Beginning in the early 1980s, Zhang Xiaogang was an active member of the Southwest Artist Group, one of many regional artist caught up in China's "culture fever" and debates over the direction of national arts and culture. This interest led Zhang to explore almost exclusively spiritual themes, employing personal and poetic symbols and motifs, featuring images of martyrdom, loss, and dreaming. This surrealist-nostalgic style allowed Zhang not only to explore motifs that were the externalization of his own character and disposition, but also to render them in forms that were collectively appealing.
In his King of the Woods (Lot 1371) oil on paper work from 1988, Zhang creates a mysterious parable of life, fate, and nature, ripe with images of birth, rebirth, loss, and sacrifice. On a barren field floats a green symbolic form - almost like a coat of arms - with strange figures emblazoned upon it. The central image is that of the bust of man painted entirely in red, orbited by the detached likenesses of female figures, all in an ochre yellow, as well as a ram's head, and a range of organic imagery. All of the figures are wreathed in leaves, a classical motif suggesting their noble spirits, though the diversity of their expressions equally suggests the range of emotional significance each figure holds. The form rests on a curious three-headed form, itself growing out of the stylized roots of a tree and backed by white cloak. The fabric recurs as a motif throughout the canvas, framing the central figure's head, as well as in the background of the composition, in the mournful monk-like figure in the upper-right quadrant, and again wrapping around the features of another head growing out of a tree form on the horizon. The landscape is nearly barren, populated by these trees that bear human forms like fruit, by strange animals and roaming primitive figures.
The image of a bed sheet became a central image in Zhang's works of its period; it holds inevitable Biblical associations of self-sacrifice, but for Zhang it was actually drawn from his near-death experience, and the powerful image of a hospital bed empty but for the sheet left behind. Red and yellow are the colors Zhang continued to use as the surrealist skin tones in his otherwise monochromatic Bloodlines paintings. For Zhang, they embodied purity and the height of beauty, the red the traditional color of life, success, and happiness, and the yellow of Chinese nobility. With these cumulative symbolic choices, it is hard to ignore Zhang's feeling of life, family, and fate as one that is cyclical and full of strife. Such a theme has a likely source in Zhang's own complicated family history; but, the revelation of that history in abstracted, symbolic form, was a paradigm change for Chinese art, giving new legitimacy for the subjective, personal experience as a primary subject of the new avant-garde.