- Zeng Fanzhi
- Mask Series No.4
- oil on canvas
Acquired by the present owner from the above
Lü Peng ed., Contemporary Artists Collection - Zheng Fanzhi, Sichuan Fine Arts Publishing House, Chengdu, China, 2007, pp. 50-51
With a major retrospective exhibition held at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris from late last year to early this year, and recent participation in two notable group exhibitions at the Gagosian Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York respectively, Zeng Fanzhi’s worldwide popularity has no doubt far surpassed many Chinese contemporary artists working today. Among his eclectic body of works, the immensely influential Mask series from 1994 to 2002 no doubt remains to be the emblem of Zeng’s unique observation of contemporary China. It is through this series where Zeng began to achieve critical recognition from abroad in the early 1990s, and more importantly, on which he developed his celebrated artistic practice throughout the millennium period. Painted in 1997, the rare Mask Series No. 4 (Lot 1037) is not only one of the largest works produced by the artist from that year, but also the only work to feature four masked figures. Instead of relying on formulaic success, the work has embedded both new and old elements that showcase the strategic transition of the series and testify to the artist’s relentless pursuit of pushing his own boundaries, arguably making it one of the most iconic series in Chinese contemporary art.
In the work, two pairs of masked men are seen strolling casually along the beach, with their arms around each other. Considering the fashionable suits and hairstyles donned, Zeng’s characters are obviously those who benefited from China’s economic prosperity in the early 1990s. Though on the surface they seem to be good friends, the masks affixed to their faces essentially betrays this sense of kinship. As what notable curator Feng Boyi has acutely pointed out, “with their arms around each other’s shoulders, the viewer is shown nothing of the figures beyond a hollow, fashionable exterior.” Furthermore, the crucified eyes on the three figures are features only present in works between 1995 and 1998, evoking pervasive notions of blindness in a modern society. As such, the uncanny atmosphere imbued in the present work perfectly epitomises the discomfort of the Mask series, and more importantly, the feeling Zeng felt when he first moved to Beijing in 1993. “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.”
Born in 1964, just two years before the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, Zeng Fanzhi suitably belongs to the new generation of artists who became the perfect witnesses of the drastic episodes of social and urban developments in contemporary China. The emotional experience during his humble early years in Wuhan, from seeing the sickly patients in hospital corridors while borrowing a nearby hospital’s toilet every day, to being exposed to masterpieces by Western artists during his study at the Hubei Art Academy, all contributed greatly to the critically acclaimed artistic style and thematic structure of anxiety, death, and illness presented in the early Meat and Hospital series. After receiving critical recognition from local scholars and curators alike, Zeng made a wise decision to boldly leave behind his hometown and move towards the art capital of China two years after his graduation from the art academy.
In truth, Zeng’s inevitable move to Beijing was a much needed turning point for the artist’s creative outlet. As he once confessed to art critic Karen Smith on the limitations set out in his hometown: “In Wuhan, there was nothing to see except for books, I don’t think it would help with my improvement.” Upon arriving in the capital, what he did not expect at the time, however, was probably the overwhelmingly rapid economic transformation already taking place in the city. Moreover, his desire to belong to the core groups and trends in the art circle further revealed blatantly to him the ubiquity of the false façades in a modern society. These dramatic changes experienced by Zeng ultimately became a powerful source of inspiration behind the critically successful Mask series.
According to an essay by Li Xianting written in 1998, the aesthetics of the series can roughly be divided into two periods, those produced before and after 1997. The earlier works, as showcased by the pieces from his first solo exhibition “Behind Masks: Zeng Fanzhi” at Hanart TZ Gallery in 1995, continued to carry the lingering traces of the Meat and Hospital series, as seen in the rough brushwork and blood red skin tones. The works are also largely devoid of backgrounds, placing the focus mainly on the masked figures themselves. Since after 1997, “the appearance of Zeng Fanzhi’s work took another step forward to become more style conscious. This sense of style is brought out by a new series of backdrops which contain specific elements such as the sea,” as evident in the present lot. Furthermore, when compared to earlier paintings from the same series, the colours in Mask Series No. 4 are clearly much more vibrant. The selection of attire has also included a trench coat, with the brushwork of the hands taking a more refined approach. The lot on offer is all the more rare in comparison with other works from the same year, as it still concentrates on a monochromatic colour palette; the ocean and sky are no longer blue, but rather a sullen gradient gray that accurately pinpoints the hollow nature of the city dwellers. As Zeng has previously stated, “the paintings are about real people. I exaggerate and embellish the figures to emphasize the falsity of forced intimacy and laughter. 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.”