Zhang Xiaogang and Mao Xuhui have been close friends since they were first acquainted in Yunnan in the late 1970s. Early on, their artistic practices and trajectories in life overlapped considerably. Around the time of the ’85 New Wave, the “New Figurative Art” exhibition was born, and later the “Southwest Art Group.” Even after Zhang’s return to the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in 1986, the two frequently corresponded, exchanging ideas, art, and personal wisdom. Zhang’s “Bloodlines: Big Family” series in 1994 was a major turning point, when Zhang, employing a schematic, symbolic language that intended to break free from the influence of expressionism, turned away from a painting practice once more closely aligned with Mao’s. This transformation undoubtedly produced the Zhang Xiaogang of today.
At the close of 2010, Zhang Xiaogang and Mao Xuhui’s solo exhibitions opened at Beijing’s Today Art Museum and Yan Huang Art Museum, respectively. While Mao’s “River. Passing.” was a comprehensive retrospective of thirty years of painting, Zhang’s “16:9” was yet another debut of new works in Beijing, continuing the line begun in his 2009 solo exhibition “The Records” at Pace Beijing. Each exhibition attracted waves of observers, yet emitted a distinct aura. The Yan Huang Art Museum, Mao’s venue, was independently established in the 1980s by wellknown Chinese painter Huang Zhou. Officially opened in 1991, its architectural design resonates with the styles of the Han and Tang dynasties, while its interior and exterior decoration reflect a 1980s interpretation of so-called “classical” style. Though Minsheng Bank took over the Yan Huang’s operations in 2009, the place still maintains the striking appearance of an art paradise seen through the eyes of a traditional Chinese painter. Today Art Museum, on the other hand, was born at the turn of the twenty-first century, its founding coinciding with and indeed marking the formation of a symbiotic relationship between the real estate industry and the Chinese art world. For many galleries and artists, Today Art Museum serves as a central hub for the popularization of art. Moreover, its cube exterior resembles a giant modernist factory. The contrast between these two institutions works to illuminate the differences between the two exhibitions: “River. Passing.” reflects upon the past while “16:9” responds to the present.
The organization of “River. Passing.” conforms to customary retrospective logic; works and texts are displayed together, presented chronologically, and divided into thematic segments. The exhibition is comprised of three units: “Farewell Homeland,” which showcases Mao Xuhui’s Guishan series from the ‘85 period— works sketched from nature and others born out of imaginative themes; “Farewell Rights” presents his post-1980s “Parent” series, as well as his later “Power Vocabulary” and “Everyday Objects” series; and “Farewell Self” displays perhaps his most recognizable works, compiled from the last few years of the twentieth century up through his current “Scissors” series. Looking over the entire exhibition, one picks up on visual cues common to the first generation of Chinese contemporary artists. Over the course of the exhibition, expressionist style gradually gives way to signs of a kind of purely visual schematization. This symbolic turn did not happen overnight, but happened all the same—a change often attributed to the tremendous impact of the era on the individual.
“River. Passing.” spans three decades of drastic changes in China’s social landscape. But “the passing of time, like the flow of the river” (shi zhe ru si fu)—that ancient sigh of regret from which the exhibition theme borrows its title—points to a notion of irreversibility. Here, the concept does not serve to shed light on the inevitable passage of time as it applies to all natural life, but rather to communicate, albeit under the guise of discussing the laws of nature, the inevitable contextual constraints of Mao Xuhui’s own practice. For a long time, Mao was driven by a purely existential force. He relied on emotional modes of expression to face his country of origin. But intuition alone cannot bolster one’s analytical capacity; it cannot sustain the artist as he penetrates more deeply into the questions he confronts, be they social or artistic. The opposition between the intellectual (heterogeneous and complex) and the spiritual (homogeneous and simplistic) has become a nearly insurmountable obstacle in Mao’s art. The times are not to blame for this; it’s an inevitable product of one’s personal limitations. The “Parents” series exhibited in “River. Passing.” can be understood as a peak in Mao Xuhui’s artistic practice, a moment when he most effectively integrated personal experience with historical consciousness. At the level of everyday discourse, the work engages in an examination and discursive critique of images of power—an undertaking far more profound than simply painting Chairman Mao. Both in terms of composition and imagery as well as in terms of the issues it tackles, “Parents” (1989) is reminiscent of Zhang Xiaogang’s “Big Family” series from many years later.
But Zhang Xiaogang saw his greatest success when he made the “visual” his foremost priority. “16:9” consummately embodies this development in his practice. Yet the thematic explanation of the curator for “16:9” fails to measure up; entering into the topic with a discussion of “wide-screen” format—and taking its name from the standard aspect ratio of modern video—it performs a nostalgic reminiscence of Zhang’s painterly past. The most powerful works in “16:9” are those set on basic stainless steel plates. Though the characters, scenes, and still lifes originate in his past works, the fiberglass in relief atop the steel plates is the realization of a new visual experiment. We find that the mottled material characteristics of the glass and the theme of time work perfectly in concert with one another; both the exhibition design and the works shown are based in a sort of cold, gray tone that is likely to leave audience members feeling a tinge of sadness. All else aside, in the end Zhang’s mastery is best embodied in his beginnings—in his efforts to convert the collective experience of a given period into an individuated text, from there distilling personal limitations into a kind of repetitious confirmation of his own subjectivity. The long-windedness of the process, though a minor setback, is seamlessly concealed under the bright light of the stars. While Mao Xuhui’s “Scissors” sever his work from the immediate present, Zhang’s strategy of evasion is more secular in nature, more worldly than spiritual. Perhaps this difference is dictated by personality. Nonetheless, the artistic dilemma confronted by the two artists—how to respond to a sprawling, changing context with some measure of artistic integrity—is the same. Sun Dongdong