Private Collection, USA
Zhang Xiaogang embarked on his artistic career after graduating from the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 1982; his works of the 1980's could be called the products of the liberation of thinking in China and infusion of Western philosophy and aesthetics during that decade. During his studies Zhang had already come into contact with the Post-Impressionist school, and held both Van Gogh and Gauguin in high esteem. At the same time, as Western philosophy had entered China and exerted massive influence over the academic world, Zhang Xiaogang and other cultured youth were influenced by avant-garde movements like French Existentialism, the Theatre of the Absurd, and Surrealism. Zhang was particularly taken with the Czech literary master Kafka, and it was this body of learning, along with artistic thinking and personal experience, that gave rise to the uniquely surreal and atmospheric vocabulary of the artist's work throughout the 1980's.
After completing his graduation work, the strongly post-Impressionist
Grassland Series, Zhang Xiaogang found that seeking a work unit would not be easy. In 1984 he was sent to the hospital after heavy drinking, an experience that led to the artist's "Demon Period," of which his representative works focus on themes like devils and imagery of death, all in an attempt to express the interrogation and exploration of existence, life, and death through a surrealist artistic language. Zhang, introverted as he is, does not take any clear position in this series or the later Lost Dream; instead, what is presented is a projection of the artist's state of mind. He describes his work of the "Demon Period" in this way: "To convey the sensations of terror and tragedy experienced by a contorted, bare soul situated on the boundary between life and death... the work emphasizes a particular freakish and convulsive misery."
In 1986 the artist was finally offered employment by his alma
mater, the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, in the art education department.
This slightly more stable lifestyle allowed him to leave the darkness behind, turning away from the weightiness of death and exchanging it for Eastern Mysticism and the nonaction doctrine of Laozi and Zhuangzi. Primitive and religious art became sources of inspiration, as Zhang was then particularly interested in Chan Buddhism, through which he continued to consider the notion of life in his work. As he describes: "Traveling toward the spiritual world, attempting to seek the essential riddle of life and death, looking for tolerant but constant laws of art." It was in this state that the artist began to produce the Lost Dream series, which has come to be a highly representative work from his early period. Dormant Head and Guardians (Lot 103) and the two pieces from Lost Dream (Lots 101-102) all come from the outstanding Chinese contemporary art collection of Guy Ullens, and are both highly exemplary and historically significant. These three works were produced through a unique method employed by the artist throughout that period, described as oil painting with paper engraving. Using oil paints as his primary medium, Zhang then used a blade to impress or print the silhouettes of figures within the compositions in order to emphasize the solidity of the modeling— a greatly expressive technique.
The two pieces from the Lost Dream suite display the classic modeling and atmosphere of that series. In the first, the subject appears to be a woman portrayed from a slight angle, fixed in a charming pose and wearing a green robe with patterns of flowers and branches; forming the center of the work, she presents a rich impression of vivacity. In the background a yellow ground is marked with mysterious colors, while on the right we see a man with a goat smelling buds on a tree and, to one side, a white snake coveting pieces of fruit. It is also worth noting the sheep on the left of the work. Images of sheep appear often in Lost Dream and the earlier "Demon Period," perhaps as a metaphor for the absent artist as he searches for traces of life across the earth. In the second piece, the central figures are a naked woman and a man in a
scene resembling the Garden of Eden. They confront each other with almost utter transparency, but their expressions reveal a certain reticence or reservation. Between them there is a black goat. Is it the doppelganger of the artist, or a demonic avatar? In this dreamlike scene, the artist appears to retell the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, conveying a strong religious flavour.
Dormant Head and Guardians is a large scale work on paper from the same series, involving an even more obvious religious sensibility. On the right side a naked woman guards an eternally sleeping yellow head on a table, lying silently on a white sheet. A small child wrapped in white cloth is positioned above the head. On the left side are three figures that seem to be witnesses protecting the child, recalling the scene of the birth of Jesus described in the Bible. The decapitated head is a symbol that appears often in the early work of Zhang Xiaogang, simultaneously signifying death and tranquil peace while symbolizing the artist's search of life. The naked woman, on the other hand, is a celebration of motherhood, a common symbol in Western art. Invoking diverse mystical symbols, this piece fully reflects the surrealist tendencies of Zhang's early period.
Although his work from the 1990's centers on the search for imagery that would belong exclusively to the Chinese, Zhang Xiaogang's work from the 1980's involves a much broader form of humanist compassion and more personal philosophical considerations; as such, it constitutes a phase that cannot be left out in a comprehensive understanding of his approach to art.
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