“Jing”No. 3 2012, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 80 cm
“Jing” No. 3 2012, acrylic on canvas, 100 x 80 cm

Double entendres and word plays abound in this exhibition, which is intent on displaying the dual contexts that result from cultural translation, often with comical results. Zhang Lehua delights in such post-colonial treasure hunting. From the words and phrases incorporated into his works, the images used, exhibition layout, to the show’s title, and even the poster, everything seems to be sourced from paths frequently trodden in Chinese contemporary art. The exhibition recalls the ironic stances and binary methods employed by artists of an earlier generation, which raises questions of whether the show is yet another bland and superficial art-world “mulatto.” Nevertheless, in this gallery— which is run by a foreigner— the end result is still enough to attract curious viewers and make them pause.

From a certain perspective, the gallery fell for Zhang Lehua’s comical machinations. Upon closer analysis, the images and texts build toward translated ideas that are only hinted at, not elaborated on. In one series of paintings where the titles refer to whales, the images instead contain references to sperm. The Chinese words for “whale” and “sperm” sound identical, and in English, the sperm whale comes to mind. The texts, their associated meanings, and the translation together form a bilingual— Chinese and English— context, in addition to the visual pun. Any single interpretation of the paintings is uncomfortably cloaked in vagueness. Zhang further expands his efforts of obfuscation to the exhibition catalog, providing definitions to key concepts. “Painter” is defined as “good news for the frames and mounting industry.” This act of seriously presenting an intentional misdirection demonstrates linguistic cunning and resourcefulness.

Using politically sensitive topics, classics drawn from art history, and popular television program stylings, the exhibition exposes a logic that is persuasive but has sinister values— the paradoxes between art education and art itself, of patriotism and the harmony policies, social ethics and common sense, and between popular culture and culture. Yet by taking a sincere posture guided by sexual desire that also champions mental and physical health, it seems that any paradox can have an instantaneous resolution and be reborn into nirvana. It can be said that the repeating metaphors about sex represent the main thread of the exhibition, while the language is almost always painting. Zhang finally exposes the truth, which reveals him not to be a rebel obsessed with cultural translation.

In his early days, Zhang favored using an electric soldering iron as his drawing tool, burning away parts of photographs and leaving the white brushstrokes behind. Since then, he has gradually abandoned the shame of being a model art-academy student. He has rehabilitated and released his art libido, bursting with memories of painting.

Zhang’s “Teenager Dissemination Series” is full of sexual metaphors. The masking tape strewn about his studio shows the process of creating each of these paintings. Those who have experience with painting and composition know that masking tape is used to partition the canvas into separate areas. Once the masking tape is removed, all of the exaggerations and disorder seen during the painting process settle into stability. Also exhibited are drafts of his How The Young Can Achieve A Melancholic Temperament, which reveal that preliminary versions were more conservative than the final one. The drafts resemble sketches done in the standard academy style, but in the process of creating the final painting, plans lost to improvisation. Restricted by the masking tape, Zhang could attempt a liberal application of brushstrokes, obstruct the painterly effect that he relies on, and forgo repeating the usual rhetoric so as to explore his own language.

Nevertheless, when a painting practice has progressed to a certain stage, because of the limitations of medium and material, as well as the methods of production, what the outside world sees are only the increasingly skillful rhetorical flourishes. In this solo exhibition, the large-scale installation and painting Leave Tomorrow’s Work for the Day After Tomorrow stands out because of the unexpected format and material. It is also notable for its new experimentation with language, which attests to Zhang’s wariness of rhetoric. (Translated by JiaJing Liu)