As one of the leading members of the Chinese avant-garde, in the 1990s Zhang Xiaogang quickly became a staple of the international art world through his singular poetic vision and iconic "Bloodline: Big Family Series." With this series, Zhang appropriated the format of formal family portrait photography into poignant and haunting paintings, reaching back into the images and memories of the Cultural Revolution in order to explore the psychological character of his generation.
In his post-"Bloodline" work, Zhang breaks the rigid formality of his earlier works but continues to explore the unconscious workings of memory through Photo-Realist images of mysterious dreamscapes. These paintings in many ways represent an extension and deepening of Zhang's earliest works, dwelling on images of martyrdom, loss, and symbolic but unexplained texts. From the beginning, with a Proustian sensitivity to memory and experience, Zhang's interpretation of his Contemporary reality is one that is constantly informed by revelations of the past, what he has in other contexts referred to as "memory and amnesia." As such, his more recent explorations continue the core themes of his earliest works, rendering them at once more personal and more universal.
In this monumental canvas painted during 2005-6, Zhang offers a composition thick with loneliness, nostalgia and longing. A young male figure lies peacefully over a journal, apparently asleep. The clues to the scene are minimal but offer some insight. Writing and texts have always been important in Zhang's works and in life, as a means of marking down minor incidents and musings. The unplugged light bulb marks the space as one of privacy, of thoughts so vulnerable that they must be kept hidden. Regarding his palette of choice, he has said, "Grey gives people the sense of being unrelated to reality, a feeling of the past Grey represents my personal emotions and it is connected to my own temperament It is a forgetful feeling that can also evoke a sense of dreaming" (Z. Xiaogang, quoted in J. Fineberg, Revision:Zhang Xiaogang, New York, 2008, p. 16). A surrealist patch of yellow falls over the figure and his writing. This patch has remained consistent throughout Zhang's works, its meaning evolving over time, but its inclusion was based on its traditional associations with the imperial Chinese color and a color symbolic of purity. Here it appears like a warm shaft of light from an inexplicable source, clearly independent from the hanging bulb. In this fantasy-cum-memory, the loneliness and struggle the painting may evince is warmed by an apparent nostalgia for innocence of youth. While Zhang's early investigation into the imagery and impact of the Cultural Revolution had obvious political overtones, it becomes clear that his most profound contribution to Contemporary Chinese art is his implicit assumption that the personal is political, that subjective experience is historically relevant, worthy of the grand treatment he gives it in his monumental, haunting images.