Over the course of two decades of painting, from his earliest canvases of lonesome and solitary shepherds and farmers in his Phantoms and Grasslands series, through his Bloodline - Big Family works, we can see how Zhang's established themes and motifs have evolved to new levels of conceptual rigour and sophistication. His adoption of a recognizable representational genre - the official family photograph - and his photo-realist style, suggested the interplay between public and private, the extension of family secrets and traumas across generations. Throughout, Zhang's palette became increasingly muted, the features of his figures increasingly stylized, heightening the sense that his paintings are less depictions of actual persons but of dream-like spaces or of emotional dispositions. This thread of Zhang's practice laid the groundwork for his post-2000 paintings, including especially his Amnesia and Memory series. Among the central concepts behind the Bloodlines paintings is the relationship between memory and forgetting: the gap between public "official" forgetting and personal memory, as well as the ways in which forgetting perhaps allows one to move forward from difficult circumstances even as experiences remain with us, influencing our behaviour, choices, and fate, consciously and unconsciously.
Amnesia and Memory: Man (Lot 1040) is one of the most iconic paintings to come out of this series, appearing on the cover of Zhang's earliest large-scale monographs and solo exhibitions in Asia, Umbilical Cord of History, held at the Hong Kong Arts Centre in 2004 (Fig. 1). As the title of the catalogue suggests, and as has been evident in Zhang's work throughout his career, his interest in memory, forgetting, and experience, is not limited to individuals, but also to how these operate across time and generations.
Portraiture has always been a central aspect of Zhang's oeuvre. In the early 1990s, he painted a series of portraits of those closest to him, including his brother, fellow artists, and his daughter. Already in these works Zhang imbued his subjects with spiritual and symbolic qualities that exceeded the conventional constraints of portraiture and direct representation. This early series also introduced the use of yellow or red in skin tones, marking the beginning of Zhang's exploration of a monochromatic palette to metaphorically represent his subject's purity. The figures appear in Spartan interiors, sometimes resembling prison cells. These paintings were portraits in the traditional sense of the representation of a likeness, but they were also subjective representations of the uniqueness and innocence of an individual's spirit. In his famous portrait of Mao Xuhui, for example, he depicts his sitter's flesh all in red, an unusual tone that is completely naturalized in Zhang's hands (Fig. 2). Zhang would continue to add splashes of yellow or pink or red to his figures - sometimes painting their flesh entirely in these tones - throughout his career. In China, yellow has always been the colour of the imperial court and therefore of nobility or of elevated persons. For Zhang, too, as a colour from nature and from roses in particular, it symbolized purity and innocence of spirit. These choices then enlivened Zhang's approach to portraiture, bringing to it a new level of conceptual sophistication.
Zhang's heavily metaphorical approach to portraiture reaches his pinnacle with the Amnesia and Memory series. Zhang's references to the photography genre helped underline his concerns between the play between public and private, memory and forgetting, the particular and the universal. With Amnesia and Memory: Man, these themes have been sublimated entirely by his hyper photo-realist technique, which suggests we are looking at something like a photograph, and yet also an image, moment and a mood that stands far outside the conventions of photographic representation. As such, Zhang is revisiting the themes of purity in portraiture that he first explored a full decade prior. The subject however is not necessarily a particular person, but instead a particular quality of existence itself. Indeed, in title alone, the painting has a kind of mythic, almost chthonic quality, suggestive of some fundamental aspect of man's nature not previously explored.
At two metres tall and over two and a half metres wide, Amnesia and Memory: Man is larger than many of Zhang's large Bloodline: Big Family paintings from the 1990s. Focusing on only one figure rather than a family unit, the scale and intensity of focus is nearly overpowering, and the viewer is enveloped in the abstract and dreamy tone established by the painting. Zhang offers the portrait of a male figure in close-up. He eliminates the contextualizing details of clothes and family; indeed, the figure is not given a body and the extremes of his features are cropped by the edges of the canvas across his chin and forehead. Only the varied greys of the background of the canvas is continuous with his earlier Bloodline paintings, reminding us of the standard backdrops of commercial studio photography and thereby invoking the full legacy and emotional gravitas of that preceding series.
The figure's eyes are half-closed and his mouth half-open. Two white teeth emerge behind his upper lip, further suggesting his youth and the awkward innocence of a figure not fully matured. Half of his face is illuminated by a raking light, throwing the other half into pronounced shadows, the darkness beneath his eyes seeming to suggest the direction of his gaze. It is unclear though whether he is fully conscious - whether or not something has caught his glance and in mid- gasp, or if this is an individual caught in some space between wakefulness and sleep. Indeed, the implied photograph format is almost reminiscent of candid photographs that catch individuals in unexpected expressions before they've had a chance to compose themselves, images that can prove more "true" than more formal portraits. The figure is in a kind of liminal state, existing between a pure, uncomposed, and unmediated state of emotion and full consciousness. The surrealistic patch of light remains from his earlier works, but takes on different implications here. Unlike in the "Bloodlines" works, it is less like an effect that appears on the "surface" of the photograph-as-painting. Here instead it walks a fine line between seeming to be a discoloured patch of flesh, while seeming equally to appear like a shaft of light landing precisely on the figure's face, allowing the viewer and the figure himself some respite - and possibly some hope of escape - from the intensity of the scene.
Again and again, Zhang has returned to ideas of memory and consciousness, and his understanding of family memory and experience as inherited like any other familial trait. Amnesia and Memory: Man is in many ways the pinnacle of the emotional and subjective aspects of that exploration. Zhang's interest in the family was in part an interest in the context in which the experiences and character of the individual is formed. Here we return again and at last to the idea of the individual, the purity, fragility and spiritual character of individuals and the emotional tide of experience that they must endure. Johnson Chang eloquently captured this aspect of Zhang's works. In 2004, on the occasion of the Umbilical Cord exhibition, he wrote:
Zhang's success is to have explored a sensitive area wedged in between various dichotomies, articulating secrets that long to be told but remain suppressed. Bloodline and Memory and Amnesia reflect the historical problem of the clash between family and nationhood, about conflicting loyalties and public wounds still seeking resolution. The artist has exposed this dimension of history through the confines of the photography studio. In a portrait studio the protagonists are held captive, fossilised as stilled faces. Each one tries to show his best side to the world as this is the memory he is leaving to posterity. Each is making an effort for memory in the future. This fixed moment is therefore a moment suspended between past and future, when each person is joined to the others for eternity. Here we find a common understanding between them that cannot be readily expressed; it is like sharing a secret, a common wound. We are not told the contents of this wound, but the artist seems to imply that we should know anyway because we have arrived from that same history. Perhaps this is the significance of Zhang's art for this era. He has portrayed a public history through the subtleties of a classical iconography, and has captured the complex emotions hidden by history's public face.
The Bloodlines: Big Family paintings made "public" the private experiences and emotions of the Chinese family through the Cultural Revolution; with Amnesia and Memory: Man, we see those emotions at last by themselves.