Brimming with frenetic vibrancy compounded by a climactic sense of movement, Zeng Fanzhi’s imposing Untitled is a complex net of visual amalgamations that creates an almost vertiginous sense of velocity. The thrilling tension of thin white branches and dark black trunks is set against a faintly glowing background of electric royal blue, while at the centre, a chalk white mass hovers, lingering at the liminal space between the formed and unformed. Entangled in a complex infrastructure of light and dark, the viewer becomes part of a phantasmagorical composition that extends laterally beyond the work’s surface. Deeply embedded in the tumultuous experience of contemporary life, the present work is a firm departure from Zeng Fanzhi’s celebrated Meat and Mask series into the realm of landscape painting in which the transition between figuration and abstraction progressively blurs. In these works, Zeng Fanzhi offers a unique blending of his idiosyncratic intuition for color reminiscent of German Expressionist painting and his astute sense of history devolving the rich past of Chinese landscape painting into a powerful contemporary vision.
Zeng Fanzhi began experimenting with landscapes shortly after the turn of the millennium. Beginning with adding abstract lines to his masks, Zeng adopted the luanbi (loose-brush) technique around 2002. The style evolved from a period during which Zeng injured his right hand; by experimenting with using his left hand to paint, Zeng developed his new method of expression of loose-brush lines or luanbi xiantiao. The present work was created in 2006 when the artist’s had matured his new modus operandi of creation: to create the enthralling contrast of thick impasto brushstrokes with fine, delicate lines, Zeng adopts a technique of using two brushes simultaneously – a technical choice which reveals a growing confidence in his own intuition and skill. A large brush conceives the background with expressive strokes while a thinner brush composes the breached tree branches. Zeng’s development of scouring and scraping his works, using a palette knife to drag and extend wet paint, gives the work a frantic, energetic nature, successfully capturing the vivacity of the vines. Evolving from the metaphoric and symbolic qualities of his figurative works, these landscape paintings herald Zeng’s new technical freedom and display a vibrating energy reminiscent of various lineages in global art history. The automatic flow of his brushstrokes unleashes an aesthetic expression akin to the automatic drawings of the Surrealists who engaged with the idea of the subconscious to create new images and forms; while the profusion of paint dispersed across the picture plane recalls the influence of Jackson Pollock, who himself was influenced by the Surrealist’s concept of “psychic automatism”. The landscapes’ ethereal colour composition, meanwhile, evokes the fantastical and dream-like aura in Peter Doig’s works.
Positioned at the very forefront of Chinese contemporary art, Zeng has created one of the most fascinating and compelling bodies of work over the last twenty-five years. Growing up amidst the Cultural Revolution and hyperactive propaganda of the Maoist regime, Zeng rose to fame with the depiction of carnal bodies in hospitals and figures with masked faces. The more fluid and vigorous landscape paintings in the 2000s mark a clear departure from these figurative works. While his early oeuvre reveals the influence of Western art history such as German Expressionism, the landscape series enters into a fascinating visual and intellectual dialogue with the past that is explored through Zeng’s novel vernacular. By depicting elements that are emblematic of historical Chinese landscape painting such as the overlap of detailed representation with abstract qualities of materiality, Zeng set aside the Western techniques that so prominently defined his figurative works from the 1990s and started to embrace Eastern influences at the beginning of the millennium. The present work in particular combines many important elements of Chinese landscape painting from the Tang and Song Dynasty. While the Tang Dynasty was dominated by an exploration of monochromism versus polychromism as well as scrutinizing the significance of line and texture, the Song Dynasty was best known for its preoccupation with landscape at large and its connection to the human condition. By aptly manipulating the oil paint with fingers and brushstrokes, Zeng not only demonstrates his absolute mastery of technique but creates undulating lines of immediate expressiveness and lyrical power that echo the historical relevance of landscape painting.
Translating his cultural heritage into the present, Zeng formulated a universal idiom reflective of the increasing speed of modern urban life juxtaposed with a nostalgic longing for pure nature that culminates in a dark and mysterious, almost apocalyptic vision. As art historian Richard Schiff writes in his essay accompanying Zeng’s major retrospective at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris in 2013, “rather than solving a problem, creativity stimulates more creativity” (Richard Schiff, “A line knows” in exh. cat. Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Zeng Fanzhi, 2013-14, p. 205). In this sense, the natural organic flow of the lines in the present work creates new dichotomies of revealing and concealing, representing and abstracting, displaying more ambiguity than providing definite solutions.