Gang Zhao at Greene Naftali, 2019

Gang Zhao's exhibition Passage to Dynasty is quite an uncompromising rendering of disturbing scenes of opium consumption during the Opium War in China. The colour scheme reminds me of the painter Lin Fengmian, who was a pioneer of modern Chinese painting for blending Chinese and Western styles after studying art in Europe as the first generation of Chinese artists who studied abroad. Gang Zhao’s paintings remind me of that era of modernization in painting, when different qualities of sensibilities and aesthetics collide with the introduction of Western materiality and history of art. While Lin Fengmian's paintings were still rooted in traditional Chinese poetic imageries and nostalgia, as well as the sense of sorrow that marks such a literary tradition, Gang Zhao’s paintings set themselves apart from the possibility of aestheticizing the past, nor the war. What Gang Zhao brought forth with his work is the confrontation of reality and history, surprisingly eloquent with the portrayal of decadence navigated by the irresolvable and turbulent convergence of two artistic traditions, which do not find ease and alliance with one another in the negotiations between the painterly language and materialities.

I was left with anxieties because unlike the first generation of “hybrid” Chinese painters who hold a passion and faith in the balance and integration of two forms of art, hence two kinds of cultures and people, Gang Zhao’s work utters the impossibility and the delusion of such a “classical” endeavour.