Zeng Fanzhi is one of the most important artists of the post-1989 generation. Unlike some of his peers, who have clung to popular styles and techniques for long periods of their careers, Zeng draws influence from the ever-evolving environment in which he lives, which has meant a major shift in style every few years. Throughout the recent modernisation of Chinese society, people's lives, ways of interaction and being have undergone extraordinary changes. Zeng captures this in his work.
Born and raised in Wuhan, Zeng frequently observed workers in a meat-packing plant near his home. This experience greatly influenced the way he expressed human bodies on the canvas. Blood-red human flesh dominated his early Meat and Hospital series, which were emotionally expressive in style with dark subject matter- hospitals, people waiting aimlessly, figures posing with hanging carcasses.
Zeng Fanzhi first started painting his Mask series in 1994 marking a new stage in his development. He had just moved to Beijing, and the experience of the alien environment in which he found himself proved a source of inspiration. Whereas his earlier work was more intense and explosive in nature, with the Mask series he displayed a new quality of detachment and rationalism. Likewise, where his earlier work had always been full of people, each work from Mask series depicts but one or two solitary figures, their exaggerated visages obscured by a mask that covers a large part of the face, yet not so obtrusively as to completely obscure emotion.
As an artist who is inspired by life's experiences and the environment surrounding him, the different series he paints reflect different chapters of his life. With his Mask series in particular it is evident that the artist's solitude was transmuted subconsciously into his work. These works reflect Zeng's lonely experience of moving from his quiet hometown to the sprawling modern metropolis of Beijing. The artist admits that this was a very sad time for him; and he is reminded of this melancholy phase of his life when he looks back at these works.
Both pieces by Zeng Fanzhi in this auction are from the earliest stages of the Mask series, having been painted in 1995.
Mask Series No.25 depicts two almost identical men dressed in loose fitting grey suits, one leaning against a metal balustrade on top of which the other perches. The standing man's mouth hangs wide open, his oversized left hand drooping awkwardly in front of his chest, while his right hand is hidden in his trouser pocket. The open mouth of the standing man may be a yawn (a sign of nervousness) or a scream of despair or frustration; it could also be a guffaw. His companion balances on top of a metal pole and looks straight at the viewer of the painting, his blank expressionless eyes betraying no emotion. The posture of the two suggests a sense of unease and anxiety. This underlying sense is further heightened by the awkward positioning of the oversized and bony hands of the figures. Worthy of note is that Zeng deliberately minimizes the use of the expressionist technique with which he is so familiar to the hands and faces of his subjects.
Mask Series No.27 depicts a similar man dressed in a dirty white shirt. He sits at a table in front of an open book resting his head in his enormous hand. He too looks straight at the viewer with the same blank eyes. His expression is one of bored reflection, his state one of somnolent quiescence. Three miniature fighter jets hurtle downward towards him, each exploding in a ball of flames.
In both works, as is typical of the Mask series, Zeng has used a palette knife to scrape the surface flat, hiding any traces of his own brushwork. There is a sense of suspension between reality and fantasia, accentuated by the flat backgrounds and the presence of the unexplainable burning fighter jets in No.27. Zeng's graphic rendering of the figures' faces and their baggy suits are emphasised by black outlines set against the simple grey tones of the flat background.
Compared to his earlier work, these compositions are simple, as complicated backgrounds and details are replaced with smooth backdrops. The smoothness of the single-colour background compressed with the depth of the canvas intensifies the surreal sense created by the images and with it our feeling that the figures are isolated and beyond reach. In both paintings the figures stare back at the viewer, their gazes and features impassive despite the intimacy of their contact. Their oversized hands only serve to deepen this sense of emotional distance between viewer and subjects.
The mask is a common theme in Chinese art history and culture. The taotie mask for example is a motif commonly found on ritual bronze vessels from the Shang and Zhou dynasties. Its meaning is unknown, but it is thought to have been used to communicate with spirits in another world. In Chinese culture, the mask is also used in theatrical performance. The ancient dramatic art bianlian (face-changing) is an integral part of Sichuan opera in which the main protagonists wear vividly coloured masks which change throughout the performance to reflect the character's mood - red representing anger and black extreme fury. The colour of Zeng Fanzhi's masks is white, a colour traditionally associated in Chinese culture with death.
Citizens of ancient Venetian society used masks to hide their true identity from one another in daily life. However, a distinction needs to be made here: Venetians voluntarily chose to use the masquerade as a pragmatic tool. This is diametrically opposite to Chinese society in the early 1990s, a time in which individual expression was suppressed by the State, when citizens were involuntarily forced to conceal their true feelings, desires or emotions, and thereby forced to live 'behind a mask'. By choosing to paint his masks white, did Zeng somehow want to link his figures through metaphoric meaning with the death of free-expression in China? Ironically the white masks are affixed so tightly that they capture the feelings underneath. The purpose of a mask is to hide one's true expressions or identity. Zeng's masks fail to do either, suggesting that the adornment of the mask was a futile exercise all along.
A lot may be read into the meaning behind the Mask series in terms of metaphoric interpretation. However, Zeng's message is less political than it is social: his focus is on the falsity of human relationships, with the mask being a satirical representation of the emptiness of human interaction in the world he lives in. He admits that, "I exaggerate and embellish the figures to emphasis the falsity of forced intimacy and laughter. The group portrait aspect of the composition, the theatrical arrangement of the space, and the array of masked expressions as the face of the figures, create the effect of characters performing on the stage. Because false faces exist, people cannot avoid the distance they create between each other. It is almost impossible to confide in each other as everyone hides their true nature, all of their desires, so that when they appear in public, the outer mask is all everyone else sees."
Although Zeng's focus was on interpersonal relationships, the Mask series also reflects - perhaps unintentionally so - the control of the State on personal freedom within China at the time. It is partly for this reason that Zeng may be described a Cynical Realist.
Zeng admits, "China was never the same from one decade to the next. With every ten years, I had to change and deny the China I knew in the previous decade. Memories from those years still shake my heart deeply."... "Art has links to contemporary time and society. The links may not have been intended by the artist, but when the years go by people will see the work and determine how it reflects the past. That's when the artist will realise that his work had reflected society and history of that time. Art should continuously raise issues about the society it belongs to."
As time progressed, the figures in the Mask series underwent a gentle transformation reflecting the transition of modern China. They become more stable in posture and expression, losing their rough edge - the blood red skin calms down, the huge calloused hands become smoother, and the figures are laid down over dramatic landscapes and backgrounds of pale pink, blue and yellow. In 2000/2001 the artist started painting figures with their masks removed. In this later work, Zeng's palette fades into scarlets and grays, as his figures lose definition and his compositions grow emptier. The unmasked faces, ironically, seem naked compared to their ghostly predecessors. In more recent years, Zeng has developed his practice in a variety of new directions drawing inspiration from the exciting changes and developments happening around him in new China. Nonetheless, the Mask series remains among his best-known and most powerful groups of paintings.
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