- Zeng Fanzhi
- Mask Series No. 5
- oil on canvas
- 180 by 150 cm.; 70⅞ by 59 in.
Sotheby's, Hong Kong, 4 October, 2010, lot 713
Acquired from the above sale by the current owner
China, Shanghai, ShanghART Gallery, Zeng Fanzhi 1993-1998, 17 April – 25 April, 1998, p. 21
Hidden Force Behind the Mask
Amid the prolific and diversified oeuvre of Zeng Fanzhi, the Mask series created since the mid-late 1990’s has become an icon for his art. In the early nineties, Zeng migrated from his home town Wuhan and arrived in Beijing. He began to adapt into his art the issues and underlying currents of contemporary Chinese society, such as the unavoidable topic of urban economics. Although the meaning of the mask may seem transparent at first sight,its simplicity and explicitness are combined with an ambiguity that give the Mask series an alluring depth.
Sotheby’s is pleased to offer Mask Series No.5 (Lot 148) from 1994, which is one of the earliest works from the Mask series. Two protagonists in the work have identical attire, and both are wearing masks and supporting each other, but there is a strange and disconcerting distance between them. Behind these masks are the souls of a generation of Chinese people. The painting captures the essence of the early nineties when the Chinese economy first started booming. The red scarf which embodies China’s past is still being worn, but Western culture has already seeped through the everyday lives of the Chinese from jeans to leather belts. Zeng explores the discomfort one felt amidst the cultural shift, though avoiding an explicit conclusion, and only through the strenuous strokes does he hint at the tension created by the need for survival against urban development, against the backdrop of a history which once valourized the countryside.
In a publication about this body of Mask paintings that includes the present work, critics began to speculate on the series and its origins. Not surprisingly, it was the venerated Chinese curator Li Xianting who offered the first extended interpretation of this series, in a 1995 essay entitled “Life Masks: Symbol and Expression in the Recent Paintings of Zeng Fanzhi”, in which the interpretation still holds power today:
“The masks become the focal point of the paintings. The qualities of detachment and rationalism are particularly achieved through a change in technique. Rather than the bold, expressionistic strokes and neurotic patterning of Zeng’s first period, the artist now uses the palette knife to scrape the surface flat, blurring or even obliterating the brushstrokes. The flat background that emerges is at the same time both shadowy and insubstantial. There is a sense of suspension between reality and unreality, accentuated by the presence of unexplainable shadows and traces of light coming from nowhere, pushing the characters into an alien environment and eradicating the intimate quality of familiar reality.
Li’s essay goes on to compare the early Mask series to Chinese ink painting, seeing the way the artist chose to render the clothes of his new figures, a reference to an earlier style of brushwork, as well as an implicit response to the more explicitly expressionist styles Zeng had embraced in his post-student days. “There is an added element of composure, and even of elegance,” notes Li, claiming that the neurotic tone of works like the earlier Hospital Triptych has all but disappeared. Of course no one knew at this point in Zeng’s career that these sparse background paintings would be just one phase in a trajectory that would soon move on to several other expressionist styles. At that moment, Zeng’s departure from the raw scenes of his early career seemed absolute.
The dealer Johnson Chang took a different interpretation of the Mask paintings, seeing the figure’s assumption of a facial covering as a way of entering the public sphere of power politics. “By assuming a public face,” Chang surmised, “the self has assumed power.” As opposed to the frail individual which later critics have read into the figures, Chang felt that “in forsaking the passivity of the tortured [the masked figure] is now able to act—and interact—as a social being.”
Many have traced the energy of this series to the discomfort Zeng felt upon moving to the capital. Zeng himself has said that, “After I came to Beijing, I didn’t have many friends with whom I could truly open myself. I had a mixture of feelings when meeting new people, and I had to interact with a lot of them…I had to learn to get along with strangers in a new environment, and these feelings stirred me deeply, so I think the paintings are a reflection of things in my heart not necessarily all people’s. It’s just my personal feeling.” As Zeng began to achieve success in his adopted city, he began to feel distant with the environment in which he had come of age. “I felt the material change in my life, but nobody [in my hometown] has changed in any way, my relatives and friends. Every year I go back to visit them and my own personal change and growth estranges me from them a bit.”
The mask of course is a symbol of hiding, an effect that is heightened formally by Zeng’s use of a palette knife or scraper to flatten and thus accentuate the surfaces that cover his faces. His technical inspiration came from a few of the later paintings in his Meat series, where he began to experiment with the palette knife. “I got the idea of painting a person wearing a mask with these techniques, a big one so that the effect would be obvious,” he notes of his earliest Mask creations, of which the present lot is a prime example. Still, the attempt to hide away feelings and put on a ‘poker face’ comes off as incomplete. Li Xianting noted that, “the overall effect is of people who are trying to suppress their emotions in order to appear calm—but are betrayed by their hands, which they are unable to conceal.”
One thing most critics can agree on is that these early Mask works derive their power from their understatement. While later versions of the series would employ brightly colored backgrounds and large, sometimes theatrical, configurations of individuals, these early works are explorations in simplicity: large swaths of untouched canvas and figures left to stand alone in the gray void. And it is against this fundamental emptiness that a micro drama of individual existence plays out. And Zeng’s work is nothing if not individual. He has mused in public many times about his unwillingness to continue with any particular style of painting—regardless of its popularity with critics or collectors—beyond the point at which his personal feeling for it dies out.
In the end, Zeng Fanzhi’s art has assumed such power in the context of contemporary China not simply because of its considerable formal merits, but because this artist’s story is that of so many of the current new elite. Born into humble circumstances, they have made their way through society with a rigid determination and tactical savvy that often calls for the kind of self-concealment that Zeng’s paintings so poignantly depict. Zeng belongs to the second generation to come of age after Reform and Opening, ever so slightly distinct from the lionized ’85 New Wave artists that came before him. As critic Pi Daojian—a professor at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts during Zeng’s student days, and among the very earliest observers of his work—has noted, “[Zeng] started his artistic activity from a higher place than the ’85 Generation. He did not need to think, as they did, about how to use artistic tactics to criticize culture or society or pursue the sublime…He was never burdened with thinking about how others painted, he just followed his heart, using color and line to express the difficulties and loneliness of contemporary life.”