The most well-known of Zeng Fanzhi's series is the Mask series, which the artist began in 1994. The series is an exploration centered on the conditions of urban existence, documenting the decade of China's meteoric economic rise, and the circumstances and anxiety of the Chinese people during the resulting process of urbanisation. Influenced by the brushwork of Western expressionism, the artist uses exaggerated bodily proportions and dramatic contrasts to display the buried and concealed emotions of urban dwellers, as well as the worry and anxiety of Chinese citizens during the oppressive political climate of the 90s. As a Chinese artist, his early experiences also express an insistence on individuality in brushwork within a culture of collectivism. As critic Karen Smith observed, "The earliest works - the Hospital and the Meat series - made some of his most blatant references to a tortured personal emotion, a sense of frustration, angst perhaps that he had previously not been inclined to explore or even acknowledged...his own inner turmoil was the springboard for his style..."
In the early 2000s, Zeng began painting a series of human portraits. Although his paintings still contained elements of expressionism, beginning with the We series, the artist abandoned his mask, and turned to spiral brushwork and a technique of scouring and smearing. No longer did the figures in his paintings hide behind masks; instead, they concealed themselves under rings upon rings of spirals and brush marks.
Completed in 2003, Portrait (Lot 30) is a highly representative piece from this period, in which human emotions are portrayed with heightened intensity and anti-realism. Keeping the classic forms from the Mask period – the white shirt, black slacks, and red handkerchief – the human figure is isolated against what is a startling absence of backdrop, creating a confrontation between the real and false. Zeng's red handkerchief, as a symbol of collectivism, represents the ideals of communism. This individual, who looks as if he belongs in The Last Supper, is portrayed with striking proportional imbalance between head and body. Thick, flexed fingers are placed tensely at his waist. Zeng once said, "I'm interested in portraying people, individual people and their attitudes and moods, experimenting and giving expression to a kind of direct reaction, all for the sake of conveying this person's expressions, emotions, and thoughts, as well as my personal feelings towards this person." In Portrait, the man has already shed his mask, underneath which his enormous, intent eyes are set upon a face straining with bulging tendons and muscles, appearing exceptionally alarmed. An angry red crown runs through the figure's hair and face, as if treated by a violent blade. With the mask peeled back, what remains is a jarring expression of alarm and loss. Critic Brittn Erickson said: "The figures in Zeng's paintings have lost their masks. This unmasking implies a determination in the face of meaninglessness, but it does not go so far as to represent a will to conquer it. Without the mask, what is revealed is a frail self, one that is bewildered and at a loss."
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