Zhang Jie’s self-portraits reflect a fascinating, very personal journey. They are much more than a simple reflection of the artist’s physical appearance like. Zhang describes the process of painting and something like “talking to myself” and an effort to be “true to myself” in her artistic exploration. Looking closely at the details in the artist-model’s paintings reveals that her works are in fact an exploration of the artist’s own self and inner psyche. 'Narcissism is the common attribute of my artwork… I want to anatomize myself with scissors in my hands, to analyze myself as a female artist, a woman and a human being,' proclaims Zhang Jie.
Zhang’s paintings focus exclusively on the artist’s own figure, blocking out external things just about completely. So raw and naked is her work that one feels almost voyeuristic looking at the portraits. Virtually every one of Zhang Jie’s paintings have flat, blue or purple backgrounds, making the artist-model herself the entire focus of each piece, and removing the artist from her surroundings, placing her in an isolated, empty, solitary world. In some images, it looks almost as if Zhang is posing like an uneasy fashion model, seemingly imagining herself in a photo shoot; yet she maintains her dreamy, aloof and sometimes almost anxious expression on her face. Sometimes an external object will appear in Zhang’s paintings, such as a rose in her mouth or hand or a part of a chair that she is sitting on. The artist exaggerates the size of her own eyes, as if asking the viewers to look deeply into them, with the dark colours encircling them, and her clothes and hair are painted as if they are worn-out. Yet invariably, Zhang portrays herself as someone who has, what the artist herself admits: “sad eyes and a face that has never been happy.” The figures, whether looking intensely out at the viewer (looking at the artist herself when she is painting them) or un-enthusiastically looking off the side of the canvas, all have an impression of contemplation and concurrently boredom, seemingly as if the artist was expecting more from life, but has been somewhat let down. “What I almost invariably see” says Zhang, “is indifference and strife”. This is certainly not a happy outlook. These feelings are probably not things that the artist discusses with or even reveals to her friends and family directly, yet she has an outlet in which she can express them in her artwork. She can reveal the truth to herself in her work as a “kind of self-preservation”.
But what brings these feelings to Zhang Jie? What is causing the “negativity” that she, too, senses in her own self-portraits? Why does the artist appear ill-at-ease in her own works? Crucially interlinked in the artist’s exploration of the self is her relationship to the world around her. Zhang Jie says that she is projecting the “feelings of our generation: boldness, rebellion, discovery, narcissism, imagination, stimulation, displacement and anxiety.” She is well aware of the stresses that individuals face in today's world - the financial demands, the pressure to be physically attractive, the general rapid pace that propels our lives forward, etc. These things can all be overwhelming and can lead to feelings of helplessness and/or frustration. Zhang Jie is one of the few people to take the time to reflect on what it means to exist in modern society, and her paintings provide her with a sort of cathartic experience, helping her to release pent-up emotions; sharing her anxieties so openly enables her to come to terms with them.
'Contemporary art,' says Zhang Jie, 'is up-to-date because of its sensitivity towards and insight of our surroundings and because of our dauntless expressiveness.' The artist’s own work reflect this philosophy. Her self-portraits provide an opportunity for the artist to intensely study herself, to see beyond the figure in the mirror and reveal her own internal soul-searching.