About the Exhibition
Xi Zhang is one of the most distinguished emerging artists in Colorado history, and one of the most prolific painters of the new generation. Through his undergraduate studies at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design and more recently his masters work at CU Boulder, he has developed an extraordinary set of painting skills that covers a wide swath of territory from the figurative to the abstract, with the ability to render his concepts both in intimate and large scales. Because of his thought-provoking concepts and inherent abilities, Zhang was named a "Pathfinder" in the visual arts and one of the top artists under 35 by the Denver Post in 2011. Later that year he became the youngest artist to deliver a Logan Lecture at the Denver Art Museum as part of the fall series’ focus on Chinese contemporary art. His new works are socially charged, symbolically complex and as visually rich as anything being done in contemporary art in the world today.
Fantastic Rebirth: Culture Is But a State of Mind
Nancy Hightower on Xi Zhang, 2011
Culled from his black market snippets of pop culture via comics and film, Xi Zhang’s use of the fantastic—that slipstream realm between the real and unreal— challenges, perhaps, our narcissistic judgments of technology and media. Is our culture permeated with so much information and visual texts that we have ceased to know where the human ends and the avatar begins? Such a question sounds like we are introducing a science fiction novel instead of a young artist’s daring new body of work. And yet I believe that Zhang shares many of the concerns that a science fiction writer would have regarding the rate at which technology currently structures our life.
Zhang creates his "psychedelic visuals" based on "our new addiction to technology that alters our minds and perceptions of the world." However, his work does not propel us into a state of binary oppositions about whether social media is bad or good. It simply is. For the artist, such media was and still is a way for an outsider to learn about different constructed realities beyond their clichéd contexts. For an addict (and here the word user can take on multiple meanings if we tie it into media), the image becomes the thing itself. It then ceases to be a doorway into the fantastic, into an imaginative way of communicating that stretches our language. It is this paradox that gives Zhang’s work a sense of haunting wonder.
The portraits in 12921 represent people who are neither subject or object but reside in the in-between place, a sacred space devoid of narrative that allows a creative energy to flow one from the other. Given how many cultural appurtenances we accrue in our lives, thereby accidentally (or purposefully) creating the Other we will eventually come to hate, Zhang’s work momentarily strip us of our acquired, and often artificial modes of representation. Hidden in masks, everyone is reduced to their basic humanity and must learn how to function accordingly. The next exhibition, Convulsions, then moves us into another rhetorical framework. The masks are only partially there and binaries have begun to form, leading to violence and even horror. Still, the liminal space that defines the boundaries between people, especially in the Rang paintings, remains in an abject state of fluidity, thereby binding any opposition into a sense of oneness. The series ends with In Utero, where a womb becomes the birthplace of the fantastic as animals and humans patiently wait to be born, their faces slightly anxious, ever watchful.
The fragmented portraits that permeate the beginning of the Dream Dust series question what happens after that birth, how individual and creative voices might be crafted, our very identities mediated through technology. We see the outlines of lips, at times, but mostly the mouth is effaced and often crisscrossed with circuitry. Any emotion is only seen in their eyes, which are haunting, averted, accusing. This becomes doubly powerful when we think about how much of our technology is advertised, sold, and participated in via the visual text. It is not until we encounter Dream Dust that the eyes are empty as the abject, grid-like world underneath explodes in magenta and electric blue hues. Bodies become porous, some almost animal-like and yet barely registering as uncanny ghosts with such rigid, web-like structures overtaking them. The following paintings then turn gothic as we see only individuals given over to madness, isolation and loss in A Beautiful Wish, An Tai Tou # Wan, and Hai Pei Ta Gai Ze. The organic collides with social media in the drawings 2011 and FWD:2011. However, these are not the natural animals we see in Zhang’s In Utero but rather the animated Kung Fu Panda, Puss in Boots, and Garfield now held within a computer frame. This "womb" holds us in a strange kind of wonder concerning this mess of machine and human.
Awaking Dreams of Springs leans more towards a sense of playfulness even as postcards, journal entries, and paintings are invaded by post-modern computer icons. However, just how much the computer can truly efface the body is challenged in the Bath paintings. Here, the pornographic positions and body parts are gleefully put on display while nondescript areas of flesh are censored through pixilation. The ridiculous becomes slightly more disconcertingly serious, though, when after the last image of a woman’s genitals are obscured, the next work of a Facebook page rendered slight out of focus makes us stare all the harder. We can make out names and a few words—just enough to keep our gaze riveted on this frozen, personalized wall.
No One’s Wonderland doesn’t return us to the abject so much as bring us into new sense of carnival by juxtaposing the ancient with the futuristic. In this expansive work, Zhang uncovers the impermanence of the boundaries we wish to place around self and other, virtual world and flesh, memory and mediation. Because of the Internet, we no long approach history in quite the linear way we had to with only books and print media. With Google, we can move through time forwards, backwards, and sideways, seeing completely disparate images appearing side by side, link by link. Such a strange universe unfolds in uncomfortable, mischievous ways with Egyptian wall drawings that expose the computer grids which created their image, Van Gogh’s lovely sunflowers peeping up behind them. In the center panel, a Tron-like portal opens with dazzling light and sinuous grids that snake throughout. People, video game characters, and pop icons interact out of cultural contexts, displaying the human need for connection and love.
But it is the portraits that capture my eye and act as stepping stones out of that mediated center. Instead of ghastly faces, we get a couple who borders on being grotesque with their eager smiles and direct gaze, their friend waving at us from an even smaller box. With insets of Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q. lining the side of his frame, the portrait of cultural creative Nick Cave stands oddly alone, his eyes neither accusing nor fearful but rather intently focused on the viewer, almost as if asking, well, what are you going to do now? And it is only then that I realize that the landscape that takes up the right side of the painting is the foundation for the entire work. Zhang Ze Duan’s Along the River During the Qingming Festival is recreated in this wonderland, with Zhang focusing on "people from all levels of society from rich to poor, as well as different economic activities in rural areas and the city." This is the very heart of Bakhtin’s carnival culture, and it highlights the anti-hierarchal nature of the technology in that it cuts across economic, racial, and educational boundaries while also paradoxically questioning the nature of economic disparity in the 21st Century. For the city portrayed in the painting, Kaifeng—and Zhang’s hometown—was once the capital of China, but now it is no longer the seat of power but a run down, "disintegrating" place. So, then, this "wonderland" might be an indictment of our mediated culture if we continue to see social media as a thing in and unto itself. Such technology has allowed a unique doorway into the fantastic, into an imaginative way of bypassing those destructive narratives we create to erase the Other, should we choose to enter it with wonder instead of cynicism.