The Enigma of Zhang Xiaogang

Beijing Voice: Zhang Xiaogang,” solo exhbition by Zhang Xiaogang

Pace Beijing (798 Art District, No. 2 Jiuxianqiao Road Chaoyang District, Beijing). Dec 13, 2012 – Feb 28, 2013

Contemplating Zhang Xiaogang’s works always leads us down two paths. The first is artistic:  you hear the name Zhang Xiaogang, and immediately think — The Big Family series, collective consciousness and national psyche; the second drifts to the realm of pure commercialism — Zhang Xiaogang, auctions, record bids, private collections. However you think of it, neither path negates the link between Zhang and his classic works — the standard Cultural Revolution portraits of individuals without any defining individuality, with their ubiquitous bright black pupils, red scarves and armbands, and the geometric red lines on the lower sections of his compositions. Of course, more essential are the flares of light in nearly every one of Zhang’s works. Though the pieces exhibited in his current solo show at Pace Beijing appear to differ from his signature works, their inextricable links to his past works can be picked up at a mere glance. Modern art criticism has interpreted — or rather, over-interpreted — Zhang’s patches of light and his red spots to such a degree it seems they could reflect or symbolize virtually anything, and thus their meaning become exceedingly obscure. Fortunately, we can attempt to use the pieces in Beijing Voice as a sort of “decoder” to the twin mysteries of Zhang’s light refractions and the ever-present red lines, though we might soon find ourselves standing at the entrance of a new labyrinth.

This new labyrinth sits within a temporary room at the center of Pace Beijing’s exhibition space,  since Zhang’s six featured works cannot fill up the massive exhibition hall at Pace. The walls of the exhibition room are spray-painted with quotes from Zhang Xiaogang which only serve to veil the meaning of the pieces in mystery.

Overall, Zhang cannot exorcise The Big Family from his mind, and seems unable to relinquish the trappings of his “pictorial identity.” The rays of light shining from the flashlight in “Four Sons” (2012) satisfy his desire for flares of light. While an extension cord plugged into the lower left-hand corner of the painting recalls the use of red lines. This method of conversion is equally deployed in the remaining five pieces: the electrical wires found in “Big Woman and Little Man” (2012), “My Father” (2012), and “White Shirt and Blue Trousers”, and the sprig of plum blossoms seen in “the Book of Amnesia.” From a representational perspective, these are different incarnations of his red lines. Though they are an exception to his usual themes, the significance of the aforementioned plum blossoms goes far beyond any association with revolutionary romanticism. Additionally, the physical images in these paintings reference the objects found in The Big Family series. An old-fashioned double bed, a Soviet-style sofa set, a porcelain spittoon, a miniature pine tree Bonsai, or a waist-high section of wall painted green — each of these elements tugs at the collective memory of several generations of people. We associate this with The Big Family series, with its iconic images of the Cultural Revolution embodying the collective atmosphere of the time — not to mention the familiar yellow child seen again in “Big Woman and Little Man.”

Installation View of Zhang Xiaogang

Those familiar with Zhang’s body of work will feel a slight shock when they view these new works. We see some different features: the entire forms of his human figures are depicted; rooms are even devoid of people. But soon, we sense he has been able to reinvent the images from his 1993-1994 works. He confers both the presence and absence of his human figures through the use of standardized clothing in “White Shirt and Blue Trousers” (2012), using the clothing as a sort of metonymic device. As Zhang explained in a 2007 interview with Oriental Art, “When I was working on The Big Family, I endeavored to create a minimalist effect on the canvas, but what I truly focused on was inclusiveness. I wanted it to be inclusive in all aspects — graphic, linguistic, cultural, and informational.”  Consequently, by no means should these paintings be seen as “de-Zhang-Xiaogang-ed” by the artist; it is more fitting to see them as a variation and natural progression of The Big Family series. He has kept the essential elements: the smudges of light, the geometric lines, the standard cultural revolutionary style (including clothing and facial expressions), but he has found a way to reincarnate all of these elements within the graphic environment of the paintings. But the question remains: what does it mean? Suddenly, we find ourselves retracing the familiar grooves of the critical discourse of the 90s.

Certainly, whether in terms of influence, critical literature, or scale of exposure, Zhang Xiaogang enters the annals of art history as a matter of course — at the very least, he has a firm footing in Chinese art history. But what if we perform an audacious thought experiment and project ourselves far into the future? What would the generations in the distant future think “archeologically” of the works we have in the present? How would they describe the art of our times? How would they explain Zhang’s depiction and reflection of his past and our collective history? How would they explain his commercial success? When the majority of the texts and interpretations related to his work fades with the erosion of time, perhaps Zhang Xiaogang will become truly as enigmatic as those meandering red threads and intermittent flashes of light.

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