Zhang Huan: Luhring Augustine. (New York)

Article excerpt

While Zhang Huan was an art student in Beijing in the early '90s, his art history professor taught him about "Rubens's red," "the most powerful red in the history of art." Later, when Zhang himself was teaching, he passed along his teacher's formulation, adding that Rubens's red is, in fact, multilayered. By contrast, he explained, "Chinese red is flat." Zhang's sensitivity to the nuances of painting may be surprising, given that he is known for performances that he documents in photographs. But the story indicates his acute awareness of the different approaches to representation in the history of art in his native China as well as in Western Europe and North America, which informs such work as the elegant color photographs and gilded bronze sculpture of the current exhibition and which seems to need little translation from one context or audience to the next.

In the self-portrait Family Tree, 2001, a grid of nine framed photographs, the artist's face is treated as a blank page for a calligraphic map of an idealized, multigenerational family. The first photograph shows Zhang with his own personality chart written in black ink across his face. In the succeeding images, family stories and popular fables (including "How Yukong Moved the Mountain," the tale Mao used to describe his land-ownership policy) have been added by a calligrapher until in the last image the artist's face and shaved head are entirely black. Family Tree is a theatrically imposing work that combines forceful images, a high level of craft, and a complicated autobiography articulated via the body.

Peace, 2001, also begins with Zhang's body. A bronze cast of the artist nude hangs horizontally at eye level from a traditional Chinese four-poster pavilion, the head aimed at the side of a massive bronze bell. Viewers are permitted to push the body headfirst into the bell, which sends a loud bong through the gallery. …