Although Zhang Peili was academically and systematically trained as a painter, he is better known today as the “father of Chinese video art.” In fact, after his first video work, 30*30 of 1988, he hovered for many years between the mediums of painting and video installation, giving up easel painting to focus exclusively on the latter only around 1994-5. For this reason, the paintings he created around 1985 are not only representative of “Rationalist Painting” but his own early search for a creative direction. The present sale includes two of his important early oil paintings: Reclining Swimmer (Lot 874) and X? Series (Lot 873), both of 1986. They are immensely valuable as rare documents of contemporary Chinese art of the 1980’s and the ’85 New Wave.
Zhang Peili was born in the 1950’s to a family of medical workers. At the time, political movements and natural disasters were frequent occurrences in China, but Zhang’s young mind was shaped more directly by personal experiences, such as his parents’ dinner-table discussions of medical knowledge, the smell of hospitals that they brought home, and Zhang’s own illnesses and hospitalisations. As the artist himself recognises, “Most people’s lives share more or less the same large historical background, but differ drastically in terms of concrete individual experiences because they have different bodies and memories. Early memories, especially, shape a person’s personality, tastes, behaviour, and language.”1 In Zhang Peili’s case, early memories are the reason for his sensitivity to existential conditions and the persistently unemotional perspective of his early easel paintings.
Entering the Zhejiang Academy of Art in 1980, Zhang Peili became classmates with Wang Guangyi and Geng Jianyi. The Academy expanded Zhang’s horizons. Devouring painting catalogues, he abandoned the academic standard of Soviet realism and became fascinated with such artists as Duchamp, Dali, and Chirico. He also much appreciated the American realist Edward Hopper. In 1985, Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi led a group of young Zhejiang Academy graduates and organised an exhibition there entitled “85 New Space.” In the following year, they established the artist association Lake Society. In retrospect, Zhang Peili explains the motivation behind the “85 New Space” exhibition as follows: “[We] opposed the notion that everything had to be decided by a single theme or a single subject. So the theme of this exhibition became urban life and personal experience, and stylistically the exhibited works were very far from the usual realism of the past.”2 Such thinking would later inform the collective creations of the Lake Society and manifest itself in Zhang’s own works of 1985 and 1986.
As a whole, works in the “85 New Space” exhibition were cold and solitary in tone. Zhang showed four works of 1985 from the Swimmers and Music series. In style, technique, and concept, Reclining Swimmer of 1986 is clearly a continuation of the Swimmers series. However, whereas the perspective in the two earlier Swimmers paintings is level, that in Reclining Swimmer is top-down, forcing Zhang to render the faces of his figures instead of presenting them anonymously from behind or from the side. The composition scheme is also new: collectively a group portrait of mutually uncommunicative individuals, the series is infused with a feeling of cold alienation. Here the figure lies on his back on the edge of a swimming pool, his eyes closed as if enjoying the sun. Zhang paints him with an extremely vivid sense of volume, geometry, and chiaroscuro, and yet almost omits the depiction of his body and facial expression. He divides his composition with diagonal lines: on one end is the surrealistic pool occupied by the figure, and on the other a deep, dark shadow. The seemingly warm scene thus becomes cold and lifeless. This treatment can be traced to Zhang Peili’s reaction towards the grand themes championed by young artists during the ’85 New Wave—“Realism,” “Superman,” “life philosophy”—but it clearly also incorporates Zhang’s concrete experiences and clear-headed concern for urbanites and their daily lives. As mentioned above, such sensitivity and emotional neutrality are deeply rooted in Zhang’s family and childhood.
Notably, from 1986 onwards, Zhang Peili began gradually to turn away from cleaning up “grand narratives” in art towards explorations of conceptual artistic idioms. But his medium of choice initially remained easel painting. Between 1986 and 1987, he created over 20 paintings of latex gloves under the series title X?, including the lot on offer. Presented in pairs and individually in various poses, and against backgrounds of different colours, the medical gloves readily evoke surgery, anatomy, disease, and blood. They go further than the Swimmers in creating a dispassionate mood and sense of lifelessness, but Zhang Peili wants to achieve more than these. Before the X? series entered the 1989 Grand Exhibition of Modern Art, he wrote a treatise entitled The Program of Asking for Permission Before Executing: About X?, in which he attempts to create an exhibition of the series through text. This was a conceptual breakthrough. By organically combining easel painting and textual descriptions, he raises questions about the interrelationships between art, the public, and history, and argues emphatically that in artistic creation process is more important than product. As the critic Huang Zhuan has observed, the glove paintings that Zhang Peili began in 1986 were and remain significant on many levels: “These simple iconographies, which he repeated again and again, seem to have contained the multiple coded languages of his subsequent works. It is obvious that the images originated in his early experiences with disease, but the rigid renditions, monochromatic palettes, and meaningless numerical notations suppress any potential expression of personal psychology. Rather, the images enter a state of abstract analysis and, with their meaning and significance indefinitely suspended, are like vessels waiting to be filled.”3 It is easy to see the conceptual common ground between the X?series and 30x30, his first video work. One may even say that the former was a precursor to the latter.
Seen from today’s vantage, Zhang Peili’s post-1985 easel paintings were both preparatory and transitional. The movement from Swimmers to X? contained traces of his earlier experiences and studies, but conceptually it also anticipated his new-media creations of the 90’s. The two series document not only Zhang Peili’s explorations in the mid-1980’s, but also an indispensable part of the history of the ’85 New Wave.
1 “Zhang Peili: Interview with Wang Jin”, 27 April, 2008, with Huang Zhuan, Wang Jin, Artistic Manual of Zhang Peili, Lingnan Fine Art Publishing House, September, 2008, edition 1, pp. 411-421
2 “Memory Pond Society: Interview with Zhang Peili”, Contemporary Art and Investment, May 2007 issue
3 Refer to 1, “Discussing Zhang Peili: The Antithesis of Conceptualism”
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