Mask Series No. 16 hails from Zeng Fanzhi’s most celebrated iconography which today persists as one of the most pervasive and pertinent visions in Chinese contemporary art history. Within this stark composition depicting a student at his desk, we witness a poignant example in which Zeng confronts a personal history: his childhood ordeal of being denied the red neckerchief of the Young Pioneers. Growing up during the height of the Cultural Revolution, the significance of possessing this badge of membership in a society governed by conformity was monumental to a young impressionable child; to be denied it was akin to being condemned as a leper (Karen Smith, “All that Meets the Eye: Zeng Fanzhi’s Art, 1990-2002”, in Exh. Cat. i/We: The Paintings of Zeng Fanzhi 1991-2004, Shanghai, 2003). Alienation as an outsider – scarring enough for any child – was compounded by the fact that Communist Chinese education taught children that true selfhood, da wo (‘super ego’) was bestowed by the group (Christine Vial-Kayser, “The Banquet as a Global Figure of Power in the Work of Zeng Fanzhi”, 14 Art&Media (Korea) No. 2, May 2015, p. 4). Children were also encouraged to criticize themselves in ‘red diaries’ (ibid), a motif that also appears in the present work. Masterfully bridging personal and social history, the present archetypal work represents Zeng as a child of Communist collectivism whilst emblematizing the universal psychological state of the individual within the throes of modernizing 1990s China.
Zeng’s first exposure to art occurred early in his estranged childhood. Not yet ten years of age, he regularly sat for his neighbour, a painter, who also made woodblock prints of Lu Xun and Karl Marx in the style of German artist/printmaker Käthe Kollwitz (Smith, 2003, ibid). Kollwitz’s incisive angst-ridden lines were thus one of Zeng’s earliest influences. Later, when Zeng enrolled into the renowned Hubei Academy of Fine Arts from 1987 to 1991, he found the Social Realist training stifling and developed his own techniques and styles that inclined towards German Expressionism. His efforts were rewarded much sooner than he expected: in 1991, the eminent critic/curator Li Xianting chanced upon Zeng’s graduation Meat and Hospital works, published critical appraisals and elevated him to the ranks of the foremost avant-garde artists of the generation.
His career thus launched, Zeng moved from his birthplace Wuhan to Beijing in 1993, a move that inspired his most celebrated Mask series. Overwhelmed by capitalist-driven consumer culture, Zeng plastered white masks on his subjects like a second skin, annihilating identities and disguising emotions and anxieties. Zeng associates this gesture of ‘concealment’ to social observation – “Everybody wanted to look good, but there was an air of fraudulence” (the artist cited in “Zeng Fanzhi: Amid Change, The Art of Isolation”, in The New York Times, May 2007) – as well as to his own introverted tendency to hide his feelings. Importantly, however, the true genius of Zeng’s Masks lies in how they function less as a tool of concealment than a masterful instrument of heightened expression. As Karen Smith observes, Zeng’s masks “closely follow the contours of the face … The emotion was clearly there for all to see, for the actual mask concealed nothing. […] the mask merely frames the face and puts the emotion into straightforward black and white” (Smith, 2003, ibid).
The resulting intensity of expression and depth of emotional power is on par with the vehement anguish of Francis Bacon or the fierce desolation of Max Beckmann. Communicating a wholly idiosyncratic artistic language and sharp commentary on society, Zeng’s Masks launched the artist into international acclaim, establishing him as one of the foremost representative Chinese artists on the global stage of contemporary art. In the present work, the masked face teeters palpably between anxiety, helplessness, and the exhausting weight of social pressures, tilting stiffly forward supported by a disproportionately large hand. Light from an unknown source spills onto two blocks of yellow that frame the pathos-stricken face, while the iris of his one visible eye is replaced with a cross, like the focal mark placed on the sight of a rifle (Vial-Kayser, 2015, ibid). By way of composition, light and dark contrast, and the uncanny mask, Zeng condenses private history with collective neurosis, delivering a simultaneously veiled and penetrating observation on the universal anxieties of an increasingly capitalist world, epitomizing the wider socio-economic state of China. Consummately executed and superlatively iconic, the present work stands as a superior paradigm within Zeng Fanzhi’s oeuvre.
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