Gao Qiang and Gao Zhen, aged 48 and 54, have been working together since 1985, creating politically charged pieces that unabashedly criticize the Communist government, a theme with personal significance on account of the persecution their family during the Cultural Revolution. Though the artists are known for their garish busts of cackling Maos and Hieronymus Bosch-like photo manipulations, “Portraits” at the China Art Archives & Warehouse—curated by Ai Weiwei and Italian curator Achille Bonita Oliva—is surprisingly subdued.
Indeed, the works in the exhibition, massive oil-painted diptychs of Hitler, Marx, Osama Bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Jiang Qing, Kim Jong-il and others, are tactful, even demure. Iconic blown-up images of these historical leaders are juxtaposed with their more innocent, younger selves: Hitler as a startled child; Jiang as an aspiring actress; Bin Laden as an adorable infant. Their faces are rendered in horizontal and diagonal bands of gradated color, creating the effect of flickering, old color TVs or halftone newspaper printing processes. From a distance one sees the faces with a familiar clarity, while up close they become blurs of color. The harsh modern vision in black and white on the right against the muted, rose-tinted past on the left creates a stark contrast.
In the curatorial statement, Oliva writes about the Gao Brothers’ knack for using the human figure as a disturbing presence, “a wedge, an opening, between the serenity of daily social communication and the turbulence generated by the artistic action.” In these works, the Gao Brothers’ use of the juxtaposition highlights the way the media can selectively portray an individual. It is surprising how innocent a baby Bin Laden looks or how hopeful Jiang Qing once seemed—a reaction that makes the viewer question the social constructs of celebrity and notoriety. In these monumental paintings of vilified figures, one can find an element of humanity.
One portrait stands out from the rest in its apparent lack of notoriety. A young, bewildered Chinese man stares out at the viewer, juxtaposed against a full-body portrait of the same man as a dignified military officer. Some will recognize him as Yang Jia, a Beijing resident who was severely beaten by Shanghai police officers in 2007 for riding an unlicensed bicycle and later stabbed six officers to death in retribution. A cult hero to many young Chinese for standing up to the government, he was executed in November 2008. With its biting irony, this portrait of Yang as an upstanding citizen disrupts the “serenity of daily social communication” more than any other painting in the exhibition, adding a fierce edge to a proficient if otherwise somewhat superficial show.