Zhong Biao, a professor at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, currently lives and works in Chongqing and Beijing. An artist of genuine technical flair, Biao captures both the pleasures and disadvantages of materialism in his oil-paint tableaux of current life. As an artist, he is at pains to render the global good life many Chinese increasingly experience; additionally, he carefully implies that such an existence must be experienced in a continuum with the past. Images such as cars and highways, as well as groupings of people, are taken from everyday life, and they are juxtaposed with the inclusion of exaggerated brushstrokes and what look like explosions of rocks into mid-air. Artifacts such as scholar’s rocks make their way into Biao’s paintings. In a general sense, he is arguing for cultural synchronicity, whereby what happened long ago is put side by side with more recent developments. The consequences of comparing the images, all of them jostling for the viewer’s attention, suggests that the past lives a long time, beyond the principle of what has already happened, into the unfolding present and the unknown future. Thus, in Biao’s work, we must look at the iconographic clues he leaves us to comprehend the terms of the paintings’ meaningfulness.


It is not that Biao is so dedicated to puzzle-making, but rather that he insists on the living reality of cultural objects, no matter when they were made. His viewers learn to take in the multiple areas of interest all at once, and it is only later, after we have contemplated Biao’s implicit meaning, can we do a more acute, more concentrated job of addressing what can be called esthetic questions. At the same time, emblems, representative of life now, make him an extraordinarily self-aware artist in his search to convey what it means to be alive in the twenty-first century. It is a brave new world we contemplate, albeit one in which technology is blindly served. Biao makes it clear that his interest lies in the accurate rendering of contemporary life, in which all events are of equal importance. But this does not guarantee tranquility: We are meant to hold on carefully to our sensibilities because the ride the artist provides is a rough one that leads ineluctably into the future. As a result, Biao’s scenarios take on momentary force, showing us how to maintain our interest in the three kinds of time we conceive of: past, present, and future. If we do not do so, it becomes clear that we are lesser citizens in a world that in truth offsets the humdrum with the visionary.


Generally, Chinese art since the 1980s has taken pains to comment socially on the explosion of wealth its embrace of capitalism has created. Indeed, the artists themselves have been forced to handle the increased prices and speculation that accompany the burgeoning market in their own field. Inevitably, some of the artists have capitulated to the market, making art that panders to commercial taste. But not everyone has done so, and Biao falls into the category of painters who present a mixed reading of things as they are. In his art, the apocalypse accompanies rose-colored visions of daily life; the comparisons engendered by seemingly random juxtapositions place the viewer in an omniscient position, as someone who can weave the random events of life into a unity of experience. But this is hard to do; art such as Biao’s present the visual equivalent of allover thematic insight, in which no one image is more important than any other. This may well be accurate in a metaphysical sense—we are bombarded by signals and events that we privately assign to a hierarchy of importance, one which is accurate for ourselves alone. In the case of Biao’s art, there is no particularly strong attempt to construct a ladder of meaningfulness—each image seems isolated in its own world, literally next to something else—crowds, children reading, the rubbish of destruction.


The paintings articulate a global situation, in which different people and places are thrown up against each other in a near anarchy of imagery. Indeed, a painting from 2009, The Beginnings of Chaos, shows us disorganization and turmoil to an absurd degree, at the same time allowing Biao to paint abstractly, so that the idea of disorganization becomes a pretext to work in a particular style. Just as Biao juxtaposes images, so does he set next to each other figuration and abstraction (The Beginnings of Chaos shows us only abstraction. The Possibility That Cannot Be Shown (2009) has a nexus of paint strokes in the center of the painting; but to the upper left is an empty painting frame. The irony here is complex; the frame cannot contain that which cannot be shown, while the convergence of abstract marks seems to comment on the unruly nature of reality, in which anything that can happen usually does. Biao takes care presenting both visible reality and nonobjective abstraction in the same field, and we bridge the two through mutual comparison. Current painting practice seems to call for eclecticism, which is Biao’s great strength. The empty frame stands for the impossibility of truly capturing the real as it happens to us; and the chaos appears to indicate the disorderly nature of the real.


Not all of Biao’s paintings are so metaphysical; some are simple, extended fantasies. Walking on Clouds (2009) shows persons passing through the sky, as if they could walk on clouds, toward a framed picture of clouds without people in it. The picture frame in Biao’s hands becomes a philosophical device, enabling him to show how painted reality mimics actual reality. Yet the frame in this painting is also suspended in mid-air, so that it seems to be framing actual clouds rather than painted ones. Even so, the entire scene is artificial in the sense that it has been rendered. As a result, the artificial mimics the real, which mimics the artificial, in ways that dazzle our understanding of what is actually—or artificially—happening. Sometimes, though, all the self-referential metaphysics disappears in Biao’s art, and he nearly becomes a history painter—or rather a painter of recognizable situations. In one as yet unnamed work painted in 2011, an older man and a boy read newspapers; behind them is an open wooden structure, perhaps a stables because there is a horse in it. The two figures are Westerners, but beneath them is Biao’s signature mass of disconnected strokes, which lead to an attractive Chinese girl with her arms outstretched.


Clearly, the artist is offering an allegory of sorts, although its terms remain obscure. One feels as though the world of Einstein has been entered, as if space and time were on familiar if fragile terms. Allegory usually limits interpretation in the sense that the painter intends a specific reading. This painting, which, like most of Biao’s work, can be read allegorically, becomes a meditation on the origins of historical time in cultures that may or may not synchronize with each other. As a method, it yields notable results: perhaps the young woman is a contemporary muse, while the Western elder and boy are witnesses to the devastations of history. Interestingly, the eclecticism is so extreme it proves hard to pin down, so that the reader of the allegory remains uncertain whether the interpretation is correct. This strikes me as distinctly contemporary—everywhere subjectivity seems to be undermining plausible meaning. In an important way, then, Biao is a postmodern artist, intent upon undermining the way we assume something is true in a visual sense or in a metaphorical one.


What are we to make of the canvases themselves, crowded as they are with the presence of people, objects, and the brushmarks of art? The paintings seem to construct a reality that is in constant motion, intermingling space and time to the point where the two lose their rigidity and become a fluid consortium. In Madrid (2009), early twentieth-century buildings share the painting space with Chinese guardians, seemingly sculpted in stone. In the foreground, a gymnast arches his back to the point where he is extended horizontally; as a result, we see his head and features nearly upside down. On the left side of the composition, its background painted brown, we see the taut legs of a diver in front of a scholar’s rock, behind which a duplication, in color, of the black-and-white scene on the right is found in a frame. Black smoke appears to issue from one of the buildings inside the frame but continues beyond it, seemingly drifting outside the picture entirely. The combination of thematic elements doesn’t make sense, but the feeling is one of absurd grandeur; the artistic achievements of the ages are in some sort of agreement—or is it disagreement?—with the present, as dramatized by the repetition of the gymnast. One hopes that the classicism will not be erased by sports from a secular age, but it seems inevitable that the classical souvenirs—even those as wonderful as the scholar’s rock and the statues—will give way before the triumph, physical and metaphysical, of the new.


Thus the situations presented in the art of Biao don’t necessarily connect, either as elements of a single composition or as components of a unified theme. But that does not mean they cannot coexist—indeed they do, in the imagination of the artist and ourselves. Just as our memories can carry in the same moment a view of objects from differing cultures and epochs, so can Biao demonstrate a kind of mastery over such objects by depicting them simultaneously in the same picture plane. He assumes that our understanding of reality is based on a kind of visual grab bag, from which we take images and populate our imagination. There is a poetic truth to this, since we pick and choose our objects of remembrance, to the point where Biao’s constellations of things serve as a good metaphor for the way the mind works. This means that the specific ties between the disparate images may not be as important as the overall gestalt. Impressions yield to a complex blend of cultural artifacts, so that the scholar’s rock is made that much more compelling by the presence of the contemporary diver’s muscled limbs. What results is a mixture—a blend of historical and contemporary time. Biao presents his audience with an array of things capable of suggesting classical history and the way we live now.


In consequence, Biao concedes a certain power to classicism, even as he insists on the vibrant energy of our lives now. One hesitates to read his esthetic as allegory, yet there is a symbolic vision that supports his art. Maybe the mass of chaotic energy he depicts forms the basis of the cosmos, and maybe the mores of modern time are indeed influenced by the classical past. Art capably mediates the forces that exist around us; we are intended to make sense of that which encompasses us, in ways that extend rather than constrain our visionary capacity to see life as new. This means that, on one level, art is always on the edge of what happens next. In his paintings, Biao describes a world in which almost anything can take place. Our sense of wonder is increased as we experience these paintings; they show us that the tumult of modern life is part of history, and in fact part of a seemingly greater disorder, which we cannot entirely understand. If it is true that the fabric of contemporary life is random and unsystematic, then Biao’s paintings make it clear it is up to us to find what connections and unity we can. His art suggests that we must keep the past alive by paying attention to its objects; and that by doing so we are preparing ourselves for the future. We can only hope that this can help us make sense of who we are now, in a present that seems arbitrary but is in fact purposeful—like Biao’s compositions—beyond our wildest dreams.