Zhang Xiaogangby Robert C. Morgan
PACE WILDENSTEIN GALLERY | OCTOBER 31- NOVEMBER 29, 2008
I find it difficult to concede that some viewers in New York will not be moved by the recent “Green Wall” paintings of Zhang Xiaogang, but I know that not everybody sees the same way, just as not everyone listens or reads the same way. Fundamentally, I believe this is encouraging as long as it is not an excuse for ignorance. Yet somehow the Chinese sensibility—what some Westerners might term as sentimental—simply does not always translate accurately into English. In Chinese, there are two (possibly three) levels of translation, and unless there is a synchronicity between them, the meaning is constantly open to slippage. One level is the translation from the ideographic sign to the phonetic sound; and the second is the cultural and historical context on which the ideograph is constructed. (Between these two is the adjustment of one phoneme to another, based on grammatical usage.) The meaning of language is based on the semiotics of pictures. Although the language paradigm in art might appear as too literal for some, I hope this does not read as an unintended justification. This is not my point. This is to say that the images found in Zhang Xiaogang’s paintings—such as the anonymous portraits in his famous Bloodline or Big Family series, both from the nineties—may be subject to a mistaken translation by the Western viewer. What the images mean and how they communicate within the context of painting is less an open proposition, as we understand our responses to content in much Western painting. Add to this, the New York perception of how contemporary art in China is being marketed—as if all art were being marketed the same way—and the problem of misunderstanding becomes accelerated.
The paintings of Zhang Xiaogang are not a matter of popular taste, market justification, or social consensus. They are about the embedding of conflict based on the painter’s memory of recent history, namely, having grown into adolescence in a “re-education” camp among peasant workers during the Cultural Revolution, when China was cut off from the rest of the world. Their assessment by Western viewers cannot be merely a matter of opinion. With popular “culture” ruling the day, as a phenomenon driven by commercial media, there are more than enough opinions about everything—politics, medicine, astrophysics, and art. But very few of these opinions matter when deprived of an informed judgment. To understand something of the immediate historical and cultural background of a non-Western artist, whose paintings evoke circumstances vastly different from those known to most Americans, is to become capable of making a defensible argument.
In lieu of opinions, which are perennially misinformed (in contrast to having a knowledgeable point of view), I am suggesting that great art—and here, I include the recent Pace Wildenstein exhibition of Zhang Xiaogang—is less a matter of intellect than of feeling; that is, a discrete refinement of existential and aesthetic emotion in relation to a work of art. Such a reality is virtually impossible to teach in the Western academic sense of art education, and this is nowhere more apparent than in American art schools and universities. I will give an example: During a recent visit to Beijing, I was in the studio of a young Chinese artist. After several minutes of studying his large abstract paintings, I asked the artist (through my translator) how I was expected to respond to them. Given my background as a New York critic, the artist understood I was coming from a very different point of view than that of other Chinese critics. Nevertheless, his response (in Chinese) struck me as profound: “To look at painting is a matter of sensitivity.” This was not said in an arrogant or naïve manner. Rather the artist was opening himself to a fundamental issue. No matter how minimal the work appeared (and, in this case, it was characterized by a subtle, dark overlay of pigment that lent the surface a reductive quality), the artist was less interested in foregrounding a theory than in offering the possibility of something that could be felt in lieu of a theory or a discursive formula such as one might encounter in New York. I was taken off guard. Here is a young man telling me that painting is more a matter of feeling than intellect. How did he know this?
While Zhang Xiaogang is certainly not an emerging artist—having attended the prestigious Sichuan Academy of Fine Art in the late seventies just after the death of Mao and the discontinuance of the chaotic and tragic Cultural Revolution—he has found a way of embedding his ideas over the years that few painters have discovered effectively outside of Germany (specifically, Richter, Polke, and Kiefer). My sense is that most American critics—particularly in the popular press—like to separate Conceptual Art from painting. But this notion is theoretically exhausted, having been the assumption among a plurality of artists and critics for more than three decades. History changes, even in the midst of a sluggish economy. Zhang Xiaogang is Chinese and has a very different point of view. His generation does not relate oil painting on canvas to an automatic deferral of concepts. The struggle to paint in China is based on very different issues, and Zhang Xiaogang addresses these brilliantly in his first exhibition in New York, titled Revision.
What does it mean – Revision? Though infrequently used in a political context in the United States, the Chinese understand the term as relative to the present. The Chinese critic, Leng Lin, in his catalog essay, superbly articulates this: “The word revision leads us to revisionism, which is a reaction or dilution of the pure doctrinaire Communism that dominated the 1960s. In its most damning sense, to be revisionist was equated to following a more capitalist agenda. To revisit revisionism here is to add a new interpretation and understanding of the present world in the form of history, and Zhang’s artworks obtain such purpose.”
The Green Wall paintings represent the obverse side of the color red. While red was the symbol of Communism—as in the flag, the star, and the “little red book” of Mao’s quotations—green was the institutional color of the period. Whether public buildings or private homes, the lower portion of the walls inside most every building was painted green. Presumably this was in order to maintain uniformity and neutrality, to give an aura of sameness, meaning that everybody was alike, and everybody was working for the same purpose: to enhance the power of the state. So Zhang’s paintings reflect this aura—or non-aura, as the case may be. Two large-scale chromogenic photographs depict details of a reconstructed space, that of a small room where the artist once lived, one showing an open window with a tree, the other a radio. We read the artist’s personal diary in Chinese and a letter to his mother in which he describes his living conditions as a teacher, finding occasional time to paint and to enjoy the common cafeteria food. It is interesting that he dates these not from the past, but the present: September 17 and 18, 2008.
A mural-size canvas titled “Green Wall – Landscape with Television” (2008) shows a nude man sitting in a living room chair watching television. But he is not in his home; he is out-of-doors in a black-and-white landscape, relatively isolated and seemingly idyllic except for the loudspeakers affixed to high poles surrounding him. Zhang remembers the news reports, whether significant or trivial, constantly blurting forth information while he was working in the re-education camp. Today television performs the same function, but on a more intimate scale. Another painting shows a couch with an old military coat laid on the cushions. Two bare light bulbs hang from the ceiling. A patch of light, presumably from the window, spreads across a section of the couch near the jacket. A third painting reveals a wooden bench beside the green wall of a living space. We see electric wires plugged into a socket that has been pulled from the wall and now lies on the bench adjacent to a brown suitcase. A clock hangs on the wall and a radio sits on a small covered table.
The typically banal appearance of these settings and the ambiguity between the indoor and outdoor spaces is important. The artist is giving us a clue to a psychological environment of his memory as he struggles through these paintings to recall another place and another time. Zhang has commented that memory—particularly in recalling unpleasant incidents from the past—is susceptible to “continuous revisions.” These paintings are perhaps based on a kind of obsession, an existential imagination, in the sense that Sartre writes of the youthful Jean Genet: the will to remember against all odds becomes too painful to endure and thus the revisions become not only a necessity, but a means of survival—a sublimation that Zhang has proved capable of enduring—and his art is a testimony that only he can tell.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.