If the human forms in Zhao Yang’s paintings are unfettered by the bonds of time and culture, it is because the artist’s own physicality and temperament speak to the vulgarity of human existence, a tireless fluency and mysticism. In earlier works built around the fable of hunt-er and prey, there is a fondness for the divine that resists cruelty. Major works in this exhibition, including Gigantism and Returning on a Stormy Night surpass the artificial limitations of this linear construction, replacing it with a mythical floating forest. The new body of work is more stable, and each work more individualized. Zhao clearly understands the misreadings of and biases held against painting today.
If Zhao Yang deploys compassion in his work, treating the universe as a place of equality, he does so without speaking to the present zeitgeist. Thankfully, the medium of painting today has extracted a sort of freedom in both content and style. Zhao knows that he can unsettle his audience and comfort them afterwards. But the very things that bring this freedom are the same methods of retrieval and storage native to the library—the very contemporary libraries of coding. From WikiLeaks to Edward Snowden to the Panama Papers, true secrets are compiled in a scattered way from collections never entered, and the greatest barrier is the data itself.
Artists generally resist the categories to which they are said to belong, hence the turbulent history of art. Whether or not a work speaks to the current zeitgeist cannot be the only standard. Instead, the standard now lies in the freedoms and limitations chosen by the painter, and how he or she justifies this choice. This, perhaps, is a question for Zhao.