When Zhang Zipiao (b. 1993) was a little girl growing up in China, her mother, a doctor, would often come home from work, turn on the computer, and start reviewing PowerPoint slides and videos of gastrointestinal operations. -intestinal she was studying or preparing to do. perform. Zhang gazed over her mother’s shoulder, mesmerized, watching an endoscope camera work its way down a patient’s throat and into the bowels of the stomach and intestines. “My mother always needed to work overtime at home,” Zhang explained during a conversation at LGDR’s 89th Street space, where her first solo exhibition with the gallery “Swallow wholeis currently playing (until July 28). “I wasn’t exactly sure what I was seeing,” she said. “From this point of view, the body becomes very abstract.”

Zhang Zipiao in his Beijing studio in 2022. Photograph by Yu Fan.

Zhang Zipiao in his Beijing studio in 2022. Photo: Yu Fan.

Flesh, in all its decadent and disturbing forms, is the artist’s primary fascination, as “Swallow Whole” underlines, but here rendered obliquely, in loops, rhythmic passages of oil paint. At first glance, these recent paintings, which range from small, intimate canvases to enveloping triptychs, may seem superficially pretty – ribbony abstractions in reds, purples and luscious shades of pink. Sit with them for a moment, however, and fleshy shapes emerge – bloody organs, plump oysters, calla lilies, tight rosebuds, and sleek, watchful spiders.

“I’ve always wanted to capture the texture of a petal,” she told me, rubbing her fingers as if she were holding a petal between her fingers. “It’s similar to human skin in its thickness, moisture and veins too, like an eyelid.” In earlier series of works, Zhang made his imagery more representational, albeit with an equally baroque intensity, favoring blooming flowers, split ripe pomegranates, round white eggs. For Zhang, imagery came to him intuitively. “The meaning is important, but it is not the most important. What is most important to me is the color, composition, quality and treatment of the paint,” she said when asked about her choice of images. Although reluctant to delve into symbolism, the artist chooses to be guided by her subconscious and a sense of destiny, rather than intellectual considerations. That’s how she got into art in the first place.

Installation view "Zhang Zipiao: Swallow whole", 2023. Photo by Elisabeth Bernstein.  Courtesy of LGDR.

Installation view “Zhang Zipiao: Swallow Whole”, 2023. Photo: Elisabeth Bernstein. Courtesy of LGDR.

Now based in Beijing, Zhang studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her father, a professor at the China Academy of Art with his own animation practice, encouraged Zhang in all her creative endeavors (although she grew up living with her mother), but she did not actively consider becoming artist. Wanting to go to college in the United States, she thought pursuing art might be a way to overcome the language barrier. “At that time, my English was pretty bad and I didn’t think I could pass the reading and writing exams,” she explained with a smile. “Four years later, I graduated with no professional skills, so I had no choice but paint. Everything happened very innocently, joyfully and randomly. I’m never a very conscious person when it comes to making decisions in my life, I’m guided by my subconscious, so I’m very lucky to paint.

Likewise, Zhang’s movement towards the abstraction of her forms was driven by her own feelings of confusion and disillusionment in the aftermath of confinement. In Beijing, she was able to go to her studio and paint, a smoother experience than many have had, and considers her experience “lucky”. Nonetheless, she has become increasingly aware of the unseen forces, including disease, culture, and surveillance, that can so powerfully shape our lives.

Zhang Zipiao, Spider 02 (2023).  Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.

Zhang Zipiao, Spider 02 (2023). Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.

“When I was growing up in China, we didn’t really have supermarkets, we had the wet market and the butcher,” she said, explaining her own childhood experiences of death, flesh and consumption. “My mum would take me to the butcher and I would watch as they put the chicken in boiling water to loosen the feathers and then kill it. I was so mesmerized by the rawness of this one. While studying in the United States, Zhang spent hours at Whole Foods photographing meat sealed in plastic. “I just think it’s beautiful,” she added.

Zhang Zipiao, Mother of Pearl (2023).  Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.

Zhang Zipiao, mother-of-pearl (2023). Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.

In this sense, Zhang is part of a long historical tradition of the art of vanity paintings, images often of opulent displays of food that serve as symbols of moral depravity and reminders of the transience of the soul. Francis Bacon, too, comes to mind as a reference; her Figure with Meat (1954) particularly, but largely in its malleable and often grotesque treatment of the body. Slices of animal meat sculpted by Chaim Soutine, convulsive expressions of the psychic suffering and physical torment of the world wars also seems an apt comparison, as does Rembrandt’s psychologically rich understanding of the flesh. Color is paramount to the success of these works and understanding its function is key to unlocking their meaning.

Color is also a major concern. Zhang conceives of reds, pinks and purples, as a kind of grayscale in her work, a register of the basic colors of the flesh, which she shades or attenuates, and in this sense she aligns herself with Philip Guston. The intense associations of Chinese culture with color – as a harbinger of luck and health – are taken into account. “Red is a color that can be both very good and very bad. It can be a warning, red can tell you to stop. It symbolizes passion, vitality, but also blood,” she said. “It’s an extreme color and I wouldn’t say I personally like it.”

Zhang Zipiao, Calla Lily 10 (2023).  Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.

Zhang Zipiao, Calla lily 10 (2023). Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.

Pink, of course, has strong associations with gender and femininity in our present time, and the longer one sits with Zhang’s works, hints of a certain struggle with notions of femininity and sexuality emerge. On a register, the gestural handling of painting by Zhang recalls the abstractions of Lee Krasner. Meanwhile, his paintings of calla lilies and spiders, of course, are reminiscent of Georgia O’Keeffe and Louise Bourgeois, and their Freudian analyzes in place.

Zhang attributes her fascination with spiders and oysters to late nights in the rabbit holes of social media, rather than art history. “In the middle of the night one of these videos pops up, showing someone squeezing pearls out of the flesh of shells,” she says, “It’s almost like Dr. Pimple Popper, the way the pearls come out. Everything is so squishy. I couldn’t stop watching these videos and I was like, ‘I’m going to paint this,'” she said, referencing the genesis of her “Mother of Pearl” series. , she says, the interest in spiders was born from the discovery of “videos of very strange insects”.

Zhang Zipiao, Mother of Pearl 08 (2023).  Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.

Zhang Zipiao, Mother of pearl 08 (2023). Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.

In this way, Zhang taps into a sense of isolation, escapism, voyeuristic pleasure, and perversity that pervades our daily lives. The control barely holds; we are inundated with its tangles of ribbon-like paintings, which pile up, ready to topple and scatter. The opulence of it all may be our undoing. In its four meters wide diptych Mother of pearl 08 (2023), which spans four meters across, a colossal oyster is presented open, swirls of undulating lines surrounding it like surging waves of color. by Sandro Botticelli Birth of Venus (ca. 1485) comes to mind, the goddess of love offered like a pearl. But, here, Venus is nowhere to be found. One thinks then of the title of the exhibition, “Swallow Whole”. We are left with exactly what is devoured; Zhang seems to say it’s us.

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