XI ZHANG | The Blue Collars

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Marc Straus Gallery
The Blue Collars, 2020
Acrylic on canvas
72 x 60 x 2 in.


Artist to gallery

Xi Zhang’s vibrant paintings manifest the psychological weight experienced in moments of turmoil and tribulations. In his oneiric narratives, melancholia is a familiar companion – overbearing landscapes and foreboding atmospheres suppress his lonely protagonists, obscuring the delineation of fantasy and reality. His most recent body of work focuses on scenes depicting working class people in dreamlike static. In The White Collars commuters stand side-by-side, made anonymous and cut off from one another by white cone collars like those put on a dog after surgery. In The Blue Collars commuters ride a bus together, depicted as anonymous ghostly white figures tethered by bright blue leashes. The scene is surreal and dystopian but lively and saturated with color.

Zhang says this comes from the dissonance between the notion of the American Dream he heard about growing up in China and the reality he’s seen living in the US. He sees a group of people who are subject to the drain of working-class life, but they are also connected to each other and the viewer.

Another common motif in his work are scenes of solitary or paired figures in their bedrooms. Again, bright color and surreal imagery creates a vivid fever dream of the lives we live by ourselves. In stark contrast to the depictions of commuters anonymized and isolated these figures engage each other in settings full of surreal and often humorous props and symbols. Zhang says, “I believe a good way to present a tragedy is through comedy.”

Zhang’s paintings made before the current pandemic seem prophetic and those since only amplify the theme of isolation and contagion. His commuters with faces covered by the collars around their necks suggest the ubiquitous masks worn by the populace and especially the workforce. Their collars anonymize the wearer; we can’t read their faces and expressions. Even among a crowd everyone is alone. The collar also becomes a blinder preventing the wearer from seeing the people around them. It’s the pandemic which dictates every conversation. In Aorta, a work made directly in response to the pandemic, people rendered entirely in white—almost ghostly—stand in a line, waiting for service. A thin red string (a reoccurring motif in Zhang’s work) goes from the neck of one person to another. It serves as a blood vessel connecting a group of strangers; a reminder that we are all organism’s dependent on each other. His scenes of figures in their homes also take on added weight. Our lives at home are a contained existence separate from our communal lives; home life has become almost all that is available to us.

In May 2020, Zhang was awarded the SeeMe Grand Prize in Painting by a panel of judges including Jerry Saltz (New York Magazine senior arts critic and Pulitzer Prize winner) and Christine Kuan (CEO of Sotheby’s Institute of Art) for Art Saves Humanity: a web-based juried exhibition to raise funds for struggling artists.

Born in 1984 in Kaifeng, China, Zhang completed his studies in painting at China’s Beijing Institute of Art and Design. He moved to the United States and in 2008 received a B.A. in painting at Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. Denver Post art critic Kyle MacMillan chose Xi as the “Emerging Artist of the Year” for his “well-developed, surprisingly mature vision.” He received a MFA at the University of Colorado, Boulder in 2011, the year he was named one of the “12 Best Colorado Artists Under 35” as well as one of seven “Pathfinders” in the arts also by MacMillan in the Denver Post. His first solo exhibition with MARC STRAUS was in February of 2018. He is a Professor at the University of Utah and has been featured in national press on CNN, PBS, and NPR.