The Pinnacle of the Mask Series
In the mid-1990s, China was transforming fast. Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties… Everybody wanted to look good, but there was an air of fraudulence in it. I felt that the thing they wanted to change was their appearance, and I represented this feeling in the earlier pieces of the Mask series. - Zeng Fanzhi
The overall effect is of people who are trying to suppress their emotions in order to present an air of calm—yet they are betrayed by their hands; they are unable to conceal their hands. - Li Xianting
With an extraordinary career spanning a period of over twenty years, Zeng Fanzhi's style has constantly evolved, giving birth to works prodigious in both breadth and depth. Having been featured at countless exhibitions around the world, Zeng Fanzhi’s paintings have earned the artist the indisputable title as one of Asian contemporary art’s shining stars. Presently, the artist is hosting his largest domestic solo exhibition to date, Parcours, at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art--a further testament to Zeng’s indomitable position in the art world. From 2013 to 2014, Zeng held a large-scale solo retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris as well as exhibitions at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre in Paris. Just last year, in 2015, the artist was featured in another solo exhibition at the Gagosian in New York. In the two or three decades of the artist’s illustrious career, his most important work can be identified as the Mask series, which the artist began creating in 1993. Not only does it symbolize the artist’s observations of the Chinese under the processes of urbanization as well as a critical evolution in his own style, the piece represents the artist’s participation in the re-imagination of the national portrait, an enterprise also undertaken by fellow artists Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun, Liu Xiaodong, and others active during the 1990s. Created in 2001, Society No. 3 (Lot 1057), standing at 2.2 meters in height, is a rare piece in the Mask series with a specific theme, and is unparalleled in its level of artistry and sophistication.
Compared to the earlier paintings in the Mask series, Society No. 3 is more agile and more mature. From the late 1990s to the early 2000s, Zeng’s works were gradually becoming more refined, displaying an ease of virtuosity. The artist no longer portrayed his subjects before a mustard-colored backdrop, and instead began experimenting with different settings, creating both depth and breadth within the painting. Society No. 3 engages in dialogue with the artist’s earlier Society No. 1, with the man in the earlier painting wearing a traditional Chinese gown and the man in the later piece donning a modern long coat. The painting serves as a record for the increasingly urbanized Chinese population and the accompanying outward changes of the people’s physical appearance, implying a historical change in the core of Chinese identity. In the painting the man stands upon a mountain peak, a scene reminiscent of that in the painting Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan by Liu Chunhua. In the older painting Liu Chunhua portrays Chairman Mao’s impressive presence: folded umbrella in hand, he forges ahead against a vast backdrop sky and Chongshan Mountain. Echoing Liu's magnificent portrayal of Mao, Society No. 3 similarly reveals the painter’s formidable ambition in his representation of the modern Chinese man caught between tradition and modernization, illustrating the anxiety and unrest rumbling beneath the process of urbanization.
As it was, the 1990s was a time of great maturation for contemporary Chinese art. Equipped with the rigorous training of Social Realism, artists of the the time held the fate of the traditional portrait in their hands and updated it according to the rapidly changing times. Departing from the idealism of the 80s, their portraits became highly individualistic in style, earning them international recognition and acclaim. Zhang Xiaogang’s Blood Line: Big Family series, for example, is a surrealist record of the traumas of a generation of Chinese people. Fang Lijun, on the other hand, used portraits of bald men to convey the “thick-skinned” and “bald-faced” philosophy and attitude shared among the Chinese during the 1990s. During the same period, the artist Liu Xiaodong used realist but not entirely representational techniques to convey the joy and exuberance of the Chinese youth. And during this very time, Zeng Fanzhi, in an Expressionist style, penetrated and portrayed the psychological state of the Chinese person from a personal perspective.
Zeng was schooled in the renowned Hubei Academy of Fine Arts from 1987 to 1991, home to alumni such as Ma Liuming, Xu Wentao and Wei Guangqing. While there, Zeng received training predominantly in a Social Realist style, a background partially responsible for the pathos that enshrouds so many of the subjects of his paintings. And yet, independently, outside of the studio, Zeng steadily developed his own techniques. The approaches he was being instructed in had left the artist dissatisfied, and out of this dissatisfaction grew an individual style that can be likened to German Expressionism; a distinctive mélange of methods that matured both within and beyond the classroom. The eminent Mask series, for which Zeng made his name, is a body of work that emerged from the artist’s Hospital series. The masks are often discussed alongside the artist’s relocation to Beijing in 1993, a move which was overwrought with difficulty for the artist, and represented a drastic departure from the familiar, more rural environment to which he was accustomed. The dynamism of the city represented to the artist a dramatic tension between outward appearances and inward emotions, engendering a feeling of tension and anxiety, which at the same time pointed to a broader rupture in the traditional culture. "In the mid-1990s, China was transforming fast”, Zeng observed. “Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties… Everybody wanted to look good, but there was an air of fraudulence in it. I felt that the thing they wanted to change was their appearance, and I represented this feeling in the earlier pieces of the Mask series.”1
The mask of course is a symbol of hiding. Zeng uses a palette knife or scraper to flatten the surfaces of his subjects’ faces, an effect that heightens the sense of “hiding.” His technical inspiration came from a few of the later paintings in the artist’s Meat series, a time during which he began to experiment with the palette knife. “I got the idea that I could use this technique in painting a person wearing a mask, a large painting, so that the effect would be obvious,” he notes of his earliest Mask creations, of which the present lot is a prime example. Still, the subjects’ attempts to hide away or cloak their feelings and put on a ‘poker face’ is unsuccessful. Art critic Li Xianting observed that “the overall effect is of people who are trying to suppress their emotions in order to present an air of calm—yet they are betrayed by their hands; they are unable to conceal their hands.”
The high esteem with which Zeng Fanzhi’s art is regarded in the contemporary Chinese art world is not only due to its considerable formal merits, but also because this artist’s story is that of so many of today’s top artists. Born into humble circumstances, they have made their way through society with the unwavering determination and tactical savvy that often calls for the kind of self-concealment that Zeng’s paintings so poignantly depict. Zeng belongs to the second generation to come of age after China’s Reform and Opening, a generation whose experience differs in many subtle ways from the lionized 1985 New Wave artists that came before him. As critic Pi Daojian—professor at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts during Zeng’s student days, and among the earliest observers of his work—has noted, “[Zeng] began creating art from a higher artistic plane than that of the ’85 Generation. He did not need to consider, as they did, how to use artistic tactics to criticize culture or society or pursue the sublime… He was never burdened with thinking about how others painted; he simply followed his heart, using color and lines to express the pressures and loneliness of contemporary life.”
1 Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, “Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation”, New York Times, May 3 2007