A Line with a Mind of Its Own
Zeng Fanzhi is an artist whose name has become almost synonymous with Contemporary Chinese art. His famous masks—ubiquitous motifs that encompass a large portion of his oeuvre—are never amiss from any discussion concerning Contemporary Asian art. So far is his reach that countless museums across the globe have been home to exhibition after exhibition, retrospective after retrospective, in honour of his work. Just to name a few, Zeng’s repertoire of shows range from the Gagosian Gallery and Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to a recent retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. And yet, Zeng is an artist who does not cease to amaze, nor is he one who settles. Currently on offer are two important works from two distinct periods post-Mask, namely, Untitled No. 4 and Sky Series. Both works are valid examples of the different styles that Zeng developed after his extended Mask series, and are exemplary in showcasing Zeng’s refined and matured techniques.
The turn of the millennium was an important time for Zeng’s artistic career. It was no doubt that, along with the new millennium, came the artist’s gaze at new horizons, with regard to both his aesthetic inspirations as well as his artistic directions. The works he produced post-2000 branched out to two paths. Some of his works showed a twist on his previously Expressionist pieces, others yet returned to the more traditional genre of portraiture, with figures that were finally exposed without their masks.
When one turns to Untitled No. 4 (Lot 780), one can feel the full potency of Zeng’s prowess in depicting portraits. The painting—compositionally intriguing—presents to its viewer a painting of a painting. This example of mise-en-abyme fools the eye: while the painting within the work is dated 1999, the entire piece—or perhaps one would be inclined to consider it the “wall” upon which the work is displayed—is dated 2000. The man in the portrait is covered by red pigments, heavily reminiscent of the sanguineous red paints that were wont to appear in Zeng’s earlier Meat and Hospital series of the nineties. Might it be that the artist intended for his figures—so newly unmasked and finally exposed—to be covered up and hidden anew, not with masks, but with layers of paint? This act of covering up his figures with dragged paint, which looks forward to Zeng’s “wet-on-wet” method, a mode of painting that involves dragging still-wet paint to create eerie marks, can be read as the artist’s reluctance to be fully unmasked just yet. Coupled with the slight irony involved in producing, essentially, a piece of art depicting art, Untitled No. 4 is a work that is heavily self-reflexive, as if the artist is contemplating his own livelihood as an artist. Such level of reflection is usually only evoked through the few self-portraits that Zeng has produced, making the current piece all the rarer considering how infrequent such instances of self-reflection occur. Moreover, the intensity with which the figure holds our eyes—with a penetrating gaze not unlike that of Gustave Courbet’s famous The Desperate Man—forces us to encounter the man eye-to-eye, evoking the effect of looking at one’s reflection in a mirror.
When compared with the few other Untitled works of the series, such as Untitled No. 2 painted in the same year, one can be assured that Zeng intended for the serial Untitled paintings to be heavily personal. While Untitled No. 2 features a figure wearing a Communist red necktie that represents for Zeng both his childhood but also memories of rejection, Untitled No. 4 features a man wearing a Maoist shirt and coat. The shift from the familiar uniform-like attire from his childhood, to the adult garments that we see in the present lot, underscore Zeng’s move from his familiar surroundings of Wuhan to Beijing, a time which was wrought with difficulty and bore huge mental stress for the artist. His own sense of identity too was lost, as Zeng recalls, “In the mid 90’s, China was transforming fast…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...”1 This marks Untitled No. 4 as a rare and deeply transitional piece, representing both the transition between the artist’s Mask works and his later works, as well as a look back towards his older shift between Wuhan and Beijing, which were then expressed as a change between his Meat and Hospital series to his Mask works.
The artist’s works post-2000 also took off in another direction as previously mentioned, and Zeng’s canvases swelled to incorporate more backdrops: oftentimes landscapes or nebulous locales. It was no doubt that, along with the new millennium came the artist’s gaze at new horizons, with regard to both his aesthetic inspirations as well as his artistic directions. His works were a consolidation of his by-then well-known Expressionist inclinations, which were overlaid with new, indiscriminately Chinese undertones. By looking Eastward, the artist produced moving works that exuded at the fragility of German Expressionism with an unmistakably Chinese twist.
It was also during this time that the artist revealed, “All along I wanted to find an artistic voice that belonged solely to me, without being affected by any great masters.” Zeng returned to a traditional Chinese culture by the end of the 1990s and early 2000s onwards, paying especial attention to Song dynasty paintings. During a period of exploration that would span over a decade, Zeng oscillated between Abstract paintings and Figurative renderings, before eventually arriving at an amalgamation of East and West, thus forging his own artistic path.
The real pinnacle of this expansion would be a brief few years from 2003 onwards, when Zeng’s many experimentations thus far would give way to a grounded technique; where abstract lines transitioned into order and control. According to art critic Lü Peng, it was truly during this time that the artist decided to look inwards, towards traditional Chinese shanshui hua. Shanshui hua, which is literally “mountain and water paintings”, is a quintessentially Chinese form of landscape painting. Executed in ink and water, traditional landscape paintings were symbolic of man’s connection to nature as well as the cosmos at large.
As was first seen in his Sky series, a fantastic example of which is the lot currently on offer (Lot 781) , various individuals—from children to important figures such as Mao—would find themselves against blushing skies of pinks and reds, which would later evolve into cobalt blues and speckled greys, completely at one with nature.
As the artist reveals, “The inspiration (for the Sky series) came from my childhood; merely looking up at it would ignite in me a wondrous imagination. The skies would stay by our sides as we walked down the roads, and until now, I can still hear the sounds it made; still smell its scent.” Zeng’s childhood thus finds echoes of itself in such works, as if by calling out to this past the artist was reliving the moments, expressed through blurred, chiselled strokes. The present Sky Series is thus a matured rendition of Zeng’s childhood memories, as if by depicting a portion of his past, Zeng could redeem it in the present.
Zeng Fanzhi, it would appear, is a deeply sentimental man. But far from being simply nostalgic, he is an artist who inspects his past with a discerning eye, subjecting it to judgement and careful pondering. In both the works offered in the present sale, namely Untitled and Sky Series, we see vestiges of Zeng’s childhood as well as his selfhood slip into focus, and carefully dissected. It is indeed perhaps in part due to this close and honest self-examination that Zeng can continue to push past boundaries, continually reinventing himself, and thus upholding his title as one of the most esteemed artists of the twenty-first century.
1 Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, “Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation”, New York Times, May 3 2007