Installation view of ZHAO ZHAO’s “Self-portrait” at Lin & Lin Gallery, Taipei, 2017–18. Courtesy the artist and Lin & Lin Gallery.


Zhao Zhao

Lin & Lin Gallery
China Taiwan

In Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film La Grande Bellezza, the exhibition of photographs of the same man’s face taken every day for 55 years casts a spell on the viewer. The effect is astounding. As the film’s protagonist peruses thousands of pictures displayed on the walls of Rome’s Villa Giulia, we follow him in awe. Zhao Zhao’s “Self-portrait” exhibition at Taipei’s Lin & Lin Gallery was mounted at a smaller scale, but was as emotionally charged as the fictional photo show in the Italian film, with the artist in the same pose on every canvas, resting his head on one hand, resisting the passage of time. And yet, as we move from image to image, personal conflicts within the artist slowly emerge.

ZHAO ZHAOSelf Portrait, 2017, oil on canvas, 35 × 27 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lin & Lin Gallery, Taipei.

ZHAO ZHAOSelf Portrait, 2016, oil on canvas, 35 × 27 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lin & Lin Gallery, Taipei.

The exhibition presented Zhao’s endeavor of painting himself from 2015 to 2017 in more than 20 works. In each self-portrait, the artist despondently waits—for what exactly, we do not know—luring the viewer in to observe his open boredom, detachment and fatigue. In every work, Zhao’s hand touches his mouth, capturing the reluctance or inability to vocalize his loneliness or suspicion.

In 2015, at the onset of Zhao’s second decade as an artist, he worked on Project Taklamakan, in which Zhao and a team of 30 people traveled from Beijing to the Taklamakan Desert in Xinjiang, tracing a path to connect a refrigerator with a power source that was 100 kilometers away. Though known for his video and installation works, the artist sees painting as a way to hide from what he considers to be an unstable world. This was most evident in 2012, when he had run-ins with Chinese security officials and had to sever his connections in the art world. He remained in solitude, but found refuge in painting. Like his desert sojourn, Zhao’s self-portraits serve the purpose of reexamining the relationships built with others and himself in a life defined by instability.

In his first self-portrait, which was painted in 2015 and excluded from the exhibition, Zhao used varied flesh tones and a muted background, bringing to mind Lucien Freud’s portraits imbued with rough intensity. We were able to see in Lin & Lin that his brushwork became more relaxed in the following year. His palette also changed, shifting in two directions—chromatic grays and complementary hues—to portray a sense of internal agony. Most works painted in 2017 are dark, stark and ascetic; the artist’s head eventually becomes a blob emerging from a deep abyss of black paint, recalling Francis Bacon’s abstracted figurations.

ZHAO ZHAO, Self Portrait, 2015, oil on canvas, 35 × 27 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lin & Lin Gallery, Taipei.

ZHAO ZHAOSelf Portrait, 2017, oil on canvas, 35 × 27 cm. Courtesy the artist and Lin & Lin Gallery, Taipei.

Although Zhao Zhao might have referenced the masters, and attempted to infuse their formal language and psychological depth into his own works, it is unlikely that he derives satisfaction from using art historical references. In awe of the past, Zhao once wrote, “Today’s form is nothing more than a puppet, despite its changing looks and applications.” His excruciating self-criticism makes us believe that he considers all contemporary attempts as poor imitations of their predecessors, inarguably defeated by authentic ingenuity.

Art historical analysis and psychoanalysis have suggested that self-portraiture reveals parts of one’s being that exist on an unconscious level. For Zhao, who lives with what he calls “multiple splitting selves,” the variation of styles in his self-portraits are an expression of the negotiations among all of his discordant personalities. “While struggling with each other,” Zhao told me, “we sometimes reach consensus; sometimes, one person leads all of us; sometimes, the negotiation collapses completely; sometimes, one of us is bullied by the rest.” Thus, the tendency toward darkness and abstraction does not represent the essence of the self; rather, it is only a part of the compromise. The artist reckons that he has dived very deep into his own psyche: “A therapist may analyze me on the surface level, but I have completed the analysis of this level from five levels deeper.”

By depicting himself, Zhao offers a glimpse into his psyche. On more than 20 canvases showing the same subject matter but painted with distinct color palettes, brushstrokes and references, the artist combats the instability of life, the weight of history and the multiplicity of self. He has said that he will likely paint another series of self-portraits in a different pose, where the battle will continue.

Zhao Zhao’s “Self-portrait” is on view at Lin & Lin Gallery, Taipei, until January 14, 2018.

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