Now, the Beijing-based artist and animator is back in New York with “The Watcher,” a new exhibition that marks his fourth show at Klein Sun Gallery and the first body of work he’s unveiled since 2012. While these three recent series seem simpler and quieter than his earlier works, there are parallels between his past and present practices.
The first of these series, “Dissolve the Night,” features swirls of painted planes and ships and, of course, instantly recognizable pop-culture icons like Astro Boy, Mike Wazowski (from Monsters Inc.), and Jack Skellington (from The Nightmare Before Christmas). Also popping up is one of Gong’s favorite creatures: the panda.
According to the artist, the panda represents the human self. In the exhibition’s second series, “Flying to the Void,” the panda takes on a key role, positioned in the center of the canvas at a crossroads Gong builds from abstract shapes, minimalist and brightly hued à la Agnes Martin. It’s a fork in the road, so to speak, and the panda must choose which way to go. Whereas Gong’s cartoon characters and pop-culture figures bring a comical air to many of his prior works, the panda—especially in this particular series—raises existential questions about the human condition.
The final series of paintings gives the exhibition its title: “The Watcher.” As with the panda at the crossroads in “Flying to the Void,” theses subjects live vaguely mysterious mini-dramas. The setting is a strange and fantastical forest where, between the towering tree trunks, Gong’s characters—in this case, cartoonish versions of humans and animals—act out small scenes, sometimes alone, sometimes with each other. Though the narratives remain ambiguous, these works feel poignant and keenly observational.
“The Watcher” series stands as an intriguing counterpoint to Gong’s earlier works. Subtle yet visually arresting, the enigmatic new works expose his developing approach to the playful melding of figuration and abstraction.
“Zhang Gong: The Watcher” is on view at Klein Sun Gallery, New York, Jun. 30–Aug. 19, 2016.