Zhang Xiaotao was born in Hechuan, Sichuan in 1970. He graduated from the oilpainting department of the prestigious Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 1996 and went on to become a lecturer at the Southwest Jiaotong University in Chengdu.

Kristianna Bertelsen describes Zhang's works from his show at the Pacific Bridge Gallery in Oakland


Walking into Zhang Xiaotao's "A Joyful Time," where huge oil and watercolor paintings invite viewers into a bright underwater world of copulating frogs and intertwined human forms, the reaction "elated and free" comes to mind. Amphibious creatures float unencumbered in washes of blue, green, and orange paint, their outlines making whimsical, eye-pleasing shapes. So it is with great surprise that one learns of the artist's background-that he nearly drowned as a child and is afraid of water, and that he comes from a country whose reproductive policies are heavy-handed and punitive.

In the hands Zhang, oil paint is made to reflect the character of an ancient culture while embracing modern themes and colors. Fish, snakes, human faces, beer mugs, condoms-these repeating elements appear in intricate layers of paint that defy opacity. The creatures' hues are often the blues and greens of the traditional Chinese pottery and carvings that abound in jade markets, but placed in front of or behind the animals' outlines are shapes and symbols that would challenge, if not startle, any unsuspecting market habitué.

In more than one painting, a pair of frogs hug blissfully, doggie-style. They are free-falling, not anchored to anything except each other-getting ready, perhaps, for their parachutes to open. On one canvas, they look skyward against a backdrop of floating clouds. On another surface, their background is a motif of human couplings taken from an ancient Chinese "pillow book" of how-to positions for adults.

The repetitiveness of these pillow-book images evokes pop art. But where Andy Warhol used a checkerboard of soup cans or Marilyn's head, here the repeated element is always erotic: trios and couples in sexual play, sprinkled lightly across the backdrop. They make the canvas, from a distance, look like a textile, like a bedsheet.

While pop artists of the '50s and '60s were paying homage to postwar consumerism and icons of mass-production, China was still in the throes of the Cultural Revolution. But here Zhang turns to his artistic predecessors and, as if making up for lost time, incorporates their method. Even the vibrant sheen that some of his paintings seem to give off is reminiscent of silkscreening, a mass-production technique that Warhol adopted in the early '60s.

Some of the largest works, at the back of the gallery, are also the most provocative. In dark gray-green hazes float huge, rubbery shapes. They are transparent sheaths with reservoir tips, and faces peer from behind, or inside. Tiny bubbles are suspended within the wrinkled tubes, and here and there a splattered dollop of red paint contrasts with the green. The faces glisten as if behind a windowpane, and their wide-eyed constraint elicits sadness.

Everywhere in Zhang's work one finds splotches of the red paint. It appears to be mixed with something that won't quite blend with it, and the effect is that of a potato stamp made from a bumpy, many-eyed spud. In the context of sex and birth, though, these bubbles and deep-red blotches are semen and blood. They are the repeating threads of humanity: liquids that transmit life, inheritance, and the most essential fluids of ancestry-containing not only DNA, but also the ways in which we (both animals and humans) need each other and hurt each other. In their aqueous environment, the drops, smears, and splotches also remind one of amoebas seen under a microscope, like beads of a primordial sea.

The sensation of water is hard to shake. The oil paint itself has a liquid quality-it has been thinned enough to resemble watercolour from a short distance -and layered images often appear soaked, suspended, or dripped on. Zhang's frequently recurring dreams about drowning presumably account for all the water imagery in his work; his preoccupation stems from two swimming accidents when he was seven years old: one happened at the shore of the powerful Yangtze River, where he was playing with his companions. His brother's friend had pulled him into the current, teasingly, but soon lost control and had to swim ashore. Zhang remained out in the water and was almost dead before an adult who could brave the current came to his rescue. That tentative, struggling moment between life and death informs the artist's work expansively. His watery paint-strokes summon additional, related junctures of mortal existence: the point between conception and life, the limbo between death and afterlife, the suspension of time during coital climax.

If every one of Zhang's paintings, as he claims, is a glimpse into his dreams about drowning, then it would seem his nightmares have faded over time and produced aesthetic remnants. Yet new demons, universal ones, have popped out of his work while he processed his fears. The underwater trauma that transformed itself into beauty via paint and repetition reinvents itself here with new sociological and psychological overtones. Something new is displacing his original memories, overlaying passion upon experience, and revealing the intersection of childhood and adulthood.


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