The Artsy Vanguard 2022: Zhang Zipiao
Unbeknownst to us, we have at least one afterimage in our childhood memories. For artist Zhang Zipiao, it is a medical photograph of the human body’s bone and flesh from her mother’s research materials. Intensely pink and red magnified images of throats occupied Zhang’s early life. Her “Battlefield” series (2021–present), made roughly 20 years later, uses intertwining curved lines and shapes to reveal a wriggly organic form that traverses abstraction and figuration. The extreme contrast of the colors on the canvas creates a dramatic impression, yet the cool colors, led by crimson, take away the living organism’s warmth, creating a psychological distance.
Paintings from the series were included in “Moonquake” at Long Museum West Bund earlier this year, marking the artist’s debut institutional solo show. Exactly one year prior, in September 2021, Zhang had her first U.S. solo exhibition at Salon 94 in New York. The Beijing-based artist will return to the U.S. in 2023 with a solo show with LGDR in New York. The gallery announced co-representation of Zhang this past July, making her the second-youngest artist on LGDR’s roster. Zhang, who is also represented by White Space, is now breaking into the international art scene.
Zhang Zipiao, installation view of “Moonquake” at Long Museum West Bund, 2022 © Zhang Zipiao. Photo by Shaunley. Courtesy of Long Museum West Bund, Shanghai.
Born and raised in Beijing, Zhang moved to the U.S. to pursue art, first studying at the Maryland Institute College of Art before earning a BFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. There, her perspective was broadened by the institution’s modern and contemporary art collections, particularly the paintings of Francis Bacon, Marlene Dumas, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Underneath the exquisite surfaces of their creations, Zhang saw a “profound, powerful spirit,” as she described in an interview with Artsy. “They painted the real struggle of themselves, maybe nothing to do with the society they were living in, but the struggle that resonates universally, including with me,” Zhang continued.
Soon after completing her undergraduate studies, she began questioning the state of everyday life in a globalized society. Zhang’s 2018 solo exhibition “The Ultimate Moist!” at Beijing’s White Space captured the trajectory of her early practice. Her paintings through 2017 depict quotidian items, their form emerging on the canvas as nearly complete silhouettes. However, these ordinary objects became a visual language of their own through the artist’s close cropped compositions.
Portrait of Zhang Zipiao in her studio, 2022. © Zhang Zipiao. Photo by Yufan. Courtesy of Zhang Zipiao and LGDR.
Zhang’s inclusion of words in her paintings is another distinctive feature of her early works. In Plastic Bag (2017), for example, Zhang enlarged a bag full of items—presumably groceries, though they appear more like bent pipes—on a scale that fills the canvas. Emblazoned on the plastic bag under its logo of a bright yellow smile are the words “BEND ME,” a humorous visual pun.
Since 2018, Zhang’s subject matter has become increasingly refined. Instead of covering a broad range of topics, the artist has narrowed in on the organisms she encounters in everyday life, such as sliced fruits, cut flowers, rare meat, or human organs. In addition, she has devised formal variations for each subject with their own dedicated series: Pomegranate 02 (2018) portrays the vivid moment of split that reveals clusters of juicy seeds inside, whereas Peony 03 (2020) captures, as Zhang described, “the beauty that a cut flower exudes at its peak before death.” From the enormous tangle of colors stretched out on canvas, viewers can rarely discern the represented object at first glance. Instead, the source of inspiration lies beneath layers of interconnected planes and lines.
Zhang Zipiao, Candle, 2021. © Zhang Zipiao. Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.
Zhang Zipiao, Mother of Pearl 01, 2021. © Zhang Zipiao. Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.
In more recent works, Zhang leans toward abstraction by depicting the innards of organisms: plants, animals, and humans. The biological tissues used to sustain life—such as bones, blood, and flesh, which vary in form depending on the creature it comes from—serve as visual material for Zhang’s paintings as the artist conveys their common physical attributes. “Pomegranate seeds resemble kidneys or hearts inside the human body,” Zhang said. Flowers are the same way. The artist perceives “the lines on flower petals as the vein in human arms and legs, and moist, thick petals as human flesh,” as she put it.
Finding that reference photos and live models limit her creativity, Zhang works in a studio absent of preparatory drawings. Instead, she simply picks up her paintbrush and brazenly doodles on a blank canvas. Images from her everyday life—such as childhood recollections or the memory of a roadside poster featuring her desired subject—are realized in completely new forms in her art practice.
Zhang Zipiao, Heart 09, 2022. © Zhang Zipiao. Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.
Although her paintings still recreate particular objects, Zhang’s process maximizes her ability to imagine, with emotion being the primary force that fills the canvas. A single sweeping brushstroke on her canvas elicits a series of reactions, recalling the attitudes of the Abstract Expressionists. “I let those lines, forms, shapes lead me to the next stage,” Zhang said.
The Artsy Vanguard 2022
The Artsy Vanguard is our annual feature recognizing the most promising artists working today. The fifth edition of The Artsy Vanguard features 19 rising talents from across the globe who are poised to become the next great leaders of contemporary art. Explore more of The Artsy Vanguard 2022 and collect works by the artists.
Header image, from left to right: Zhang Zipiao, “Rosebud 01,” 2021; detail of “Battlefield 05,” 2021; and detail of “Garden of Eden,” 2022. © Zhang Zipiao. Courtesy of the artist and LGDR.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Zhang Zipiao’s gallery LGDR will be participating in Art Basel in Miami Beach 2022. It also stated that the artist was based in Shanghai. She is based in Beijing. The text has been updated.