The overall effect is of people who are trying to suppress their emotions in order to present an air of calm - yet they are betrayed by their hands; they are unable to conceal their hands.
With an extraordinary career spanning a period of over twenty years, Zeng Fanzhi's style has constantly evolved, giving birth to works prodigious in both breadth and depth. Having been featured at countless exhibitions around the world, Zeng Fanzhi’s paintings have earned the artist the indisputable title as one of the most important artists of his generation. In 2016, the artist hosted his largest domestic solo exhibition to date, Parcours, at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art - testament to Zeng’s indomitable position in the art world. In the past two and a half decades of the artist’s illustrious career, his most important creations can be identified as the Mask series, which the artist began creating in 1993. Not only does it symbolize the artist’s observations of China under the processes of urbanization as well as a critical evolution in his own style, the series represents the artist’s participation in the re-imagination of the portrait. Created in 1999, Mask Series is an archetypal mature work from the Mask series, exhibiting a superior composition with a refined level of artistry and sophistication.
Compared to the earlier paintings in the series, the present work is more agile, displaying a relaxed ease of virtuosity in brushwork, motif and composition. The two masked figures are poised leaning against each other in cheerful and intimate disposition, displaying to full effect Zeng Fanzhi’s trademark eerie juxtaposition between surface nonchalance and inner anxiety. The mask for Zeng is a potent symbol of hiding; Zeng uses a palette knife or scraper to flatten the surfaces of his subjects’ faces, an effect that heightens the sense of “hiding.” His technical inspiration came from a few of the later paintings in the artist’s Meat series, a time during which he began to experiment with the palette knife. “I got the idea that I could use this technique in painting a person wearing a mask, a large painting, so that the effect would be obvious,” he notes of his earliest Mask creations. In spite of his subjects’ attempts to hide away or cloak their feelings and put on a ‘poker face’, however, turmoil and anxiety nevertheless seeps through – via Zeng Fanzhi’s masterful rendering of his exaggeratedly large and tremulously veiny hands, of which the crimson fleshy hues also derive from his earlier Meat series. The effect is a singularly unsettling aura that defines the Mask series, as exemplified consummately in the present work; as art critic Li Xianting observes: “the overall effect is of people who are trying to suppress their emotions in order to present an air of calm—yet they are betrayed by their hands; they are unable to conceal their hands”.
As it was, the 1990s was a time of great maturation for contemporary Chinese art. Equipped with the rigorous training of Social Realism, artists of the time held the fate of the traditional portrait in their hands and updated it according to the rapidly changing times. Departing from the idealism of the 80s, their portraits became highly individualistic in style, earning them international recognition and acclaim. Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family series, for example, is a surrealist record of the traumas of a generation of Chinese people. Fang Lijun, on the other hand, used portraits of bald men to convey the “thick-skinned” and “bald-faced” philosophy and attitude shared among the Chinese during the 1990s. During the same period, the artist Liu Xiaodong used realist but not entirely representational techniques to convey the joy and exuberance of the Chinese youth. And during this very time, Zeng Fanzhi, in an Expressionist style, penetrated and portrayed the psychological state of the Chinese person from a personal perspective. Schooled in the renowned Hubei Academy of Fine Arts from 1987 to 1991, Zeng received training predominantly in a Social Realist style, a background partially responsible for the pathos that enshrouds so many of the subjects of his paintings. And yet, independently, outside of the studio, Zeng steadily developed his own techniques, developing an individual style that can be likened to German Expressionism – a distinctive mélange of methods that matured both within and beyond the classroom.
Such an individualistic pursuit of creative integrity culminated in the Mask series. Often discussed alongside the Zeng’s relocation to Beijing in 1993, a move which represented for the artist a drastic departure from the familiar, more rural environment to which he was accustomed, the Mask series reflects the dramatic tension between outward appearances and inward emotions. "In the mid-1990s, China was transforming fast”, Zeng observed. “Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties… Everybody wanted to look good, but there was an air of fraudulence in it. I felt that the thing they wanted to change was their appearance, and I represented this feeling in the earlier pieces of the Mask series” (Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, “Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation”, New York Times, May 3 2007). Zeng’s art has assumed such power in the context of contemporary China not only due to its considerable formal merits, but also because of his poignant life story. Born into humble circumstances, Zeng made his way through society with the unwavering determination that often calls for the kind of self-concealment that Zeng’s paintings so poignantly depict. Zeng belongs to the second generation of artists to come of age after China’s Reform and Opening – a generation whose experience differs in many subtle ways from the lionized 1985 New Wave artists that came before him. As critic Pi Daojian observes: “[Zeng] began creating art from a higher artistic plane than that of the ’85 Generation. He did not need to consider, as they did, 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 simply followed his heart, using color and lines to express the pressures and loneliness of contemporary life”.