Landscape: Marvelous Revelation
While the young Zeng Fanzhi was in his third year at the Hubei Academy of Art, he already had a different agenda from the rest of his peers. It was the start of 1990’s, a time when Socialist Realism was at its height, where art training required students to produce strict figurative paintings of models; a practice that prohibited any form of expression from the artist. Zeng, who excelled at this style of painting on the front, has secretly shifted his attention towards the liberating approach of German Expressionism. As he once commented, “The biggest received experience was in using line, color and form to express my response to a topic, form or emotion. I learned to utilize my emotion to produce a deep reflection upon a subject rather than making a painting that merely illustrated something.”1 Zeng’s persistence in imprinting his own emotion into his works has contributed to the success of the iconic Mask series, and is magnified under the breathtaking Landscape series, in which Fire (Lot 821) from 2007 belongs.
Numerous notable transitions from the previous works are seen in Fire. Thick layers of irregular paint marks have replaced the dominant image of the human figure. In the piece, we are brought to a nightscape of wilderness where a mysterious fire burns intensely behind an entangled web of branches. The artist does not give any pictorial clue as to whether the fire is in fact destroying its surrounding or providing a source of light, at once leaving the viewer lost in suspense between the fine line of desperation and hope. The gestural brushwork further infiltrates the borders between the somber background and the burning flames. In fact, the work is one of the few largest works from the series, and an extremely rare work from Zeng’s oeuvre to feature fire as its main motif. While the branch-like strokes are inspired by the wisteria growth in his home, what is seen as a portrayal of a landscape is in reality merely an illusion.
Zeng has explained, “They are not real landscape. They are rather about an experience of miao wu (marvelous revelation). Miao wu does not fall into the common categories of cognitive process. Neither has it anything to do with reason. Miao wu is a kind of revelation. Instead of making something obvious miao wu brought about an unmarked world, which underlies the deep strata of life, both novel and familiar. In this respect, the miao wu type of revelation concerns a disclosure of what is already embedded in the artistic ego – the revealed world is there, but it is unfamiliar and amazing. Miao wu constitutes a restless journey of discovery.”2 The ambiguity mentioned between the “unfamiliar and amazing” is exactly what comes to form in the painting. According to scholar Richard Shiff, Landscape series entails “painting felt in the body, extended to the hands, and appearing before the eyes only as it comes into existence.”3
The execution associated with miao wu is the experimental wet-on-wet technique that requires “no time to think” and “no time to step back”.4 The other method is painting simultaneously with two brushes in one hand; while one brush creates, the other disrupts, lending again to the ambivalent notion of calculation and chance. Through these two deliberate techniques, the finished work is based on a highly intuitive impulse of the artist and his surrounding; a distinctive approach that further displaces Zeng away from the pre-existing art historical terminology of abstraction and representation.
The free-flowing gestural brushwork has inevitably led to a comparison to Abstract Expressionism from the West. The artist has admitted that as he painted more, he would sometimes get a feeling of being Jackson Pollock, probably due to the large canvases that require the entire movement of his body in the painting process. However, prominent critic Li Xianting, who has been an avid observer of Zeng’s practice, ontrasted the two styles, “Pollock came into being in Dada period and emphasizes an unexpected effect produced unconsciously but [Zeng’s] is not accidental. Actually it is totally controlled, including the use of brush, namely, the moving of it back and forth. It associates me with languished flowers and rotted leaves, dying grass in autumn, etbacks in life…”5 Indeed, compared to Jackson Pollock’s all-over paintings that lack a particular point of attention or sign of brushwork, Zeng’s works arguably possess a strong presence of the artist’s lingering conscience.
The development in size and composition of the series are characteristic to Zeng’s continual experimentation. While the earlier works retained a figurative element in the composition, the latter works have either effaced the human figure or are substituted with animals. The scale of the work also shifted significantly from easel size to the monumental width of 8 to 10 meters, sometimes consisting of more than one panel. Among all the works, Fire is an important piece produced during the mid-period and documents the artist’s rare attempt in featuring an impalpable object as its main motif.
1 Karen Smith, We: The Paintings of Zeng Fanzhi 1991-2003, Shanghai Art Museum, 2003
2 Michael Findlay, “Q & A with Zeng Fanzhi”, Acquavella Galleries, 2009
3 Richard Shiff, “Every Mark Its Mask”, Zeng Fanzhi: Every Mark Its Mask, 2010
4 Refer to 3
5 Li Xianting, A Restless Soul: Dialogue between Li Xianting and Zeng Fanzhi, ShanghArt Gallery, 2003