The spectacular career of Zeng Fanzhi is all the more so, given what looks like a morbid pessimism asserting itself from the start of his career. Early on, he depicted hordes of patients crammed into insanitary hospital spaces; eventually, he arrived at his internationally famed masked men, members of the new capitalist China. The characters who populate his Mask Series, no matter alone, a pair or a group, stare out of the canvas through their facial disguise. The series is premised on the polemics on trust, or lack thereof, in modern metropolitan social relations during the mid- to late 1990's. China's economy was taking off at the time. Artists, in response, lamented the losses incurred at the expense of the country concentrating its resources on procuring profits and securing gains. In order to bridge the gap between a collective dream and a harsh reality, Zeng Fanzhi proposes the mechanism of masquerade—the modern man can conceal his true feelings and psychological mayhem through a spurious display of fake emotions. The masks Zeng paints always carry a smirk, an expression that connotes what in a daily scenario? Perhaps the vortex of ambivalent and conflicting feelings that arise from the anguish that lies between expressing and not expressing.
Zeng Fanzhi belongs to an idiosyncratic, highly principled group of painters intent on making social comments that are not necessarily in keeping with party lines. Even so, the artist has had to be careful; it may well be that the mask his imagination places on everyday people may extends to cover the face of Zeng himself. Interestingly, while some Chinese artists have stuck with early inspiration and repeated their style, Zeng has gone on to work out different techniques that investigate various painterly influences just as much as they comment on the social mores of the time. He has not given up on his pessimism; the figurative studies since 2000 have, if anything, remained melancholic, even depressed. The squiggling lines drawn over the faces and bodies of his figures appear to be a technical way of indicating alienation: we look at the imposed morass of lines and wonder whether they are another way of distancing the viewer. Thus Zeng works in the space between diplomacy and discrete views of despair. His stylized figures—those done early on—remind the viewer of Soutine and Beckmann, but the later work has seen Zeng attempting to paint his way, completely on his own terms.
Zeng Fanzhi redefines our very understanding of 'portraiture.' Rather than a representation of a face, a true likeness, Zeng offers a mere mask. A mask, seemingly meant to disguise or to conceal, transforms into the face that everyone sees, suggesting not anonymity, but instead the disturbing notion that perhaps this mask is the face, or that underneath there is something darker, less accepted, traumatized. The juxtaposition of what exists on the surface with what lies beneath spans far beyond simple notions of inner versus outer; it addresses something far deeper and more complex that the physical barrier between the viewer and the mysterious figures in these paintings. At a time when many Chinese artists drew on their political past as artistic ammunition, Zeng chose to examine the realm of the psychological past, the memories, many of which are manifested in the minute details of his Mask paintings: the red scarves and fake Maoist script. Pushing beyond the utilitarian aspect of the Socialist Realist style, Zeng accentuates the flesh of his figures and enlarges their hands to create a truly expressive and visceral experience, yet with such subtlety and
Mask Series (Lot 911), executed in 1998, represents a climax in the artist's 7-year "Mask" paradigm. It differs from earlier specimens in its correspondence with the bustling metropolitan life of China in the late 1990's. Colours have gained intensity and brightness in the mid-period and late Mask Series pictures, and the overall compositions more and more neat. The protagonist has acquired a burgeoning air of self-assurance and his fashions have evolved as well. These masked men belong to a new generation of Chinese middle class and are members of a modern economy. The central figure in Mask Series wears a smart, pink suit and lounges by the water. Flanked by a black pooch, he asserts his charm as he keeps his hands in his pockets. Though in the exterior an impeccable sartorialist, he cannot help but hide beneath his mask. A tumultuous interior, a result of the hypocrisy and pretense of life in the city, plagues the man yet he refuses to expose his struggles. Listless eyes, drab lips, his defense mechanisms culminate in a tragic portrayal of contemporary sociology.
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