Beijing

Zhang Hui, Overgrown (Happy New Year), 2016, oil on canvas, 6' 6" × 13'.

Zhang Hui, Overgrown (Happy New Year), 2016, oil on canvas, 6' 6" × 13'.

Zhang Hui

Zhang Hui, Overgrown (Happy New Year), 2016, oil on canvas, 6' 6" × 13'.

It seemed surprisingly pertinent to think of Pokémon Go, the popular mobile game app, when standing in front of Zhang Hui’s large new painting Overgrown (Happy New Year), 2016, which looks like a postcard landscape with a handwritten New Year’s greeting on the upper left—an impression the artist undermines by adding a floating yet very tangible blue line at the top, casting a shadow that clearly indicates a three-dimensional space. One branch that sticks out from the greenish background scenery is painted dark green, while two other similarly shaped green forms are imposed across the canvas where they don’t seem to belong, serving to remind the viewer that this is still a painterly surface. In front of such a work, one’s eyes and mind shuttle back and forth between the intertwined layers, trying to figure out where the world in this image begins and ends, which layer is supposed to be “real,” or “more real,” and in what sense. The artist may or may not be familiar with the concept of augmented reality that underscores the technology and conceptual framework of the Pokémon sensation, but his evident mistrust of “reality” and his persistent efforts to interrogate the mechanism behind its construction seem to resonate with our cultural moment, leading this viewer to think about distance, space, and the border between the real and the virtual—or rather, its erasure.

A decade has passed since Zhang shifted the locus of his practice from live performance and theatrical experimentation to painting. Zhang was trained as a stage set designer in the 1980s at the Central Academy of Drama, Beijing, where in 1991 he took up a teaching position, which he still holds. His experience in stage design and knowledge of dramaturgy give him a perspective that involves careful consideration of spatial structure and narrative, both pointing to the concept of construction. Bertolt Brecht’s idea of the alienation effect also played an important role in shaping Zhang’s intellectual pursuits and artistic expression. His paintings often contain self-critical reflections on the conventions of theater, through which the artist found a way to embody both his mistrust and reverence for existence itself. What was different about his latest exhibition was that this time he explicitly implanted personal memories and emotional elements into the works, as if providing a more realistic foundation for the world built up on canvas.

Fourteen paintings along with more than forty works on paper, all created over the past two years, were arranged in seven sections, each corresponding in some way to certain elements in his previous works, such as life buoys (Remembrance, 2015), neon lights (Remembrance of Things Past [1] [2] [3], 2016), and snowscapes (A Scene of Snow [Relief Sculpture], 2015). The “Record” series, 2016–, documents fragments retrieved from his memory of the past thirty years, some signed with both the date of their occurrence and the date of their production. Thus, various timelines coexisted on the same canvas and throughout the whole show. Even so, in works such as Overgrown (Happy New Year) the artist continually questions what he has just established, but without negating its “realness.” Here, truth and fiction are not opposed but are dependent on each other; this is also the daily lesson of theatrical practice.

Guo Juan