Zeng Fanzhi was born in Wuhan in Hubei province in 1964, where he attended the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts from 1987 to 1991. While there, he grew attached to the forceful fragility of German Expressionism, its pathos alluring to him. His famous Mask Series is often spoken about alongside his move to Beijing in 1993, one that was difficult and represented for Zeng a departure from a familiar, more rural backdrop. Nonetheless, this unfamiliarity brought about a shift in Zeng’s paintings. A new pair of eyes now glimpsed the cityscape around him. The three works on offer in this sale are Zeng’s 1998 two Mask Series as well as Untitled. These three key pieces are accompaniments to the artist’s Mask movement, with the latter lot taking on an incredibly portentous role, prefiguring Zeng’s later creations.
“In the mid-’90s, China was transforming very fast,” Zeng reminisced. “Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties…Everybody wanted to look good, but it also looked a bit fake. I felt they wanted to change themselves on the surface, and these are the feelings that I represented in the earlier Mask series. Later on, the series used more vibrant colors; I think it makes people look even more fake, as if they are posing on a stage.”1
The two 1998 pieces entitled Mask Series characterise this overwrought vibrancy, and differ from their predecessors in that they are not set in various nebulous locations. Rather, the figures pose in front of a single-coloured panel. The brush strokes which were once vaguely revealing, representative of an inherent humaneness, an imperfection, are now smooth, void of flaws or individuality. The lines that do exist are comical, unusually pronounced. The speckled greyness of the masks dulls into off white; the even more pronounced cross—in lieu of an iris—in the eye becomes yet another barrier to hide behind, symbolising an impenetrable soul. The masked characters thus become manufactured like this, all alike. The earthlier russet hues and creamy tinges of the faces have morphed into rubicund complexions, bleached by patches of yellow.
When interviewed about the series, Zeng added that “I [he] had thought to make them more splendid but that would look more unnatural, just like the scene on the stage. Human beings all tend to show the best of them, such as the affected poses before a camera, the simulated posture of a complacent citified person. Paintings like Mask reveal such a feeling.”2
This dual nature of the masks—unnatural, forged yet so intuitive, innate—is what is so unnerving about the smiling characters. The characters in the two paintings seem rigid: one frozen as if in feigned laughter, trapped in a stiff suit, complete with clichéd red tie and gold handkerchief; the other, young, strained, and wearing an expression not unlike Zeng’s previously apathetic doctors in his Hospital series.
The two pieces represent daily life in an unforgiving city. With the disappearance of hands, the two characters are stripped of the last remnants of their humanity and remain veiled. The businessman in Mask Series (Yellow) (Lot 871) beams garishly at the viewer, his smile stretching his already swollen face. His hair, as if greased to a stand-still and moulded into perfection seems rehearsed, much like the
suspiciously symmetrical outlines on his suit. The folds on the suit are likewise questionable, so slightly are they tousled that one questions whether the wearer himself is even present.
The presence of the young boy in Mask Series (Blue) (Lot 872) is likewise absent. His stiff posture is akin to the businessman’s; the slight upward curve of his lips the only indication of any emotion; his inane countenance more an indication of the city than of his age. The red neck scarf and vibrant blue of the background, reminiscent of simpler times in a commune, are a sad reminder of the loneliness of urban life. His adherence to falsity has been initiated.
In comparison, Untitled (Lot 873) is more indicative of Zeng’s work on the cusp of change. Situated between his Mask series and the later Untitled pieces, the work features a man gazing upwards to his left, mouth slightly agape, as if his upturned face is inspecting a scene unbeknown to us. His visage is concealed not by a mask that Zeng is so well known for, but by a smear that has become characteristic of his later works. The man’s furrowed eyebrows indicate perhaps some awareness of the smear, and his frozen body: bent legs, arms outstretched as if to balance him, may be indicative of his flight from the elusive blur. The sole of his left shoe, however, seems to be detained by harsh, almost cartoonish lines that creep into the canvas from the
right hand side. His predicament seems to be one of entrapment rather than of escape, as if Zeng’s figurative “unmasking” of this character has rendered it inept in the face of reality; rendering it a captive rather than a free man. Just like Zeng’s earlier works, the character’s rigid clothes are a mockery of reality, as are the exaggerated enflamed hands, abnormally large ears, excessively angular face, and waxy hair. The only thing that could be clues to the man’s livelihood—his eyes—are too concealed by the blur, effacing him of his humanity.
A discussion of these three vital pieces would, however, be lacking without also exploring Zeng’s earlier works, ones that serve as a vital preamble to the notorious veiled men. His artistic oeuvre, spanning from the early 90s fixates itself on the human body and the impact of raw flesh. His Hospital series presents the human physique with an uninterested air, one that is vastly lacking in compassion or sympathy. The torturous conditions in which the pained patients find themselves are without relief; their vacant eyes stare blankly off into the distance, while the doctors beam triumphantly, eerily in the foreground. The human body is something of no worth, characterised by rough and aggressive strokes, while the surrounding equipment have a smooth gleam to them: waxy canisters, glossy syringes, and shiny bedframes are littered around the paintings and contrast starkly with the plights of the humans.
The human form remained a point of interest for Zeng even after his Hospital series. Meat series, ensanguined and visceral, followed the aforementioned clinical scenes. Here, the indifferent stares of the doctors transmute into the vacuous gazes of meat-cleaver wielding men. The at once buttery, at once fleshy texture of their skin collides endlessly with the strung up carcases, and are brought into even rawer comparisons where man and beast; man and meat become one. The enquiry into human fragility and the limitations of suffering gradually ebb, giving way to an even more prevalent sense of apathy. The previously expressionist, violent brushwork becomes more subdued, exuding an unconcerned quality that becomes characteristic of Zeng’s Mask series.
Rather than being greeted by a dizzying proximity to bloody bodies, human or otherwise, when one arrives at the earlier Mask series one is met with disconcerting distance. The people portrayed are so far removed from livelihood, formerly accentuated by grisly carcasses, that they are covered from head to toe. Save for their peculiarly large hands and the flesh peeking through from behind unnatural and comical masks, the characters display no signs of life. The paintings in the series epitomise urban life, symbolising what Zeng identified as the decline of human interaction. The characters behind the masks, and indeed the masks themselves, become one and the same. The masks, so obviously false yet so resembling skin, represents the dual nature of the characters the artist found in the city.
The brushwork of the earlier Mask works was also more pronounced. Though still projecting an urban falseness, former paintings contained rougher strokes, grey masks, rugged hands and creased clothes. Behind the façade of metropolitan perfection still lay traces of something quintessentially human, such as can be seen in the wrinkles on trousers. The hands, perhaps the most telling of all these signs, became the single-most natural aspect of the paintings. Aside from being abnormally large, they were nonetheless earthly.
The falsity in Mask Series juxtaposes so ironically with the honest and revealing manner with which Zeng Fanzhi excavates the people in his city. This scathing criticism of the de-humanism of urban life in spite of booming economic strength, represents an authentic dialogue between artist and city, and make for great insight into the Chinese contemporary world.
1 Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, “Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation”, New York Times, May 3, 2007
2 Li Xianting, Dialogue between Li Xianting and Zeng Fanzhi, 2003
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