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Thicker Than Water

Family portraits that are not all that they seem

04·27·2016

Thicker Than Water

Family portraits that are not all that they seem

04·27·2016

Inspired by Chinese family photos from the 1960s and 1970s and a healthy dose of surrealism, 56-year-old Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang (张晓刚) is famous for his “Bloodline: Big Family” (《血缘: 大家庭》) series. This series is mostly made up of stylized portraits, usually painted with cartoonish, large black pupils and the models holding stiff formalized postures. Basing his work around the concept of family, Zhang creates paintings that reflect uniformity, and unnervingly parallel and reflect the collectivism of Chinese culture during Mao’s era. However, the portraits are not as they should be; there is always something added, out of place; be it flecks of color or incongruous faces; this modifying of the real with the unreal give the artworks an edge, whereby they almost become situationist detournements.

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When he was young, Zhang committed an artists’ motto to memory: “What I am concerned about are the hidden parts beyond what the eyes can see.” Born in 1958, at the beginning of Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Zhang Xiaogang came of age at the peak of the Cultural Revolution, eventually graduating in 1982 from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. At that time, China’s art system was completely under the domination of Soviet social realism; any deviation from the official standards was viewed with contempt. His style strayed from official standards, and he was denied the teaching post he craved for so long. From 1982 to 1985, he worked as a construction worker and art director for a social dance troupe in Kunming.

Things took a favorable turn when he visited his parent’s home and was inspired by his family’s old photos. That was the beginning of his “family” series that reflected the theme of the individual in society. In his own words, “I wanted to study a problem: when people are entangled in these complex relationships, what kinds of responses and emotions do they evoke?”

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Bloodline: Big Family, 2005

So, with these humble photos from the 1960s and 1970s, he painted callous, deathly stillness; the exquisite portraits are neutral and display little personality. In his “No.1”, for example, three family members—with their sharp, faceless eyes—stare out stubbornly, the parents stern and dull and the child nervous and confused with maturity growing on his face. A thin red line, symbolizing the bloodline, ties the three together.

There is an odd modernity in his works. While the collectivism of the Mao era is long gone, the feelings and themes of his work are still alive today. The stillness of family and wedding photos—the darkness in normality—is still very real. Today, Zhang’s work is reminder of the past and a symbol of the cruelty in anonymity.

 

Cover image is Zhang’s piece Tian’anmen No.2, 2007