HONG KONG - What makes a living artist’s works timeless? One important criterion, in my view, is the artist continuing to grow. By growth, I do not mean that the artist has to change his style dramatically throughout his career. I do believe that a true artist continues to investigate and explore the potential of his artistic expressions and the human condition. My visits to the Beijing studios of Zeng Fanzhi and Wang Xingwei in late March have enhanced my appreciation of some of their earlier works that will be presented at Sotheby’s upcoming spring sales in Hong Kong.

Wang Xingwei in his studio, Beijing. Photo credit: Chiu-Ti Jansen.

Only five years apart in age, Zeng and Wang both chose oil painting as their primary medium to depict a figurative world, but their career paths could not have been more different. Even prior to his midcareer survey at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2013–14, Zeng had commanded a strong international following, ranking regularly as one of the top- selling artists in China and, according to ArtReview, the highest-selling living Chinese artist in 2013. By contrast, Wang was relatively little known inside and outside of China until a 2013 retrospective show at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing thrust him into the consciousness of international collectors and his auction prices started taking off.

Zeng Fanzhi, Class One Series No. 15, 16 and 24 (Three Works), 1996.

Sotheby’s Hong Kong sales will include fours works by Zeng, each with a distinctive style and set of concerns. Class One Series No. 15, 16 and 24 (Three Works; 1996) foreshadow Zeng’s iconic Mask series and depict the world of the Young Pioneers during the Cultural Revolution when innocence and idealism gave way to injustice and trauma. Untitled (1994), alluding to tormented figures in Francis Bacon’s works such as Figure with Meat (1954) and Zeng’s own Meat and Hospital series, presents a half-naked patient with grotesquely oversized limbs, reclining defensively in a hospital that smacked of a slaughter house. In Mao (Triptych; 2004), Zeng applied the palette knife in swirling motions to obliterate the contours of the political icon’s monochromatic visages that are zoomed in three different distances. In the same year, Zeng also created Untitled (2004) where an unmasked young man is nonetheless obscured by an explosion of unbridled, crushing brushwork, keeping the encounter between the viewer and the portrayed subject in suspense. With these varying stylistic articulations, Zeng captured the absurdity of the human condition with psychological depth and urgency.

Zeng Fanzhi, Mao (Triptych), 2004.

I saw Zeng in his studio on a Sunday morning. His team was busy with the compilation of his catalogue raisonné, a multi-year project in the making. Zeng’s studio is tugged away in a courtyard adjacent to ShanghART Beijing, which was showing Zeng’s Louvre Project that includes a set of four numbered pieces titled From 1830 till Now. The series was based on the iconic Liberté guidant le people by Eugène Delacroix commemorating the July Revolution of 1830, which Zeng found most fascinating during his first visit to the Louvre in 1995. Zeng’s four pieces allude to different versions and reinterpretations of the Delacroix masterpiece, reflecting his current meditation on, and intervention in, art histories. I asked Zeng what he thought of his Class One Series and Mao. With a cigar in his hand, Zeng replied crisply: “I do not spend time thinking about my own previous work.”

The installation view of Zeng Fanzhi’s Louvre Project at ShanghART Beijing: From 1830 till Now (4 numbered works), 2014. Photo credit: Chiu-Ti Jansen.

Like Zeng, who was in his studio seven days a week if not traveling, Wang was constantly at work on his new paintings. Irreverent and humorous, Wang’s pictorial world depicts an uncanny contemporary Chinese society where his personae’s postures betray their mental states. Included in the Sotheby’s April sales, HelloHowMuch (2001) mimics a nouveau-riche society that is ready to commercially trade its own identity away in exchange for foreign landmarks and icons. Painted at the cusp of China’s entry to the World Trade Organization, the work refers to the Chinese’s willingness to use their very limited English vocabulary, namely, “Hello” and “How much?,” to engage foreigners for trade. Wang saturated his picture with symbolic tokens that China was eager to take in at the time.  Ironically, the welcoming couch seems to become a barrier between the hostess and the imported material world.

Wang Xingwei, HellowHowMuch, 2001.

During my studio visit, Wang talked about another couch in Moving a Sofa, a 2006 work also included in the upcoming sales. For Wang, the art deco sofa is both a connector and a divider between the pictured couple. With their derrières arched backwards, the young man and woman seem to harbor very different thoughts. Maybe the guy is having a sexual fantasy? Wang’s ambiguously rendered human interaction withholds his comments on a society that was fast in transition.

Modern and Contemporary Asian Art Evening Sale: April 4, 2015

Contemporary Asian Art: April 5, 2015

Hong Kong