The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China


Zhang Peili

Signed in Chinese on the reverse
Executed in 1986

oil on canvas

180 by 198 cm.; 70 7/8 by 78 in.
參閱狀況報告 參閱狀況報告


Private Collection, Asia


China, Beijing, National Art Gallery, China/Avant-Garde, 5 to 19 February 1989
China, Beijing, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art , '85 New Wave. The Birth of Chinese Contemporary Art, 2007-2008, p. 44


Fine Art in China, issue 45, 1987, front page
Karen Smith, Nine Lives – The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China, Scalo, Zurich, 2005, p. 382
Artistic Working Manual of Zhang Peili, China, Lingnan Fine Art Publishing House, 2008, p. 49
Karen Smith, Nine Lives – The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China – The Updated Edition, AW Asia, New York, 2008, p. 392
Art Asia Pacific, issue 71, November 2010, cover


Please note that no more than six works of this larger size have been created.

"Art that can be characterized as stern, regimented and charged with tension is a potent cure for psychological lethargy. It also presents the possibility of eradicating the 'proprietors,' pompous bourgeoisie...thus in creating my images I seek to reject the customary expectations of art—to entertain, to please or even to invite pretension..."

Among his fellow classmates who all rose to the foreground during the 1980s, Zhang Peili has always tended more heavily toward the conceptual. Throughout his four-year academic career, he has held fast to the notion that the objective behind the creation of art lies in the dialectic between the artist and his work, not the subject matter or style of expression. What does painting mean to himself? What does painting mean to art? A spirit of inquisition into the existential nature of art runs strong in Zhang Peili's body of work. Experimenting, exploring, he is relentlessly trying to satisfy his curiosity by working with a wide range of themes and modes of expression. Upon the founding of the "Pond Society", Zhang unveils his esoteric Yang's Taichi Series. Soon after, the artist begins to recognize the constraints of two dimensional art and as a result, redirects his energies to the enterprise of video art. His first video piece, in fact the first video piece ever created by a Chinese artist, 30X30 was quickly followed by a prolific series of multimedia works. Always a little ahead of his contemporaries, Zhang Peili is one of the foremost pioneers in the dominion of Chinese contemporary art.

In the mid-1980s, a great force overwhelmed the art scene in China—the nationwide movement of "'85 New Wave," comprising the Southwestern Art Group's "Current of Life Painting" and the Northern Art Group's "Rational Painting." Members of the groups tackled historical subjects in their works and conveyed in their compositions a raw, humanist edge. Zhang Peili and a coterie of his classmates from Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, in stark contrast against these prevailing styles of the time, mounted the groundbreaking "New Space '85" in December 1985, where they exhibited images that are aloof, isolated and restrained. Participants such as Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi sought to "...raise 'modernist interpretation' as the guiding principle, so that formal aspects are emphasized while expressive representation is constricted." Their intent was to challenge the mainstream through producing abstruse, icy and apathetic imagery. While Zhang and Geng's works do bear similarities with the specimens of "Rational Painting," their works reject the propensity for grand narration. Zhang strongly believes that too much telling of content and history chips away at the inherent value of painting. The spirit of "New Space '85" resides in the objective experience of the individual and the factual quality of life, which in turn sets into motion a sort of reverse narrative. The organization of such an exhibition becomes a logical outcome of their longheld conviction that elucidation and explication are completely futile and inadequate.

The paintings of "New Space '85" imparted a sense of detachment not only in the external, but they reflected their makers' disposition and ideologies. A viewer distilled the show into the following description: eccentric, distant, mysterious. Someone else reviewed it as such: the exhibition is overly frigid, the figures in the paintings betraying no shred of emotion and their countenances ineffably sombre and numb. The artists are trying to say that reality is cold? Or they are confronting reality in a cold manner? Unprecedented, unexpected, the exhibition attracted great attention. Upon its conclusion, Zhang with Geng Jianyi and Song Ling, etc., formed in May 1986 the "Pond Society." In the group manifesto, they used a language fittingly complex in order to propose an art that does not delineate the artists' mental landscape but rather champions the purist, sublime notion of "art for art's sake." The society proceeded to arrange a series of activities and performances via a spectrum of media and means.

Paintings by Zhang Peili are scarce. No more than six works featuring the saxophonist were created in the 1980s—Profile of the Saxophonist (Lot 801) is one of them. His brother a saxophone player, Zhang Peili has always harboured a special affection for the instrument. Much like the other works in the series, the picture features a figure against a vacant setting devoid of signifiers or details, as if the scene never truly existed. The physical silhouette of the protagonist is lucid yet his visage has been abbreviated. A shroud of grey cloaks the entire image, as if to suffocate and dull any hint of emotional demonstration. The composition becomes a systematic illustration, an instructional diagram of a scene. Much like his counterpart in Interval, also from the series and exhibited in "New Space '85," the player who is propping his instrument up on his thigh is rendered into a pictogram as he levitates in a vacuum. To eliminate any element of representation or expression, the artist annotates the composition with the alphabets A, B, C and D and consequently, destabilizes any preconceived analysis that are assigned by the audience onto the painting. The artist, on the other hand, favours such symbols for their scientific associations yet in truth, does not wield them with any prescribed intention. In the postmodernist spirit of anti-essentialism, Zhang Peili's application of symbols translates into a sweeping quest to abolish meaning in any of his art.

Produced between 1986 and 1987, X? Series counts among the most important experimental works by the artist. The initial conception of the series was to paint a hundred pictures of surgical gloves by the same method. Repetition is exercised as a mechanism to generate duplicate images with little to no variation. Zhang Peili states the following on these nondescript, sterile latex gloves,

"The incorporation and recurrence of the surgical glove in my paintings are embodying an aggression, one that is necessary for the reinvention of art. I choose the glove for its precarious position on the cusp between object and life—it corresponds with the mortal attribute of simultaneously being repressed by life while yearning for protection."

Zhang Peili proceeded to make the related textual work after the X? Series, "Explain First, Take Action Later"—About X? Exhibition Procedures, another very conceptual work. In written language, the artist outlines an unrealized exhibition, from works to be shown to venue design to viewing protocols imposed on the audience, etc. His painstaking description complete with exhaustive details supplied the viewer/reader's imagination with ample fodder to visualize their own exhibition-going experience. Series "X?" No. 3 (Lot 802) was one of the integrated works of this virtual gallery.

 The latex glove has dethroned the role of the figure, or any other object, in Zhang Peili's painted works and has definitively taken centerstage. The X? Series amounted to a total of 20 to 30 paintings. Of these, only five to six are of a larger size - No. 3 is one of them. Overtime, however, the artist grew increasingly aware of  the limitations of the gloves. To produce The Condition Report of Hepatitis A, the artist took 20 some gloves heavily corroded by chemicals and assembled them together. Series "X?" No. 3 marks the artist's last endeavour in the realm of two-dimensional art and represents the turning point from which he advanced into the use of physical objects then ultimately into multimedia art. Zhang Peili would go on to abandon painting completely and espouse video devotedly as his sole medium and strategy of creation.

Among the first to identify the imminent waning of the modernist essentialist current, Zhang Peili has always chose to harbour doubts on any professed purpose or prescribed meaning for art. His early corpus of paintings, few in quantity, constitutes proof of a select group of artists' endorsement and exploration of postmodernism in the late 1980s. Though divergent from that of the conceptualists who subsequently emerged, Zhang Peili's art never arose from published theories or academic ideologies, but instead it was derived from the artist's natural consciousness and his fundamental intuition. Zhang Peili's rare masterpieces are nothing short of early Chinese contemporary art history itself.

The Ullens Collection - The Nascence of Avant Garde China