Roundabout Victory 56x71 2010-2011

Until June 10, 2011 – Aye Callery

Burning the Wood: Collection of Du Yuesheng.
“There is nothing complex or conceptual about Zhao Gang’s pictorial planes, and this is their strength. His figurative strategies were thought out well in advance by some combination of Soviet socialist realist pioneers, photographically provoked conceptualists (the Richter-Tuymans trajectory), and German expressionists like Kippenberger whom he learned about only after he started painting like he did. He paints well; no one really denies this. They are not paintings that transform their viewers, although they do delight. Does this imply the “Triumph of painting”, the “return to form” or any similar theoretical whimper recently cooked up to explain just what is the point of making images out of pigment and cloth at a moment when every cell phone has a camera on it? For Zhao Gang’s sake, let’s hope not.

What are these images about anyway? One place to start is the paintings from his Stars period. I saw two of these a few weeks ago at a hasty ten-day exhibition in a private museum in Beijing. They were not even hung together, the lighting was terrible, and they have lost significant amounts of pigment. And yet these two canvases somehow stood out among the entire mass of immediate post-Mao, pre-Deng art as the rare thing with a pictorial vision all their own. One depicted a pedestrian overpass against a background of burnt orange; the other was a geometric interior, a blue sky through a white grid window. Coming from a time when many artists sought inspiration from the fauvists or cubists they were reading about in poor translation and looking at in bad reproduction, these works, with their simple connection to the material realities of their moment, are able to get beyond all the big-picture dreaming of that moment and respond poignantly to the actual situation on the ground. There is a pleasure in them almost as much archival as it is aesthetic – this, we can imagine, is what it was like to look out a window, or cross a busy street, in the Beijing of the early 1980s.
Looking at the works Zhao Gang has painted for this exhibition nearly three decades later, the pleasure remains strangely similar. This group of works returns to themes Zhao Gang has treated throughout his career; put simply, the intersections of politics and history and of love and sex. It is often difficult for members of my generation to be moved by paintings that draw on the visual vocabularies of socialism – we never saw the original thing in play, and our whole introduction to contemporary art in China came via the few 1990s painters who marshaled their ironic appropriation of them into Western approbation. And yet the work accomplished by the diptych in the center of this exhibition is quite unlike anything achieved by the movement dubbed “Political Pop”. In this composition, a band of thirty – some Red Army soldiers stare at the viewer from their monochromatic world, in which the only splash of color is provided by a communist war flag. They are taken from the pages of a mass – market Long March history, its cramped, late 1990s graphic design bespeaking the Party’s still unsophisticated drive to turn doctrine into bestseller. (History books like this, published by mass-market housed that are not quite popular, litter Zhao Gang’s studio.) The artist has been fair to his photograph – the figures are rendered erect, with appropriate solemnity – but he has inserted one damning line of text on the white field of the flag, where normally the name of the detachment would be proudly printed. “Women dou shi nongmin”, reads the inscription in Zhao Gang’s painting: “We are all peasants.”…” (Philip Tinari)

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