The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

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MAY 2013 Issue


On View
Pace Gallery
March 29 – April 27, 2013
New York

Zhang Xiaogang’s recent exhibition captures a singular moment within the four decade-long stretch of China’s Post-Maoist history. His sculptures of children’s heads and paintings of interior family habitats are ambiguous snapshots of the psychology of many Chinese people today. The paintings especially focus on shifting social nuances of recent years, including generational differences and feelings triggered by memories of family life at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Such intimate recollections are juxtaposed with the acceleration of entrepreneurial strategies that have led to China’s economic growth, albeit at a great social cost.

Zhang Xiaogang, “Child-Sailor,” 2013. Painted bronze, 80-1/8" x 28" x 28", overall installed 44-1/8" x 24-7/16" x 22-1/16", sculpture 36" x 28" x 28", base. Cast of 3. Edition of 3 + 1 AP. Courtesy Pace Gallery.

What are these social nuances exactly?  Zhang Xiaogang is clearly not looking at sociological demographics to find out. These works are consistent with Zhang’s reach toward intimacy in painting over the past two decades, beginning with Bloodlines: Big Family series in the early 1990s. The sculptures, ranging from tiny child’s heads measuring six inches in height to busts of adolescent boys and girls reaching five feet, have a striking affinity with the painted Bloodlines series that evolved more than 20 years ago. By employing intimate subject matter related to the changing appearance of Chinese “middle class” families, the artist has opened a window whereby Chinese people might reflect upon their recent history and their future. The Mao suits are vestiges of the past. According to the artist, his intention was to paint the appearances of the past from a contemporary point of view, thus connecting two periods of history, in order to distill memory. Rather than despairing of the past, he wants to discover more open possibilities for the future of China.

Zhang Xiaogang, “My Mother,” 2012. Oil on canvas, 6' 6-3/4" x 8' 6-3/8". Photo: Wang Xiang / Courtesy Pace Gallery.

In the painted sculptures—all done from the imagination, rather than from live models—his youthful subjects are difficult to associate with a specific time period.  According to Zhang, his portrait sculptures are entirely made-up. They are—to use his word (in translation)—his “ideal subjects.”

Aware of Renaissance and Baroque art from his travels to Europe in 1992, the artist has clearly acculturated his method to Classicism. Yet he adds touches of paint here and there on the face, cheek bones, ears and forehead to augment the emotional power of the work, as in “Young Girl No.1” (2012).

The latest portraits, all painted in 2012 – 13, include four paintings of rooms, often painted in green, similar to the ones in which the artist lived until late adolescence. The subject matter of the four paintings is as follows: a young boy sits on a couch with his mother (“My Mother”); a young girl sits in a chair adoring her father, who sits in a separate chair (“My Father”); an infant is propped in a chair in a wool suit with a cut-out section revealing his genitals and an empty chair across from him on which a streak of light can be seen (“The Position of Father”); and finally, an unoccupied bedroom in which a cut plum blossom tree mysteriously lays across the bed adjacent to a clean white shirt and blue trousers (“White Shirt and Blue Trousers”). According to the Artist, the latter symbolizes a poignant memory of his adolescent self.  

Zhang Xiaogang, "Young Woman," 2013. Painted bronze, 89-1/16" x 36" x 36" overall installed, 59-1/16" x 33-1/4" x 29" sculpture, 30" x 36" x 36" base. Photo by: Kerry Ryan McFate / Courtesy Pace Gallery.

These paintings undoubtedly allude to the position many ordinary Chinese families might be in today, as children and adults attempt to evaluate their prospects for the future. A prevailing concern lingers as to how and when the quality of life under the current regime will improve. The ambiguities expressed in these paintings are both profound and deeply felt. Through their ability to project meaning that brings together a dialogical view of China’s past and present on a personal level, these paintings constitute some of the strongest works in the artist’s career.

Many of the sculptures appear as if they were based on family snapshots taken in the early years of the Cultural Revolution that the artist discovered one day in a cookie box, hidden away in his parent’s attic. To hide such photographs was typical during that era. Although Zhang used some of these images to spark his famous Bloodline series, he claims they were not the basis for the sculpture. Even so the atmosphere in the gallery seemed to equivocate between uncertainty and hope. Will these imagined images of children reveal the possibility of fulfillment in ways their parents never did? Rather than suggesting despair, which he is careful to avoid, Zhang is interested in portraying memories that will awaken a more challenging, if not more optimistic view of life for China in a new global environment.

The author wishes to thank Pace Gallery for its help in arranging time with the artist, Zhang Xiaogang, for purposes of clarifying many of the points raised in this review, and for the indispensable translations of Ms. Echo He.

510 W. 25th St. // NY, NY


Robert C. Morgan

Robert C. Morgan is a non-objective painter who lectures on art and writes art criticism. In 2017, he was given an overview of his career as an artist at Proyectos Monclova in Mexico City. Known primarily for his writing and curatorial projects, Morgan has published numerous books and catalogues internationally, now translated into 20 languages. His anthologies of criticism on Gary Hill and Bruce Nauman were published in 2000 and 2002 respectively through Johns Hopkins Press.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2013

All Issues