Zhang Jianlong paints images of energetic, engaged individuals. His figures convey an instinctive pleasure that is often experienced in youth. He explains, “My paintings express a character of innocence and freedom.” However, these are not simply paintings about joy. Rather, it is a joy we lose as cultural expectations take over our lives. In a catalog of his work he writes: “Culture gives birth to thought and behavior, and decides what course they will take. As soon as we are born, culture begins to control us, deciding that we must engage in this or that behavior.” While his paintings initially seem optimistic, Zhang wants us to understand that although we are often unaware of it, our freedom becomes more constrained as we conform to restrictions placed on us by culture. His hope is that we can temper the pull of culture by allowing “the innocence and vivaciousness of childhood” to reemerge.
Zhang’s work, therefore, is a call to experience the world as a child. It is an attack on the civilization we have created that drains our spirits and destroys our dreams. In Zhang’s many scenes of play, he depicts the unbridled hope of a child. By using a folk art approach to his characters, Zhang gives us the possibility of a world without modern constraints.