Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang determined to put Bloodline series to bed

Painter still receives commissions to produce his famous family-portrait style pictures, but hopes exhibition of new works alongside those of conceptual art of Sol LeWitt will show that he’s moved on

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 October, 2016, 12:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 October, 2016, 5:26pm

As crossovers go, the pairing of Zhang Xiaogang and Sol LeWitt at the Pace Gallery in Beijing isn’t one that immediately springs to mind. One is a 58-year-old Chinese figurative painter and sculptor who plumbs the depths of his childhood memory for inspiration, the other an American who championed abstract, impersonal art and the importance of concept over form.

“He was against all art that was like my art. Art about emotions and personal things. In LeWitt’s world, the ultimate is in abstraction. I am terrified of exhibiting with a great master like him. I am a little insect compared to his locomotive. He could eat me alive,” says Zhang almost diffidently as he stands in his newly built home and studio in a Beijing suburb. “Thank goodness I have the home advantage.”

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LeWitt, who died 10 years ago, was one of the founding fathers of conceptual art, and his work resembles minimalist architecture models – outlines of cubes exploring the concept of three-dimensional space with titles such as Cube Without a Cube and “wall drawings” created by assistants following a loose set of instructions that allow for variations in their interpretations.

As the creator of one of China’s best-known series of contemporary oil paintings – Bloodline – Zhang hopes that the gallery’s idea of showing his new works beside LeWitt’s will draw attention to the fact that he has been moving in a different direction in recent years, one which coincides with the American artist’s fascination with space.

“The Bloodline series is like a magical spell that binds people to them. Nothing else I’ve done has received quite the same level of attention,” he says.

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Some would say it is a curse. The Bloodline series, which Zhang started 24 years ago, was based on stiffly posed, Mao-era studio family photographs that were popular when he was growing up. The expressionless, flat faces challenge the proud Chinese boast about the unassailability of family ties, a myth shattered brutally during the Cultural Revolution, when children would report to the authorities suspected counter-revolutionary behaviour by their parents.

The series became one of the best-known icons of contemporary Chinese art during the early 2000s, amid growing interest in art that looked at Chinese tradition and its recent history with a fresh cynicism. That interest, which also gave rise to speculative investment in the genre, made Zhang’s paintings extremely valuable.

His Bloodline: Big Family No 3 (1995) fetched HK$94.2 million at a 2014 auction and works from the series still appear in practically every contemporary Asian art sale today.

It is partly because he made so many that he has lost count. The ubiquity of these monochromatic family portraits with blotches of colours and indistinct outlines was one reason his generation of successful artists has often been accused of formulaic mass production to cater to market demand.

Zhang says most of the Bloodline paintings were made in the decade after 1994 but he still receives and accepts limited commissions to this day.

“I tried doing other things after 1998 but the exhibition demand for the series left me little time. By 2000, I wanted to cut down on my output, but it was very hard after the market took off. It’s very difficult for my generation of artists to say no to patrons,” he says.

Like many of his peers, Zhang has lived through some tough times. As a child, he and his brothers struggled through part of the Cultural Revolution on their own in Kunming, in China’s southwest, after both their parents were sent off to do hard labour in the countryside – a unique and bizarre experience where the innocence of youth shielded them from the horrors of what happened outside their parents’ home. There are echoes of that memory in his new paintings of surreal dreamscapes of children in interiors invaded by outdoor elements.

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The years following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown on the student democratic movement were also hostile to artists wanting to speak their minds.

“The events of 1989 left me in shock,” says the artist. “That’s when I made the Nightmare series with the decapitated bodies. All the Western collectors who had supported us no longer had access. There was certainly no state support and we had to slowly build up relationships with new collectors.”

That is why, when those collectors came to Zhang, and others, with requests for yet another version, the artists felt compelled to say “yes”, he explains. “You can’t very well say, sorry, I don’t need you any more,” he says.

Now, finally, Zhang wants to move on. The Pace exhibition, which runs until November 19, features 20 of his new paintings juxtaposed with eight of LeWitt’s stark compositions.

The latter are stripped-down studies of lines and space, such as Irregular Towers (L), a 3D model of skyscrapers made out of white grids, and Wall Drawing #1097: Place 50 Nails Throughout The Wall, Randomly Spaced. Connect Each Nail to All The Other Nails With White String (2003), which is what it says it is.

They do not appear to have much in common with Zhang’s works, but the Chinese artist points to the conceptual treatment of walls and space in both their works – albeit drastically different treatments.

The exhibition features examples from his Green Wall series. These are interiors where the lower sections of the grey walls are painted an institutional green, as was fashionable in households when he was growing up.

These theatrically staged rooms feel sealed off, reminiscent of his parents’ house – where the windows were bricked up as a precaution against the random shooting that took place at the Red Guards’ headquarters across the street. In these, children are engaged in their own, random, illogical activities – such as riding a tricycle atop a small table – without showing any consciousness of each other or of interference from the outside world.

In other works, objects are absurdly placed. Stacks of books sit in a bathtub together with piles of bloody steaks in The Order of the World (2016). A severed hand clutches a book in Covenant of the Soul (2016).

These paintings are firmly in the tradition of the surrealists, and reflect his recent discovery of Roy Andersson films. They bear little resemblance to the pared-down symbolism of the Bloodline series. But the blank looks, the interiors, the sacrilegious treatments of books are all rooted in the same tumultuous period of history.

Red lines running through the earlier family portraits also reappear here (sometime replaced by an electric cable), a visual device that connects all the work together.

“Be it the Bloodline series, or the Green Wall series, I am still dealing with the same things. I deal with memories,” Zhang says.

Sol LeWitt and Zhang Xiaogang, Pace Gallery, 798 Art District, No 2 Jiuxiangqiao Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, Tue-Sat 10am-6pm. Until November 19