ZHANG XIAOGANG (Chinese, B. 1958)
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ZHANG XIAOGANG (Chinese, B. 1958)

Dormant Head and Guardians

ZHANG XIAOGANG (Chinese, B. 1958)
Dormant Head and Guardians
signed in Chinese; dated '1989.1' (lower left)
oil on cardboard
94 x 72.5 cm. (37 x 28 1/2 in.)
Painted in 1989
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Lot Essay

The core spirit of Western Christianity - its penchant for sacrifice and redemption aside - primarily inheres in its monotheistic doctrine (fig. X1). Chinese society formerly paid homage to a pantheon of diverse gods and practiced a system of ancestor worship, but this all fell under the political influence of the communist revolution with its institutionaliszed atheism. Paradoxically however, Mao's personality cult ultimately culminated in his own apotheosis which - just as in Christianity - came to represent sole truth unable to concede the existence of another 'god'. After Modern China had undergone 10 years of political upheavals, its vulnerable populace lost the ability to restore the balance of a worldview tempered by religious consolation, a void from which there unavoidably springs a sense of desolation and desperation. This social tableau set the stage for Zhang Xiaogang to embark on his studies at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 1977, just after the end of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). As a consequence, Zhang is a painter on an unending quest to explore the inner self. Looking back over his entire creation in of the 1980s, it appears that he persisted throughout in his search for an oracle of life's answers, but his end-of-decade work Dormant Head and Guardians (Lot 38) evidently depicts a mystical theocratic state, one devoid of political leaders, a polytheist idyll in which multiple gods coexist, as if through his paintings he creates a 'divinity' and a credo for himself, hoping that this will bring about an unconditional redemption of his own unbearably wounded spirit.

His post-graduation fortunes have been rocky: exceedingly oppressive living conditions coupled with many years of alcohol abuse led to a major illness and hospitalisation for Zhang. As an aficionado of the influx of Western philosophy, literature and music into China, art and life have latterly induced in him profounder reflections. In order to develop the themes of loneliness and death in his paintings, Zhang Xiaogang employs extremely exaggerated, expressive brushwork in the Ghost Series of paintings, thereby permeating these with personal anxiety over and fear of death. This is a world forsaken by God and hope, in which he constantly and repeatedly featured nightmares on each canvas, one after the other, until in 1986 he chose to decamp from this world of personal nightmare world, turning instead to find a 'Kingdom of God'. Zhang once recalled: " K escaping from hell, and setting forth on a pilgrimage towards 'God' is an attempt to find the essence of the mystery of life and death, to arrive at an inclusive, constant canon of art, exclude incidental, specific emotional factors, and thus emphasise a state of intuition imbued with some sort of dream consciousness lying within a realm of elegiac poetry. Identification here only ensues through 'love' in its religious sense and a spirit of martyrdom able to transcend death and self and return to Nature and the soul; at the very least this may perhaps serve to purify the soul."

The works in his The Other Side Series are infused with a pronounced tincture of a Western aura of religion. The 1989 creation Dormant Head and Guardians belongs to this period, but represents a more mature style. The yellow female figure occupying the right half of the screen is clearly cast in the lead role; beside her the small arched-shaped construct in the middle seems purpose-built just to house the child swaddled in white cloth within, while the blue patterned background in this hut and the red cloth upon which the child sits together bring forth their noble tones: it cannot fail to be recall the relationship between Madonna and Child. As for the three figures on the left, although only one is identifiably male, yet these all seem to be facing the child in an attitude of worship, apparently the Adoration of the Magi as described in the Bible where the three have travelled from afar in the East to bestow their blessings on the Christ Child, whereas the arrangement of their three forms seems to reference the Three Graces in Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli's masterpiece La Primavera (fig. X); these figures all repose within Zhang Xiaogang's sacred preserve, and undoubtedly stand as symbols of a yearning for benefaction. Finally, a head, likewise shrouded in a white cloth, lies on a table, eyes seemingly closed in deep sleep, but also suggesting Christ just taken down from the Cross, and thus symbolising the sacrifice of the great, while depicting a sacred religious role - for Zhang, he is the Saviour liberating the soul itself - while the original figure of the Madonna seems to revert here to a mere mother guarding her son, her eyes fixed, gazing into an unknown distance, probably reflecting the likelihood of the artist's pupils glinting with his heart's ever-present spiritual longing to reach the other side.

The exquisite painting techniques in Dormant Head and Guardians add a touch of beauty to Zhang Xiaogang's artistic traits in The Other Side: in contrast to the rough brush strokes of the first half of the 1980s, his oil paintings on cardboard exhibit extremely subtle permutations of colour and exude a sense of translucent, watercolour-like appeal, with the fine working of the contour lines imparting to this work in oil the gentle directness of a pencil sketch, with past fluctuations in mood nebulously dissolving into patches of smooth colour, and the skilled use of the technique of previews appearing a few years after the launch of the Bloodline: Big Family Series. In contrast to Big Family, however, which may be said to be a perfectly-modified portrait painting, the failure to objectively distort the yellow woman's face and body in Dormant Head and Guardians clearly echoes the austere and unaffected style of classical art (fig. X), while the woman's right hand gently resting on her own breast emphasises female sexuality wiles, while further hinting at suggestions of vitality and nurturing. As In regards to the spatial processing of collage effects and the treatment of the mysterious atmosphere, these serve to demonstrate how the artist's painting language draws upon Metaphysical Art and Surrealism (fig. X), to explore the potentiality of developing these figures beyond the bounds of academicism.

Art has always contemplated behavioral issues but, rather than offering answers, Zhang probably lacks any means of locating a real god that can actually redeem souls amid the profusion of religious symbols in Dormant Head and Guardians. This is a very personal spiritual journey at the social level, but also a covert critique of the exclusive worship of a single political testament. Whether it betokens a personal belief in a surreal kingdom, or marks a return ? la Big Family Series to the fold of traditional Chinese family relations, Zhang has striven to secure a stable and placid sanctuary for the heart.

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