Along with Fang Lijun (Lots 178 to 183) and Yue Minjun (Lots 105 to 109), the figurative artist Zhang Xiaogang has played a central role in the representation of China to the outside world, as well as to contemporary China itself. Zhang’s seemingly identical faces, usually neutralized in their countenance and troubling in their apparent lack of emotion, present a people poised between a past of terrific desolation and a future whose outlines no one knows.
At the same time, the similarity of features, no matter the sex or age of the persons portrayed, suggests a disturbing conformity with respect to contemporary mores. These faces look back at their audience but reveal little – not as though hiding a secret but rather as though they have little to say, their blank stares apparently a muted defense against the way things are.
Zhang takes his images from old family photographs, as well as charcoal drawings found on the streets in China. The result of his work is an overarching nostalgia whose specific traces remain linked to a generalized sense of longing. If we think about the paintings as a phenomenon, it’s possible to say they are both private in their anonymity and public in their decision to offer themselves to the general scrutiny of a bemused Chinese audience, a group of people whose lives seem to have been as curtailed as those of the people portrayed, at least until recently.
Zhang’s classic “Bloodlines” series, begun in the early 1990s, presents full-frontal poses of families or individuals, the parents usually wearing the Mao jacket while the child or children wear age-appropriate clothing and are sometimes painted in color. Usually, amidst the monochromatic settings that range from slate blues to deep grays, a patch of color breaks through – most often on the side of the face, like a birthmark or streak of self-expression. These color highlights personalize an idiom of extreme conformity while asserting the painter’s presence in works that specialize in a kind of self-abnegation. Yet the personalization among members of ‘the family’ (as in the trio of portraits offered in Lot 155) leaves no question about their iconic function as representatives of the family of China.
One feels slightly uncomfortable at the self-similarity of the artist’s efforts, the homogeneity among his many nameless faces. But the paintings seem to comment precisely on the Chinese penchant for a hidden individuality, all the more subtle because of the limited choices for self expression people have had in their wardrobe – and in their lives during the era from which Zhang’s source material is drawn.
The nostalgia these pictures engender comes from a less affluent time, a period in which social sacrifice and selflessness were valued as political ideals. Today, given the country’s rampant drive toward prosperity and individualism through the adoption of capitalist practices, the choices are more numerous, the clothing more various, and society more colorful than in the previous, distant world into which Zhang reaches. There is little time in this brave new world for the kind of melancholy and reserve Zhang portrays. Indeed, the artist seems to be documenting a yearning that is archaic by contemporary standards. Nevertheless, Zhang’s gray view of China’s populace remains quite close to the surface and gets under the skin: the memory of hidden countenances and identical dress is only one generation past.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the similarity of the paintings, Zhang sometimes creates a beautiful woman or child—a character who clearly transcends the apparent sameness of the artist’s treatment and seems to come to life with a vivid individuality. In such cases – Comrade No. 20 (1997, Lot 160) is one exquisite example – the figure’s attractive features vie with their standardized inward gazes. Is the artist searching for the spiritual life of his subjects – whether they appear generic or attain individualization? Or is he commenting on the loss of a spiritual, subjective life? It is hard to say, but the feeling remains that Zhang is a poet of yearning whose oeuvre is united by the infusion of similar feelings expressed upon an endless see of faces. The paintings may therefore be interpreted as an extended essay on the physical and psychological state of a nation.
As physical objects, the portraits are outstanding, the attention to nuanced detail belying the anonymity of the figures. In Bloodlines Series: Comrade No. 5 (Lot 156A) – a quintessential work of this period of the artist’s practice – a young man in the inevitable Mao jacket stares blankly at his audience, his features deliberately frozen in a silent regard. A trademark patch of paint, transparent, appears on the lower-left of the sitter’s face. This bit of painterly expressionism animates what might otherwise be a severely limited grisaille study; the vague background highlights, by contrast, the specific attributes of the man’s face. Anonymity, the result of a country with a population well over one billion people, emanates from the calm but closed features of the painting’s subject.
In Comrade No. 4 (Lot 156) the face seems identical, as is the clothing the sitter wears and the atmosphere in which the sitter sits, but the portrait is that of a woman, her straight black hair falling an inch or so below her ears. She gazes at her viewers with an otherworldly calm; while the face is attractive, there is no glamour, no allure. Indeed, as is characteristic of the artist’s works – whether on a grand scale, as here, or on a more intimate one, as in Bloodline Series: Girl and Bloodline Series: Boy (both 2003, Lots 158 and 159) – there is nothing aggrandizing in the portrayal, only the presence of a questionable (and questioning) sense of selfhood. Because the portraits reveal so little, they become ciphers that quietly read as allegories more than as actual people.
Only in his most recent work, in the ‘Amnesia and Memory’ series (Lot 157, Amnesia and Memory: Man, 2003), has Zhang taken a more overtly expressive turn – with figural modeling that is almost sculptural, a tilt away from the rigid perpendiculars of earlier compositions, and a dreamy blurring of figures that brings the latent nostalgia of prior work directly to the painting’s surface. The Bloodline works of the same year indicate this newly expressive tendency while retaining their familial ties, so to speak. If this recent body of work shows the artist setting out in a new direction, we are nevertheless still left guessing about his subjects’ impenetrable feelings. The artist continues to confound our desire to define how and why his paintings remain so poignantly affecting.
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