Born in 1958, Zhang Xiaogang is now a mature painter and a leading artist of his generation who has made his name painting essentially the same face for many years. The seemingly anonymous features of figures in his Bloodline series, similar no matter their sex or age, suggest a social and cultural homogeneity. The history of Mao's tragically failed attempt to equalize the classes may be read into the affectless faces and similar clothing of the anonymous men, women, boys and girls Zhang so memorably records. Chinese culture, transformed by capitalism, is far different today from the time to which Zhang refers, and so the artist's references attain an historical clarity when compared to the colorful assertions of dress and diverse facial expressions that are a consequence of the unbound economy of more recent years. Zhang's paintings look to the past and illustrate a highly ambivalent nostalgia for an earlier time when people dressed the same and the expressiveness of emotion was at a minimum.
Despite the muted, uniform atmospheres in which Zhang's figures are placed, he clearly invests them with a monumental dignity. There is an unspoken presence in his portraits, whose impact on the viewer exceeds the uniformly stoic decorum of the sitters themselves. Both anonymity and the details of personality are mysteriously brought forth by the artist, who refrains from giving his audience legible interpretive clues to analyze his theme. Zhang does not eschew meaning, implicit or explicit; but his laconic pictorial strategy withholds fixed interpretation in favor of a poise that riddles the viewer. Zhang's figures are enigmas in which we see a deep-seated ambivalence as basic to Chinese cultural life, much of which was prescribed by the Cultural Revolution that still today remains in the living memory of many.
In Zhang's earlier works, the references and interpretive options are clearer. In the symbolic work entitled Chapter of a New Century - Birth of the People's Republic of China (1992, Lot 11), the central image is that of a reddish baby reclining in a towel on top of a wooden chest, looking out at the viewer with wide eyes and an open book before him. Clearly given the title, the baby is an emblem of a fledgling Red China in the Modern world, while the locked chest with its unknown contents may refer to both the problems and possibilities hidden away in the new government and its historical legacy. In the background of the picture is a complex array of photographic reproductions, like a family tree of political history during the first half of the 20th century: a romantic young Mao with a full head of hair; groups of young soldiers during the Sino-Japanese war; portraits of congressional leaders; congresses and forums that shaped the modern nation, etc. The artist himself has identified the images on the back of the canvas, all of which date to a period before the artist's birth.
Painted when Zhang was in his mid-30s, Chapter of a New Century - Birth of the People's Republic of China bears comparison with the contemporaneous stylistic vocabulary and thematic interests of Zhang's supportive friend and Sichuan Academy schoolmate Ye Yongqing (Lots 118 and 120); Ye was then working on large-scale, collage-based installations such as Poster—Historical Experience of 1991-92. Indeed, the close relationship between the two artists survives in other important paintings of the period, including one of the earliest Bloodline portraits, for which Ye's young daughter is the subject. But Creating an Era is also a pivotal early elaboration of the central themes Zhang would later pursue in a less explicit and discursive manner. The pictures collaged onto the painting's surface present with snapshot objectivity the developing society that Zhang's emblematic child - and the artist himself - inherits. It remains difficult to decipher whether Zhang is an advocate of the socio-political lexicon he has constructed or whether he is simply picturing salient points of reference in the evolution of a people's cultural identity. In retrospect, however, one might read this fascinating, landmark picture as an allegory of the artist's subsequent artistic development: the babe emerging from the historical past is the progenitor of the extended Bloodlines series that would come to populate Zhang's later work with a reiterated vengeance.
Growing up during the Cultural Revolution, it is clear that the experience has been central to Zhang's development; his Bloodlines series reveals a deep-seated commitment to depicting this tragic and overwhelming disordering of Chinese society. And yet, much of the appeal of Zhang's oeuvre stems from his refusal to judge; perhaps he implicitly asks that we, too, withhold judgment. The Bloodlines series attempts to find continuity not just in Chinese culture but in the vast embrace of Chinese people themselves. What appears to be a single reality in fact portrays the small differences that inevitably distinguish one person from the next. As such, Zhang seems to depict the self-sufficiency of the Chinese, clearly linked to a single racial type, while subtly acknowledging individual distinctions amidst the collective. The supposed opposition between these two characterizations, one collective and the other individuated, creates the tension that animates Zhang's art. "Look again... I am myself," his pictures seem to implore, and this ambiguous proposal is critical to the enduring success of Zhang's work.
The enigmatic energies of Zhang's Bloodline series are powerfully in evidence in his portrait of a man dressed in standard uniform with a distinguishing mole on the left side of his chin and a pale patch of pink color on the right side of his face (1995, Lot 10), the latter a standard feature in portraits of this series. A thin red line extends from the sitter's right nostril and moves erratically onto his jacket, ending up at the juncture between his collar and neck. On the left side of the jacket, another line trails off toward the painting's far edge, as if seeking a connection outside the work itself. What might such a binding tie mean? Might a single bloodline unite the many subjects of Zhang's central theme? In this fine portrait, self-sufficiency peers out with quiet acknowledgement of interconnectedness, without which the Chinese, or any group of people, would be bereft of socio-cultural identity. The bloodline running through Zhang's portraiture is the fine line upon which the artist balances collective memory with the individual experience through which the collective is both registered and perpetuated. Zhang's figures therefore reflect both loss of self and the possibility of self-realization.
Three smaller portraits by Zhang pursue similar avenues of communication. Bloodline Series: Boy (1997, Lot 12) depicts a young man with protruding teeth, a pinkish patch on his left cheek, and two bloodlines that run from his right ear and left collar towards the lower left of the painting. The gray uniformity of the composition is matched by the control of the subject's affectless expression. In Bloodline Series: Boy (2002, Lot 143), a youth with a strikingly yellow face wears a striped shirt, and a similar patch of color extends from the left side of the sitter's lips past the neck and onto the shirt covering his left shoulder. Here the bloodline descends from the youth's right ear, moving onto the shirt and then rising again to his neck. A final portrait, Bloodline Series: Girl (1997, Lot 142), pictures a young woman sporting pigtails, a by-now familiar yellow patch occurring on the left side of her forehead and hair, her bloodlines emerging at the neck and traveling down to the painting's edge. Like her ancestry and peers, she remains emotionless but striking, arousing in us the irresolvable questions so characteristic of Zhang's singular practice.
In almost all cases, Zhang portrays his subjects with a delicacy of features such that sexual difference is all but effaced. This is a swift trick on the artist's part, a bit of daring that goes back to the Cultural Revolution, when everyone wore the same clothing and looked more or less alike. Somehow, though, and despite the grays that dominate Zhang's work, the grayness of that era is undermined as we become more familiar with the figures who populate his repetitive strategy. Anarchical red bloodlines and patches of individuating color particularize Zhang's examination of the Chinese physiognomy. That Zhang has continued so mine the same vein so long and so successfully makes him a master of an idiom he has himself created, one that is powerfully suggestive of the legacy of the past in the ongoing transformations of contemporary China.
 The work has occasionally been published under the title Creating an Era No. 1.
Photo copies, cotton tape, and oil on canvas
Guangzhou, Guangdong Museum of Art, The First 90s Contemporary Chinese Art Biennale, 1992
58 3/4 by 47 in. 149.3 by 119.5 cm.
Karen Smith, Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-Garde Art in New China, Zurich, 2006, p. 286, illustrated in color
China Guardian Auctions, March 27, 1994
Acquired by the present owner from the above