Both bold and subdued, Untitled (from Mask Series) is a beautifully evocative example of one of Zeng Fanzhi's most iconic series; a stunning amalgam of China's past and present. Zeng Fanzhi's artistic development was shaped by the liberalisation of culture and fast paced spread of modernisation within mainland China that first began with Deng Xiaoping’s programme of social and economic reforms in the late 1970s. The small, traditional communities and communist ideologies that had shaped his childhood were replaced by a capitalist-consumer culture and an urban landscape of stark skylines.
Educated at the traditional Hubai Fine Art Academy in Wuhan, the artist moved to Beijing, a hub of transformation, just before he began his most iconic body of work, the Mask series. Created between 1994 and 2000 and directly inspired by his experiences in the rapidly changing Chinese metropolis, this notorious series marked a distinct change in his aesthetic. The raw expression and painterly brushstrokes evident in his earlier Meat and Hospital series are replaced by the polished appearances of the masked individuals.
The cropped composition of the present work alludes to a traditional portrait, with the female's masked face highlighted as the central part of the work. Her perfectly coiffed hair continues Fanzhi's refined aesthetic, in line with the crisp suits and poised looks of other figures in the series. Her bright red lips underline the mask's caricatured appearance. The oversized tears that run down her face evoke the haunting sadness of the subject, endowing the figure with a startlingly vivid presence. The smooth white mask acts as an emotional barrier, whilst at the same time clearly expressing the delicate vulnerability hidden beneath it.
With his back to the viewer the only detail of the male figure we encounter is the bright red handkerchief tied around his neck. A well-known insignia for the famous Little Red Guard of the Cultural Revolution, the red handkerchief references a society which Fanzhi desperately longed to be a part of during his childhood. It remains a symbol for the artist’s deep-seated anxiety in being an outsider.
Highlighting memories of past decades, as much as allegorising China’s fast-paced development, Mask is a poignant example of Zeng Fanzhi's continued narrative of his generation and his profound investigation into the individual's faceless anonymity within the relentless pace of modernisation.