Much of the fascination of Zeng Fanzhi's works lies in the tensions that permeate them on many levels. Most immediately apparent is the contrast between the exuberance of the palette and/or paint-play, and the frequently angst-ridden subject matter. Within the subject, tension often derives from the obvious obscuring of the identity of the figures Zeng represents, and their seeming inability to reveal their true selves; and when more than one figure occupies the frame, their inability to connect with one another can be palpable. On yet another level lies the clash of the present with the past, played out in both subject and style.
The two Mask series (Lot 6 and 7) works and the Portrait (Lot 8) shown here represent two distinct phases of the artist's mature career, a career rooted on the one hand in the rigorous training he received while a student in the Oil Painting Department of the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts in his hometown of Wuhan: like all oil painting students enrolled in China's art academies at the time, Zeng acquired a great facility with figurative realism. On the other hand, and running counter to his formal education, his career was directed by a personal understanding of the primacy of concept over image: exposure to the works of Robert Rauschenberg, Edvard Munch, and Zao Wouki in exhibitions in Beijing kindled this understanding. He graduated in 1991, relocating two years later to Beijing, where he has remained.
Zeng Fanzhi's best-known early works belong to his Meat series and Hospital series. These paintings depict, respectively, raw flesh and hospitalized patients at the utter mercy of their surroundings, rendered with expressive painterly brushstrokes. The distress inherent to the Hospital paintings is conveyed not only by the brushwork, but also by the subdued reds and grays of the color palette. Both the brushwork and the dark and bloody-hued palette—not to mention the subject matter—run counter to the strictures of socialist realism, which had dominated Chinese art throughout Zeng's childhood and youth. Socialist realism was a style officially promoted by the government stressing the representation of accepted values through formulaic use of bright colors (notably bright red) and lighting, as well as standardized gestures and facial expressions denoting heroism, revolutionary fervor, and so on: a weak physique, illness, darkness, dull colors, and terror set in a place of healing were definitely out of the ordinary!
Begun in 1994, the long-term Mask series removes the protagonists from the hospital only to place them in a new kind of seemingly stressful or even dangerous milieu—clean, cheerfully colored (later in the series), empty or near-empty sets that echo the polished appearance of the figures. The figures' hands are rendered as flayed flesh, but it is only there that their extreme vulnerability is made apparent. The remainder of each figure's body is covered with crisply stylish clothing, their hair is carefully coiffed, and their faces smoothly masked. The fashionable styling acts as a kind of protective barrier between the young urbanites and the world, just as the masks conceal genuine emotions from potentially hazardous exposure. Early and mid-1990s China saw a surge in the number of well-off young urbanites, and the Mask series figures belong to this group, easily able to acquire a polished and stylish veneer, and such other accoutrements as fashionable pets, but nevertheless uncertain of their place in the world. Even when accompanied by a companion, they seem lost. In the two Mask series works shown here the figures look outward towards the viewer, with a passive yet expectant air.
A decade after the advent of the Mask series, Zeng Fanzhi developed a new approach to painting, returning to the paint play he had favored earlier and rendering landscapes, figures (including highly recognizable historical non-Chinese members of the communist pantheon, such as Marx and Lenin), animals, and abstract masses in a limited palette, with twisting lines scraped through the wet paint to obscure the imagery. Disparate traditions come together in these paintings with a collision of values that enlivens the canvas: the realism that played a major role in twentieth century Chinese art is overlaid by expressive lines suggestive of both abstraction and of traditional Chinese brush painting. As pure bursts of expressive energy the lines relate to abstraction; when they contribute to the form of a landscape or face, they bring to mind Chinese brush painting, which places a high value on the hand of the artist, recognizable through expressive deployment of the line. Bringing to life the deceptively simple concept of the clash of historical eras and artistic traditions, Zeng Fanzhi has created paintings that are fresh and intriguing, where the result could so easily have been overwrought and obvious: this highly original series marks a new plateau in his oeuvre.
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