At the end of the 1980's, while still a student at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts, Zeng Fanzhi produced works in the traditional Soviet socialist realist style, in line with the academy's standards. But his heart was drawn to Expressionism, and for a long time he studied the careers of the French artist Jean Dubuffet and the American abstract expressionist Wilhelm de Kooning, whose use of line and vigorous brushwork deeply attracted him. Outside the classroom, Zeng began to paint portraits of friends and strangers in a style completely different from that which he was taught. Portraiture was a means to transcend the realist tradition and to express his own emotions. Zeng himself recalls that at the time he was living close to a hospital and would often witness patients waiting in queues or receiving emergency care. These scenes resonated with his expressionistic desires and prompted his first naturalistic works—the bizarre and unforgettable 'Hospital Triptych' and 'Meat' series. These paintings heralded the beginning of his signature style that he would maintain for over a decade, the figures with characteristic grossly enlarged hands, bulky, rotund bodies, heavily creased faces, and bright-red flesh. Here human beings and mere flesh become indistinguishable and the identity of the individual is subsumed. Zeng Fanzhi's work is not so much portraiture as the depiction of existential conditions.
In March 1993, two years after graduating from the Academy, Zeng Fangzhi left Wuhan and settled in Beijing where he met many different kinds of people and experienced many changes in his way of life. He recalls: "There were actually very few people with whom I could truly communicate. The interactions felt too performed, and moreover I needed to interact with and meet many people. [...] Whenever I went to a new environment I had to learn to be with strangers. This experience touched me deeply." From 1994 onwards, Zeng Fanzhi began to put masks on his human figures, which had already become increasingly formulaic. These masks the figures became even more distant and their lack of identity was further emphasised. Their interactions likewise became mechanical and their social roles could only be differentiated through their dress.
In Untitled No.8 from 2001, the subject's glaring eyes, enlarged hands, and blood-red flesh are all typical stylistic features. His stern gaze that breaks the pictorial frame is discomforting. Here Zeng has introduced new technical elements: the passages of the face and body are partially treated with a knife, creating surface patterns akin to the 'texture strokes' of traditional Chinese painting. Mysterious calligraphic symbols hover around the figure, serving both as background and bleeding wounds on the figure that endow the entire picture with a sense of trauma. Blood and flesh have always been Zeng's most compelling symbols. With the suggestion that humans are ultimately no more than body and flesh, Zeng expresses the anxieties and fragility of urban existence. This work also signals Zeng's new artistic direction where the mask has been torn off. In 2004, he ended the 'Mask' series and began to experiment with abstract line and composition. Viewed in context with Zeng's recent works, Untitled No.8 is an important milestone and precursor to his later production.
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