Tang the Eternal Child—On Tang Zhigang’s Painting from 1998 to 2012

Children’s Meeting

In 1998, Tang Zhigang published “Adult Meeting” in the Yunnan magazine then known as Camellia, eliciting quite a bit of controversy. It was in the midst of the ninth major troop reduction of the People’s Liberation Army, which placed the magazine under a great deal of pressure. Then Editor-in-chief Deng Qiyao explained repeatedly that the painting’s style was not meant in any way to disparage meetings or leaders. But since the likenesses in the painting were derived from the years Tang Zhigang spent photographing meetings, and many of the people in those original materials had by then quite possibly gone on to become leading military officers, Tang had no choice but to stop painting the “adult meetings” he had been creating for nearly two years, in order to avoid getting into trouble.

Before this, Tang Zhigang had worked in the military as a political propaganda cadre (1992–1996), with his main tasks being to set up meeting facilities, photograph the proceedings, and produce bulletin boards for the meetings. He grew weary of the endless meetings, to the point that sometimes he would not even bother to remove the lens cap on his camera, and merely press the shutter button to activate the camera flash. He was surprised to find that whenever he pointed his lens at the people in the meetings, they would look very serious, as if they had all suddenly gotten into character. It was a very strange connection. These expressions and postures, presented both consciously and unconsciously for propaganda images, formed a record in Tang Zhigang’s camera, and provided rich material for his paintings of “meetings.”

If we look back over Tang Zhigang’s experiences growing up in a labor farm, and at how he used those meeting photographs, we will discover that he is much more interested in human nature than he is in the roles of those people molded by the system. Even in the strictly disciplinary environments of the labor farm and the army, he always keenly observed the vivid displays of the human body, sex and interpersonal relationships, and has always been able to wax on and on about enticing stories of human instinct. As a meeting photographer who ran around without even taking off his lens cap, Tang Zhigang was actually probing people’s reactions to the camera in an otherwise menial job. As a painter, Tang Zhigang deftly transformed the dull scenes from military life into vivid paintings. Even more remarkably, he noticed uncanny similarities between the children sitting obediently and raising their hands in the children’s art classes he taught for many years, and these adult meetings, even if this is somewhat connected to his authoritarian teaching style.

After the trouble with Camellia magazine, in a somewhat random experiment, Tang Zhigang replaced the images of adults with those of children. The first such experiment was actually carried out directly on one of the Adult Meeting canvases. Sadly, however, the current whereabouts of this painting are unknown. This experiment became a crucial moment in Tang Zhigang’s artistic career, marking the beginning of what we now call the “Children’s Meetings” period. The works from this period quickly became highly recognizable in the art world for their use of children in humorous depictions of political and military life, and their illumination of certain human circumstances through the images of children. This marked an entirely new phase in Tang Zhigang’s art. His creations in this period mainly fall into three series: Children’s Meetings (1998–2004), Chinese Fairy Tales (2004–2011) and Never Grow Up (2007–2011). There were other scattered works under different titles in 2011 and 2012, but they were stylistic continuations of the three above-mentioned series. It must be noted here that since most of the works in this period were only named by their series, without specific numbers or titles for each individual work, it is quite difficult to discuss individual works in depth, and more appropriate to discuss the overall traits and periodic tendencies in his art. Meanwhile, Chinese artists in this period were adept at using repetition of personal schemas to enhance their individual look, and at using painting series to highlight an overarching graphical concept.

Stylistic Shift and Evolution

Tang Zhigang’s individual experience is one of the most important keys to researching his art. Looking back over his curriculum vitae will help us find clarity on his individual growth and his working methods over different periods. This provides a thread for understanding the stylistic traits and shifts in his painting. For instance, his time as a war reporter on the front lines of the “Battle of Two Mountains” in 1985 embodied his ability to quickly capture the dynamics of the human form. Tang’s collection and usage of meeting photographs as a propaganda cadre in the 1990s provided a graphic basis for his Adult Meetings series (1997–1998). By 2001, in his studio in the Kunming Loft Artist Community he founded together with Ye Yongqing, one could find piles of candid photographs of children: in class, raising their hands, bathing, playing, eating, making faces, and all kinds of expressions. These candid photographs formed important creative source material for this period. The rich expressions and faces in these photographs, when applied to the Children’s Meetings series, were transformed into a massive trove of information and dramatic effect that could never be obtained from life studies alone. Thus, in Children’s Meetings and Chinese Fairy Tales, especially before 2006, Tang Zhigang paid particular attention to the depiction of rich facial expressions in the children. The children’s innocent demeanors and their toys formed a stark contrast to the solemn meeting facilities, giving the paintings a strong parody tone derived from the children in military and cadre uniforms imitating the world of adults. Italian art critic Monica Dematte calls it an “anti-heroic epic of child cadres.” In order to highlight the facial expressions, the backgrounds have been simplified as much as possible, leaving only meeting props: microphones, carpets, curtains, tables and chairs, as well as a few scattered toys and pet dogs. Tang Zhigang’s use of photographs spans the entire Children’s Meetings period until 2012, after which point he no longer relied on the vividness of realist depictions.

In 2004, owing to a solo exhibition in Paris and a group exhibition in Sweden, Tang Zhigang had his first opportunity to travel to Europe and take in his favorite masters with his own eyes. This was also his first experience of the international contemporary art scene, the visual impact of which made a profound impression. He quickly responded to the dazzling art scene of Paris, and pondered ways of making his existing painting simpler, with cleaner colors and more Pop tones. In fact, in his 2003 works, he was already consciously simplifying his forms, with clear layering of black, white and gray in all of his figures and objects. He was no longer pursuing subtle color relationships in space, but was instead forming a brisk rhythm in his paintings through a few large color fields. He was also intentionally splattering and dripping paint on the canvas, thus enhancing the flatness and expressiveness of the paintings. These techniques resonated quite well with the “naughty children” in the paintings.

In terms of the use of color and space in painting, Tang Zhigang was quite aware by the 1990s that the Soviet-school concept of “volumes in space” espoused by artists such as Xu Beihong and Jin Shangyi, which he had learned at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Art, was somewhat different from his own understanding of painting in Yunnan. The highland environment of Yunnan, and the year-round spring climate of Kunming give life colors of greater brightness and purity than in northern China. When Tang Zhigang first returned to Yunnan in the early 1990s, the colors in his painting naturally changed. His colors took on greater certainty, which led him to devise his paintings around color, rather than space and shape, making his style more modern.

In 2003, Tang Zhigang and the Yunnan Oil Painting Society, of which he is a member, initiated the “everyone paint the landscape” event. He was hoping to gain greater maturity in painting language and colors through plein air painting, pursuing greater fluency as a painter. While on one such painting trip to Chengjiang in 2005, he was drawn in by the flicker of whitecaps on the water’s surface. Under the bright sun, everything looked chalky white, as if overexposed. He quickly laid out the layers of whitecaps fading into the distance with a few simple brushstrokes. We can quickly discover the influence of plein air painting in the creations of the same period. For example, the water and beaches that appear in the Chinese Fairy Tales series in 2005 stem directly from his studies of Chengjiang. Because of his plein air painting, Chinese Fairy Tales departed from the meeting room and developed many outdoor scenes. He also began to use more white, and to lower the purity of his colors while raising their brightness, giving his paintings a pastel effect. During his Europe trip in 2004, Tang Zhigang realized that the simple forms and pure colors of international contemporary art represented a direction with potential for further exploration in Yunnan, with his specific method being the use of plein air painting to rediscover color, and to let the colors lead the painting. This was not very common among the artists of the time. At that time, artists often completed their works in the studio, referencing photographs. To them, plein air painting represented academism, and was unrelated to the conceptual leanings and image production of new painting. Tang Zhigang, however, still placed great importance on the allure of painting in the traditional sense. Painting is more than just the production of images. At the very least, he attempted to accommodate the two. Tang Zhigang has maintained the habit of plein air landscape painting from 2003 to the present day.

Yet, even as Tang Zhigang was quite passionately painting the landscape, we can still see him practicing portraiture from photographs of children in the works from this period. Thus, throughout the “Chinese Fairy Tales” and “Never Grow Up” periods, he continued to use both photographs and plein air painting, the two supplementing each other, the first providing vividness of his figures and quantity of information, and the latter serving the needs of the setting and pushing forward the painting style.

Chinese Fairy Tales

It was also in 2003 that Tang Zhigang began to title all of his works as Chinese Fairy Tales. In fact, there are no clear differences between this series and the Children’s Meetings series. But the title of Chinese Fairy Tales shows us that the artist was indeed attempting to distance himself from the 1990s. The artists and critics of the 1990s generally emphasized the condition of individual existence. Critic Gao Minglu calls this artistic phenomenon “conditional realism,” in order to establish distance between the small individual moments of the 1990s and the sweeping narratives of the 1980s.

After the year 2000, Chinese contemporary art “officially” entered into the global field of vision. Not only did the Shanghai Biennale mark the Chinese government’s acceptance of contemporary art, the government also began actively sponsoring Chinese contemporary art’s participation in such large international exhibitions as the Bienal de São Paulo, and collaborating with Western art institutions. In the globalized contemporary art system, national identity became the first cultural clash Chinese artists encountered, as well as their first cultural strategy. Artists such as Cai Guoqiang, Huang Yongping, Xu Bing and Gu Wenda, who had already successfully entered into the Western art system, consciously employed signs and materials from Chinese traditional culture, attracting a great deal of attention. This sparked a major debate in the Chinese art world about whether it was necessary to play the “China card” in the West. A series of issues of national and ethnic identity such as globalization, postcolonialism and Eastern aesthetics added fodder to the debate. First, is it art or Chinese art? Is Chinese art just taking advantage of price asymmetry on the international capital market? Do individual Chinese artists have strong enough methods and language to take on Western artists on an even footing? This is the backdrop against which Tang Zhigang’s Chinese Fairy Tales series unfolded.

Since he left the army, we have watched as this former soldier, propaganda cadre and party member has been able to become actively involved in the discursive scene of Chinese contemporary art, which represents free culture. We can see this as the keenness and awareness he has brought to bear in his identity shift from soldier to artist, and from Chinese artist to international artist.

Chinese Fairy Tales was a continuation of Children’s Meetings, except that it was no longer simply understood as the artist drawing from his unique experiences to express allegories of reality—though they do bear a bit of resemblance to Republican Era allegorical comics—the myriad conditions of the world reflected in the details of life. From a cultural industry perspective, critic Victoria Lu holds that these paintings are marked by “animamix” attitudes. Animamix was a trend widely popular in Asia at the time which came to influence some Chinese artists. They used cute children’s images and cartoon styles to convey the human condition and fictional reality. It is just that Tang Zhigang’s paintings are more than just fiction and cuteness; they also have concern for history and reality. To a great extent, Tang Zhigang’s Chinese Fairy Tales draws from the cultural predicament of Chinese contemporary art in the global context to engage in strategic discussion. Thus, in his works after 2003, we see the children engaging in diplomatic mediation, negotiation, reviewing troops, fighting battles, criticizing, debating, divulging secrets, carrying out rescues, and undergoing grueling training… forming a series of seemingly fictitious yet also oddly familiar narratives of China from the perspective of others.

Never Grow Up

In discussing Tang Zhigang’s paintings from this period, historian Lu Peng writes, “In new painting, where there are so many styles, Tang Zhigang’s paintings can be categorized as the type that deal with memory, but are under the influence of non-essentialism. Tang Zhigang is being pulled in two directions: history and the present.” Precisely because of the dual role of history and the present in Tang Zhigang’s creations, we can often see elements of his own past in his paintings, and experience playful moments in the present—the unique sense of humor that arises when we are unable to seriously discuss history—and this is the subtle attitude shift in Tang Zhigang’s painting, the shift from cynicism to dark humor. As Tang himself has said, “Humor is the most important thing in art. There is always suffering beneath a humorous surface.” This shift in attitude emerged in his paintings in 2007 with the Never Grow Up series.

On a photograph of Tang Zhigang in his studio in 2007, he wrote, “Today there are many works depicting children. In my works, children exist as mere symbols. They have the ability to represent a certain era or stage—they could look forward to development, or they could never grow up.” This seems to represent a certain pessimistic sentiment the painter holds toward human development, some unsurmountable historical obstruction that may very well arise from the whole system built by humanity. As critic Guan Yuda has noted, “In Tang Zhigang’s painting, images of ‘children’ and their play serve as metaphors and symbols of a ‘certain period and stage in humanity’s development,’ embodying the ubiquitous, omnipresent technology and politics of the body constructed by the endless growth of the beasts of reason within the ‘society of discipline and indoctrination’ including prisons, labor farms, hospitals, schools and military bases.” Critic Zha Changping describes the situation of Never Grow Up as “The phenomena of the persistent political and cultural larval stage in China’s hybrid modern society.”

Tang Zhigang’s painting is at once historical and contemporary, at once human and personal, but mainly, it is his own. The Never Grow Up series, begun in 2007, can be seen as the painter’s return from his focus on cultural identity in Chinese Fairy Tales to individual experience. Those unique indelible moments in the artist’s memories strike at his inner world, his isolation, bed-wetting and fear of heights in pre-school, his long term sexual repression and fear, the torment of constant illness and surgeries since 1998… The main way in which Never Grow Up differs from Chinese Fairy Tales and Children’s Meetings is that these children are facing specific predicaments of growing up, and the focus is no longer on bureaucratic meeting scenes, nor is there any more emphasis on Chinese elements. The children’s military uniforms have come off, and red is no longer the main color, replaced by surreal scenes in a blue and green tone. In this series, the children, naked, work together as a group to push massive jade boulders, to climb jade pyramids, play among the remains of a collapsed embankment, or stand cautiously at great heights, looking out over a swimming pool tightly packed with other children. These images seem to encompass some allegory about the condition of the group and the individual, and seem humorous, but also filled with danger. At this time, the children in Tang Zhigang’s paintings also shifted from the depiction of facial expressions to setting the overall scene.

Aside from being influenced by his plein air painting, Tang Zhigang admits that the emergence of large expanses of blue and green at this time was the result of the gallstones he developed while working too hard to prepare for a major solo exhibition in Beijing and various important group exhibitions at museums in China and abroad. In that period, he often thought about the color of the bile that had caused him so much suffering, and the many stones concealed in his body. He wanted to convey these forms and colors in his paintings. As a result, many of his paintings from 2007 are no longer “Children’s Meetings” at mid-close-up, but wider angle views, with the children little specks drifting in the water or climbing the rocks, almost like the gallstones in his body that have brought him so much grief. He even went so far as to name the painting of the collapsed embankment Never Grow Up: Gallstones. His experience of illness was much more intimate than that of cultural issues in globalization. In any case, he made it through the magnificent and painful year of 2007, which was a high point in his artistic career.

After this, in order to meet the demand for exhibitions, Tang Zhigang continued within the previous framework, painting more works in the Chinese Fairy Tales and Never Grow Up series. At the same time, however, he also began further experiments in color. In 2009, Tang Zhigang’s pictures grew flatter, with the most marked shift being the use of white outlines around the forms in his paintings, as well as experiments in ink painting on handmade paper, which led to looser, more unrestrained modeling in his painting. In this period, Tang also consciously drew inspiration from such Yunnan folk arts as Majia paper, as well as the flat styles of print art and early Byzantine art. This is all in keeping with Tang Zhigang’s trademark working method, where he simultaneously continues his previous works while also experimenting with new possibilities. In a 2012 painting titled The Boss, the vividness of the figures that was once Tang Zhigang’s most distinguishing trait seems almost completely gone, and the colors have become very direct and strange. In this painting, Tang Zhigang has clearly discarded the photograph, and there are no traces of painting from life. He is taking careful steps toward free painting. Political Cake from the same year is again not a reflection of a scene from reality. Here, he has made a turn toward metaphor and heightened symbolic forms. In this year, we see Tang Zhigang seeking reasons to continue painting and exploring beyond the long term theme of Children’s Meetings.


Between 1998 and 2012, Tang Zhigang completed the creation of three series, Children’s Meetings, Chinese Fairy Tales and Never Grow Up. In this period, after finding the clever strategy of using children’s images, Tang Zhigang fully devoted himself to his beloved painting. He drew what he needed from photographic images and plein air painting to complete the evolution of the legibility of the picture and the flattening of its style. During a historical period of Chinese contemporary art entering the international stage with great vitality, he drew from his own unique life experience, and his sensitivity to cultural identity and human nature, as well as humorous linguistic methods to establish a highly recognizable individual schema in the art world—the use of images of children to engage in satire, metaphor and expression of the various human predicaments in history and the present, predicaments that together form Tang’s Chinese narrative. During this time, Tang Zhigang’s painting gradually shifted and developed from a cynical attitude to a dark humor and symbolism marked by more complex sentiments, all while maintaining the mindset of an unruly child prone to smear paint at will.

Luo Fei

October 2018

Translated by Jeff Crosby