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Zhang Xiaogang (B. 1958)
Untitled
signed in Chinese; dated '1990' (in the middle)
oil, fabric and paper collage on canvas
128.5 x 99 cm. (50 5/8 x 39 in.)
Painted in 1990

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Lot Essay

Zhang Xiaogang was among the first intake of university students after the Cultural Revolution. He enrolled in the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 1978 and was one of the famous oil-painting students of the 77th grade. He had a close relationship with fellow artists Zhou Chunya and Ye Yongqing and the three became pioneers of the rapidly developing Chinese contemporary art scene. Zhang's work began to be exhibited in various major national exhibitions after the opening up of China in the 1990s, for example, at the Sao Paulo Art Biennial in 1994, La Biennale di Venezia in 1995 and the China! Exhibition in the Kunstmuseum of Bonn in 1996. His name has become one of the bywords in introducing the world to the development of Chinese contemporary art.
Untitled (Lot 47), painted at Zhang's home in Chengdu in 1990, is considered to be the masterpiece of his first ten years after leaving university. Prior to the the portraits of the Bloodlines series, Zhang created surreal oil paintings on paper whose themes were mainly concerned with religious meditation, worship and sacrifice. After the political incident of 1989, Zhang switched to an expressionistic style, depicting strong emotions on canvas in response to his inner feelings of anxiety, loss and struggle. He also uses symbolic imageries in Untitled, including a human head, a sheep skull, inscriptions, playing cards and even tags of clothing, to express his complicated personal thoughts. Untitled is a seminal work, marking a turning point of the artist's artistic career.
In Untitled, Zhang was seeking to break from his earlier more detailed style, here, he uses daring, heavy brushstrokes, incorporating numerous ready-made objects, resulting in a visually hectic composition. The inscription at the bottom is reminiscent of text elements in early Cubism and Robert Rauschenberg's fame "Combines" paintings (Fig. 1). The two red and black rectangular clothes on both sides of the canvas stands like a pair of calligraphy couplet, the red one, like a flag, symbolizes politics and power, while the black cloth represents personal destiny, revealing a profound sense of unpredictability. A rough, folded cloth at the bottom of the image produces a natural and strong three-dimensionality with its texture and lines, reinforcing the visual impact of the work. Untitled shows similarities to the work of Italian artist Alberto Burri, who used details like broken, patched and stitched materials to reflect his personal experience of the Second World War. The roughly textured cloth in Untitled painted with uneasy strokes expresses the mental and physical pain Zhang experienced when he was hospitalize due to alcohol-related problems earlier in his life. The sheets and blankets are messy due to the discomfort he felt in the hospital. The twist and turns of the folded cloth and blanket reflect his discomfort, and is a symbol of the release of his painful emotions, exploring the ultimate theme of life and death.
Portraiture have always played a major role in Zhang' work. The human head in Untitled looks out at its unfamiliar environment from within its frame; it appears to be comparatively small due to the large amount of imagery in the picture, but it seems to hold the same importance as the other elements. The eyes are disproportionately large, round but empty, as if losing focus. The expressionless face reflects the artist's sense of loss when contemplating a society faced with too many political uncertainties. Even in Zhang's later work, the Bloodline: Big Family series, the figures' faces also carry an undeniable sadness, revealing Zhang's heartfelt and profound grief for his countries' history.
As well as the half-hidden human head, the sheep skull also has an important position. Sheep can be seen in many of Zhang's earlier works, where they have lyrical meanings. Zhang considers sheep as spiritual, quiet but with the ability to understand the world and the future. Sheep transcend the ordinary world like prophets. Here he puts a sheep in a position superior to the human, as if it is observing the harsh world silently, indifferently and objectively. During the time when Zhang created Untitled, using poker cards for fortune telling was very popular. The number '6' represents destiny, while number '10' represents money, combined with the sheep skull as the symbol of the oracle, the artist is commenting on people's insecurity and curiosity produced by the unpredictability of life. The white cross at the top of the picture is a symbol for the denial of preordained fate, giving the painting a sense of contradiction.
The brushstrokes of Untitled are free, the spatial processing is intense and the painting contains complicated symbols with various implications. The pictorial elements of Untitled appear to be unified, however they are actually fractured, expressing the contradictions and confusions the artist felt at the time of painting. That was an age in which foreign cultural influences were spreading within China. Books of literature, philosophy and art from the west became spiritual nourishment for the people of Zhang's generation. They also relish in the variety and newness of Western ideologies and aesthetics, but this new knowledge also lead them to reassess the significance of s'Chineseness' in such rapidly changing times. It was this continuous cultural collision that forced Zhang to set off in search of a new outlet for his creative energies. Zhang used symbol after symbol in Untitled to connect his broken thoughts; this work became his space for experimentation in the development of his personal artistic language.

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