang’s artworks focus on the relationship with past, memory and history. The artist has always placed an emphasis on the existence of history and memory in the present. In his works, history exists in the present, there is no way to erase it, and it is continuously being revised. It is impossible to not involve history, our current perception is too derived from our memories. Zhang has always been a traditional artist, who expresses man’s experiences and emotions through his paintings. Those scintillating spots, scars and lines on his canvases reveal the references to history and the release of emotions. Such traditional expression and the insistence on it brings us back to the belief in and worship of painting’s narrative. His effort is to re-emphasize the power of emotion and feeling over the “super-flat” and “cool.”

The vestiges of history in both memory and soul and various connections between past and present continuously appear in Zhang’s series of the past decade or more: the birthmark-like scars and bloodlines in the Bloodline: Big Family series, the luminous facial spots and tear marks in the Amnesia and Memory series, and the electric cables, lamp cords, and pen and ink in the In-Out series. The paintings is this exhibition, Green Wall series, include familiar imagery from the past: the bloodlines represent connection and the light spots express hope and confidence, specifically. These works couple artistic mining with reflection on the importance of history and stories both personally and publicly.

In China, green was the other revolutionary color besides red. It is plain, natural and commonplace, and was the fashionable color in 1960s and 70s China. Every young person wanted to wear the green military uniform and hat. By employing this green, the artist attempts to locate the intermingling of the individual and the collective. This pairing is both sensible and orderly. In one of Zhang’s journal entries, he wrote:

Perhaps this is an era where sensibility and order need to live in mutual co-existence. Perhaps we need to acquire some sort of ambiguous descriptive mode in order to confront our rapidly transforming era? Perhaps we should try harder to forget, try to be in a state of amnesia where we may overcome many embarrassing realities.

The military coat in Green Wall - Military Uniform was once everybody’s desired object, so much so that it seems as if it still contains the warmth of their hopes. The silence of the scenery in Green Wall - Wooden Bench hints at remembrance and questions what came before – has someone just left the bench, what memories remain? References to existence and emotional residue previously appeared in the Amnesia and Memory series. In that case, the dreamlike portrait explored the expression of emotions. In this new series of works, the references to issues of existence and memory occur in more open spaces. We can also see the artist reexamine history. In the 1960s and 70s in China, a common yet distinctive practice was to paint the bottom portion of the wall green. This was done in private spaces such as homes and in public environments like hospitals, schools, and government offices. In the spirit of collectivism, the differentiation between private and public did not exist. The artist uses the green wall to obscure the boundary between private and public spaces, and people’s psychological status in such a non-segregated space also becomes complicated and ambiguous.Green Wall - Wooden Bench emphasizes the divided space. The table-cloth covered coffee table and the radio to belong to a private family space, however, the long wooden bench suggest a public space. In a more dramatic display, Green Wall - Reader demonstrates the complexity and subtlety of an individual’s psychological activities in a borderless space. A nude figure is reading (a solitary activity) in a (green-walled) space that is hard to determine whether it is public or private. Is this a portrayal of people’s spiritual experience of the time? And the appearance of a modern camera suggests a present viewpoint. The contemporary quality in Zhang’s works is this repeateded observance of past and history, and unceasing revision of the present through “amnesia” and memory.

In truth, the artist’s interest in blurred boundaries - where the separation between collective and individual and private and public in certain time periods becomes unclear - has been apparent since the early Bloodline: Big Family series. Family is neither individualistic nor collective; it is a relationship or joint that connects an individual and the collective. Zhang has always recognized the past and present through familial relationships and patterns. Green Wall - Landscape and Television pairs imagery that is both contradictory in time and setting in a dramatic landscape. In recent years the artist has frequently utilized the loudspeaker and television to represent the public and private. The loudspeaker was the most common channel for broadcasting information to the people during the 1960s and 1970s in China. Everything from important announcements or government propaganda to trivial matters such as calling for an individual in a team or group, was announced in a public manner. In other words, people’s knowledge of the outside world was realized through a collectivistic, non-private manner at that time. It was not until television, which did not appear in private spaces such as living rooms and become popular until after the reform and open policy of the 80s, that people’s method of acquiring information became more intimate and optional. Both methods of digesting information and better understanding the world are experiences of Zhang’s generation. The generation which experienced the Cultural Revolution as well as witnessed all the changes leading up to the present day. Zhang juxtaposes the two sceneries – in the background an electric post with a mounted loudspeaker stands in a vast, rural landscape and in the foreground a man seated on a sofa watching television as if at home. Zhang Xiaogang combines views from different times, so as to suggest that the broad landscape, which represents the socialist and collectivist viewpoint of the world, is still affecting his generation. 

Zhang is an intellectual artist. The same intellectual mode of thought and spiritual experience present in his paintings are demonstrated in the traced narrative texts of his large-scale photographs. In his photographs in this exhibition, he has created an interior and exterior, both of which have a socialist Utopian feel to them. On the surface of these photographs, the artist records his ideas and thoughts in a journal-like manner. The images are taken from old films. Are these images depicting the background of Zhang's thoughts and experiences? Is the non-corresponding relationship between these images and languages suggesting that both history and memory add another dimension to the existing world today?    

From the pictorial level, we can establish a certain connection between Chuck Close, Gerhard Richter and Zhang Xiaogang, which enriches the depth of the world of imagery. Close’s paintings are a logical, material and physical analysis of portraits; Richter’s paintings are a philosophy of images; while Zhang’s paintings are about the historic issues of human kind. Whether it is Bloodline: Big Family, In-Out, or Green Wall series, Zhang continues to emphasize a sense of history. In his paintings, such relentless observation of history and experience are constantly being revised through memory. Revision is his persistent attempt to search for direction.

The word revision leads us to revisionism, which is a reaction or dilution of the pure, doctrine Communism that dominated the 1960s. In its most damning sense, to be a revisionist was equated to following a more capitalist agenda. To revisit revionism here is to add a new interpretation and understanding of the present world in the form of history. And Zhang’s artworks obtain such purpose.     

Despite the fact that this period of history and its experience was a regional one, the collectivistic, Utopian spirit at its base aimed to liberate man in the spirit of cosmopolitism. In his artworks, Zhang continuously links the present with this portion of the past through memory and reexamination. The serene face with the luminous spots and tears in Green Wall - Slumber No. 2 questions whether the Utopian spirit is dead or temporarily asleep? These are not merely passing thoughts, this is an artist questioning his place in the world. I again would like to use one of Zhang's journal entries to clarify our current place and problem:

I indeed vividly “felt” it, we have really entered the globalized economic super highway. We have flown-over bridges from the “socialist avenue”, and kept circling and spinning around and around above the multi-level bridges. From elementary school, high school, college, till now, there has all along been a voice echoing: “We are now facing a brand new era!” Yes, we are forever moving toward a new way of life, which implies you should abandon whatever you are now thinking with out any hesitation, leave the game that you have just become familiar with, so as to unfold the wings of imagination, with the sun beaming we quickly fly up high.