As Chinese art has reflected the nation’s startling changes over the past century—shifting emphasis from timeless esthetic refinement to Socialist Realism to Western-influenced avant-gardism—it has left today’s artists with a dilemma. On the one hand, they are expected to come up with their own formal coup, a compelling successor to the wild ferment that, in the 1980s and ’90s, broke Chinese art free from both traditionalist and Maoist strictures, transforming it into a global market sensation. On the other hand, they are faced (as the People’s Republic comes proudly into its own as a world power) with a resurgent nativism—an overwhelming market preference, within China, for antiquities and latter-day traditionalist art (especially ink painting and nostalgic oil-on-canvas figuration), coupled with a wide-spread critical insistence that even the most brashly experimental new art should retain a distinct—and maddeningly indefinable—quality of “Chineseness.”

For Zhong Biao, these challenges are compounded by a biographical fluke. Born in 1968, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution (the artist’s parents plucked his personal name biao, meaning “windstorm,” from the lines of a patriotic poem), he essentially missed the ’85 New Wave movement and its aftermath, when slightly older peers (Xu Bing, Wang Guangyi, Gu Dexin, Zhang Xiaogang, Huang Yong Ping, etc.) were forging the art that the Western world now knows as “contemporary Chinese.” While political confrontation was building in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in spring 1989, the 20-year-old Zhong was, by his own poignant account, out in the provincial mountains, hiking with a friend:

At that moment in Beijing, in places like Beijing University, Beijing Normal University, Renmin [People’s] University and the China University of Political Science and Law, students were gathering to march on Tiananmen Square. . . . Close to midday we reached the top of the mountain. The peak was like a stage, from far off in the distance came a sound like waves beating upon the shore.1

How, despite such a seeming profound disconnect, did Zhong within a decade come to have such a sure feel for the social pulse of his nation, offering one of the freshest visions of China—indeed, of contemporary life in general—currently available in painting? His figures, whether lounging in up-to-date milieus or soaring weightlessly through space, whether hobnobbing with ancestors or boogying through futuristic cityscapes, seem utterly in and of this cultural moment. (It helps that their bodily motions look directly observed, not derived by rote from artistic precedents.) His compositions, complex yet graphically clear, often mix disparate locations and temporal references with nonchalant, postmodern élan. Exploiting the communicative power of pop-cultural images, the artist has deftly escaped the burden of academic art’s earnestness without lapsing into the jejune cartoon esthetic favored by so many of his younger Asian artists.

The sense of psychological incongruity that struck Zhong in the mountains at the height of the Tiananmen era, and is now obliquely echoed in his work, had a geographical corollary as well. His artistic formation took place far from Beijing. Raised in the southwestern city of Chongqing, home of the Sichuan Institute of Fine Arts, considered by many the premier oil painting school in China, Zhong trained instead at the Zhejiang Art Academy (now China Academy of Fine Arts) in Hangzhou, 150 kilometers south of Shanghai. Second in status only to the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, the ZAA was then (and arguably remains) the edgier of the two, accommodating unorthodox painting as well as experiments in video and other new media beginning in the late 1980s. Yet Zhong’s studies there were in straightforward Western-style oil painting—taught, as everywhere in China, through the venerable French Academy method, as conveyed to the PRC by Russian Soviet teachers in the mid-20th century. Zhong graduated in 1991 and returned to Chongqing (a city-prefecture of 29 million) to teach at the Sichuan Institute, where he continues to hold a position. After appearing in scores of gallery and museum shows in China and abroad, he established a second, now primary, studio and residence in Beijing in 2007.

Zhong’s early work displays the rich painterliness associated with China’s conservative-modernist faction: thick paint, worked surfaces, and “common-life” subjects. Nothing was at odds with his youthful exposure to Rembrandt and Munch, Scar Art (work alluding to the suffering caused by the Cultural Revolution), and Rustic Realism (weathered but idealized folk subjects). The artist’s first tentative swerve toward a Pop sensibility occurred in 1989, when—in violation of Chinese academic convention—he painted in the label text on a yogurt container used in tabletop study (Cheng Contemporary Art). His Zhejiang Academy graduation project, the tripartite “City Passer-by” series (1991), featured thinner paint, less color, a graphic-design style, and some jarring compositional ploys: a Coca-Cola ad next to a guardian lion; a male human figure whose top half merges with the background wallpaper; another that sports normal feet and legs blending into the headless, gowned torso of an ancient statue. Zhong was now obviously casting his lot with the more adventuresome Chinese artists, those willing to make their artistic strategies part of their message.

According to critic-historian Lü Peng, Zhong’s breakthrough came in 1994 with Nostalgic Series: Youth, a compositional mélange centering on a young woman in contemporary bohemian-chic garb, leaning into a body stretch and surrounded by a traditional statue, a McDonald’s signpost, a freeway flyover, a luxury auto and several rundown Chongqing residential buildings—all under an oversized daytime moon. Undeniably, the work brims with what Lü calls Zhong’s “penchant for unrelated experiences”—a David Salle-like tendency that has intensified in the course of his subsequent career.2

Once Zhong hit upon his signature method, he began to produce works in dazzling profusion. Hundreds of paintings, many of enormous scale, have poured from his hands with an abundance of imagery—and a uniformity of technique—that renders the usual critical survey of developmental “phases” futile. Zhong’s postmodern all-at-onceness is both his method and his theme. But understanding the nature of that visual biao requires—and rewards—a systematic analysis.

Although Zhong’s compositions give the immediate impression of multiplicity and simultaneity, they are built on a matrix of binaries. Chromatically, most play with a contrast between large areas of “colorless” flat tan or gray (the faded hues of ancient scroll paintings) and the Pop-bright colors of today’s clothes, cars, ads and electronic images. Many works contain passages of pure abstraction counterpoised to others of precise representation. The near and the far-off, both in time and space, are brought together in ways that minimizes perspective without quite banishing it altogether. So too are nature and cityscapes, East and West, male and female figures, old people and young, rich and poor, common folk and famous personages (Benjamin Franklin, Che Guevara, Alfred Hitchcock, Jesus Christ). Although some figures may relate to each other in groups (couples, families, professional colleagues, chums hanging out), there is no obvious narrative interaction between Zhong’s characters. Indeed, many soar through space like solitary embodiments of the universal dream of flying. (Free-floating signifiers, anyone?)

A greater contrast to the generational, regional, and social embeddedness of every person and every object in traditional Chinese life could scarcely be imagined. One looks in vain here for the extended families, self-monitoring communities, minutely calibrated imperial bureaucracies, or post-Liberation work units of China’s past. The Chinese present that Zhong captures (first in the myriad photographs from which he works) is a realm of social displacement and rapid urbanization, of deracinated elders and untethered youths. Yet Zhong’s juxtapositions never reach the absurd, illogical extreme of Salle’s pictorial grab bags. Rather, as in the work of Germany’s Neo Rauch, a sense of coherence at some deeper level intriguingly persists.

Zhong’s key motif is that of suspension within the flow of time and universal energy. Each individual, group, architectural structure, and event is but a momentary, changing formation in an ongoing cosmic unfolding. Zhong’s vision, as propounded in an interview with Yin Suqiao, commingles elements of Tsaoism, Hegelianism, and astrophysics: “the universe is the movement of boundless energy which decides the inevitable tendency of events, which creates destiny, which changes the direction of each following moment.”3

Occasionally, Zhong translates that vision into huge installations that employ murals, videos, sound, and mirrored walls to envelop visitors—making them, in effect, parts of the very works they are viewing and giving them a visceral sense of unfettered surging. Mirage, mounted in the Denver Art Museum in 2009, stretches 18 meters from a scene of generative comic explosion, across lightning-shattered dark space, to a contemporary world full of tumbling people and animals, cityscapes, a Western religious tableau, a view of the New York Stock Exchange, and more—all structurally culminating in the upturned face of a Chinese child. To create For the Future, the artist literally gift-wrapped the Z-Art Center in Shanghai during the opening of the city’s World Expo in 2010. Inside the building, huge murals, their imagery similarly spanning eons, were accompanied by holographic projections, videos, interactive stations, and mirrors. Opening night brought live music, art performances, and a fashion show, yielding a totally immersive environment that evoked China’s dazzling social changes and futuristic orientation.

While Zhong’s worldview can seem chaotic—offering a stark contrast to the steady, “harmonious” development espoused in official quarters—it is in fact based on a unifying principle, derived from a basic observation of modern science. Light, traveling at a precise, invariable speed, can require thousands of years to cross the immense space between planets and stars. This means that any observer, at any given moment, sees not the actual present but multiple emanations from the past, all chronologically jumbled due to the varying distances of the sources. Mere nanoseconds may separate us from a friend’s face, while three millennia may have passed since a point of light we see in the sky tonight departed from its remote galaxy. And observers in the future will see us as part of a comparable mishmash of places and times.4 

Zhong extends this physical fact first into a historical postulate: “each of our todays is a combination of all our yesterdays and all that is today will be included in tomorrow, it is a process of perpetual motion.” Individuals and institutions succeed in their endeavors only by acting in concert with the larger current of events: “the overall tendency of history does not move according to human will power, whereas people make great achievements when moving in accord with it.” The role of the artist is to express the “collective subconscious” of the current state of affairs and its prevailing vector.5

Zhong does not stop there, however. He then transforms his historical proposition into a metaphysical tenet: in a universe that began in primal chaos, “our final destination is to reach a state where there is no beginning, no end and no borders.”6 From the grand perspective, “the past, the present and the future [are] a pre-existent whole.”7 This notion is virtually identical to the Christian concept of eternity, which St. Aquinas characterized as “total simultaneous existence.” Yet it also has strong ties to traditional Chinese thought and art.

Walking along one of Zhong’s gargantuan murals is, in many respects, like unrolling an ancient pictorial scroll, entering imaginatively into scene after scene while slowly accumulating a sense of the whole journey and the whole world it progressively reveals. Even Zhong’s individual works often meld time with distance in the manner of venerable brush-and-ink masters. Come Out of Your Shell (2011), although composed almost entirely of human figures in limbo, is structured like a venerable waterfall painting. The thrusting train engine of Home Is Where (2011) implicitly contrasts the modern propensity for linear travel to the meandering of old river pictures, while reminding us with equal force that, in Zhong words, “as physical beings we are fated to spend our lives in transit.” The fluttering birds in The Taste of Forbidden Fruit (2011) might be at home in a 13-14th-century hanging scroll like Hunting Falcon Attacking a Swan, but the half-nude, sexy babe would not—except in the secretive tradition of erotic art.

Clearly Zhong’s eye is selective, as attested by his oeuvre’s disproportionate number of striking young women in alluring attire and poses. But his selectiveness serves a greater purpose. For all his hip imagery and vivid Pop hues, Zhong endows specifics of time and place (even brand-name products and cool fashion items) with a pervasive sense of timelessness. This suggests his response to the sphinx’s riddle of “Chineseness.” Whereas traditional art, rooted in the natural order (typically mountains and water, birds and flowers), conveys a sense of static timelessness, of perpetual cycles and enduring forms, Zhong’s art, rife with signs of globalism, consumerism, and urban life, presents a dynamic eternity—one of innumerable shapes and events, all of them constantly mutable.

Given the immensity, diversity, and conceptual ambition of his work, Zhong must be classed as one the few artists anywhere today with a certifiably epic vision. However presumptuous some critics may find it, his bold confidence undeniably reflects China’s most fundamental sense of itself as the Middle Kingdom—the center of the world physically and metaphysically, the prime repository of wisdom from the past and the destined arbiter of the world’s future.