Lot 67
  • 67

Zeng Fanzhi B.1964

1,200,000 - 1,800,000 HKD
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  • Zeng Fanzhi
  • Mao
  • Set of nine, oil on canvas, framed

Signed ZFZ

Catalogue Note

Zeng Fanzhi is a painter's painter, as interested in the texture and surface of his canvases as in the subject matter he presents. Through his painstaking attention to detail, and particularly through the major changes in style which his work has undergone every few years since his emergence onto the scene in the early 1990s, he has consistently distinguished himself from peers who have clung to a single set of subjects and techniques for long intervals of their careers.

In his breakthrough work "Hospital Triptych No. 1" (1991), Zeng Fanzhi expounded a number of themes that have continued to occupy him since. There his interest in figuration and composition emerged fully formed, cloaked in a visual language that hints in its visceral brushwork at abstraction even as it renders gripping and gritty realities. Much of Zeng Fanzhi's creation in the years following 1994 fell into the category of the "Mask" series, showing mainly solitary, male figures with exaggerated faces obscured by theatrical, form-fitting facial coverings. Only after six years of experimentation with this haunting motif did Zeng Fanzhi progress in 2000-2001 to paintings of similar figures with their masks removed. In this later, mostly untitled cycle, Zeng's palette fades into scarlets and grays, as his figures lose definition and his compositions grow emptier. The unmasked faces, ironically, come to seem even scarier than the ghostly compositions that preceded them.

A secondary strand in Zeng Fanzhi's work during the present decade involves abstraction. Around 2000, perhaps afraid of settling into a successful routine of painting masked figure after masked figure, Zeng began to experiment with pure color, producing first the "A Series" and then a number of monochromatic works with titles like "Pink" and "Red Situation." The early abstract works feature softly layered fields, reminiscent of the modern master Zao Wou-ki. By 2002 these abstract works had taken on a sense of vigor, with sharper, narrower strokes and crisper colors combining to create furious compositions brimming with energy.

The present work (Lot  67) marks the convergence, in 2002, of the figurative and abstract strands in Zeng Fanzhi's oeuvre. A nine-panel composition from the "We" series, it depicts the central facial features of Mao Zedong in different hues. While the reds that have been central to Zeng's work since the "Meat" series of the early 1990s form a central diagonal line when the nine panels are properly aligned, they are supplemented by an equal number of grays and bright colors for contrast. Mao-that frequent icon of Chinese contemporary artists-is rarely depicted in Zeng's work, and even here, his painterly lens is such that the subject's identity is not immediately apparent. The overall composition manages to riff on the omnipresence of Mao's image and influence without celebrating or deriding it in the manner of the usual "Political Pop" strategies. It represents a peace with Mao made after the spiritual upheavals of the early 1990s, from the comfort of a new and newly prosperous era. The great helmsman in these works, as in Chinese society generally, a subliminal presence, at once seen and unseen.

The "We" series marks the beginning of the swirling brushstrokes and concrete, if obscured, historical subject matter that populate Zeng Fanzhi's canvases up to the present. At Art Basel Miami Beach in December 2006, he showed two massive works depicting a Chinese hero of the Korean War hiding in a bush rendered in the manner first set forth in "We." His abstractions, ever bolder and bigger, have come more and more to rely on this same swirling motif. As Zeng continues to mature and develop, this instance of the "We" series will remain as one of his major works from the period in which he reconciled the conflicting tendencies that propelled his work to international acclaim.