Waking Nightmares: Remnants From China’s Cultural Revolution

Walking into Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang’s current exhibition at Pace Gallery, art enthusiasts and viewers familiar with Zhang’s body of work will be in for a surprise. Even though Zhang has been widely praised and purchased for his cold, emotionless portrait paintings, Zhang’s recently opened exhibition features his first foray into sculptural work. While Zhang maintains his interest in a critique of the political realist style that typified the art during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, his sculptures add a new, and perhaps, more unsettling atmosphere to Zhang’s artistic output.

Filling an entire venue of Zhang’s two-venue exhibition in Pace Gallery’s 25th Street spaces, the sheer amount of sculptures immediately confronts the viewer. Similar to the figures depicted in his seminal paintings, the painted bronze sculptures are largely front-facing portraits of Chinese individuals, ranging in age from babies to students to adults.

56286_02_ZHANG_X_v01Young Man by Xiaogang. © 2013 (BFA) Billy Farrell Agency, LLC All Rights Reserved

However, unlike his paintings, the variation in size and physical presence allows Zhang’s sculptural work to transcend the boundaries of the canvas and create a sense of the uncanny, appearing as both familiar and illusory. Ranging from six inches to five feet, Zhang’s sculptures do not reflect the actual size of his subjects. For example, the portrait of a Chinese student’s head is monumentally sized, while other figure’s heads are miniscule. Traversing the line between the real and the surreal, these sculptures project a powerful and slightly nightmarish physical presence.

Similar to his play with the size of the sculptures, Zhang’s use of color also adds to their dream-like quality. Painting the sculptures shades of yellow, pastel blue and a rusty red, the shades of the sculptures resemble glaze on pottery or ancient sculptures with the paint slightly faded in places while heavier in others.

56430_ZHANG_XMy Mother by Xiaogang. © 2013 (BFA) Billy Farrell Agency, LLC All Rights Reserved

Through the use of size and color, Zhang’s new sculptural work progresses his previous artistic investigations into commenting on the political realist artistic styles forced under the Cultural Revolution. With the sculptures’ frigid and entirely absent gaze fixed on the viewer, the sculptures portray a sense of idealism and youth, and yet reveal a darker, more nightmarish undercurrent that pervades state-sanctioned art.

Unsettled Interiors

Even though his sculptures dominate the majority of Zhang’s exhibition, he still displays four of his well-received and high selling oil paintings. Detailing scenes in seemingly quiet domestic interiors, three of Zhang’s paintings feature representations of the familial structure. While the paintings “My Father” and “My Mother” portray a more recognizable scene of a father and a mother sitting blankly beside their young children, the troubling “The Position of the Father” dismantles the sense of time by referring to the father while presenting the image of a baby alone in a room wearing a garment with his genitals exposed. Questioning whether the baby is the father or a child waiting for his father, “The Position of the Father” blurs the distinction between the past and the present, leaving time disjointed and disrupted.

56393_01_ZHANG_X_v01Baby No. 1 by Xiaogang.  © 2013 (BFA) Billy Farrell Agency, LLC All Rights Reserved

Perhaps the best painting in the exhibition is “White Shirt, Blue Trousers,” which presents an almost Lynchian scene of abandonment and alienation. Featuring an empty bed with a single light bulb overhead covered with a branch from a plum tree and an impeccably folded shirt and pair of pants, “White Shirt, Blue Trousers” displays a sense of isolation and dread similar to Edward Hopper. Referencing the balance of traditional Chinese culture with the plum tree branch and technological modernity with the light bulb, Zhang’s beautiful painting, like the rest of the thought-provoking exhibition, reflects the difficult and awkward balance of Chinese culture, people and history.

  • Pace Gallery – Zhang Xiaogang new work – Until April 20th, 2013 – Tuesday – Saturday: 10am-6pm


Article by Emily Colucci