In 1992, Zeng Fanzhi confidently selected Hospital Triptych No. 2 to exhibit at the "First Guangzhou Biennial." The artist's expressionist
brushwork caught the eye of critics and ultimately received the Award of Excellence for his painting. The judges praised the painting saying "its narrative of 'saving' is an artifice for the true meaning which is the 'presence' of anxiety from being an outsider and alone." The artist seems to impartially observe the pain and suffering of others but is actually capturing the patients' anxieties regarding sickness and the impermanence of life. Anxiety underlies all of Zeng's paintings and has become the artist's raison d'être. Mask Series has become the most important series because the artist successfully conveys the consequences of urban life around him and people's constant desire for self-preservation.
Zeng Fanzhi's Mask Series spans from 1994 to 2002 and is considered
the artist's most important body of work painted when he was in his 30's. In the early 90's, Zeng moved to Beijing from his hometown, Wuhan, and began to learn the social customs of living in the big city. At first, the symbolism of the mask seems simple and direct, but there is an ambiguity present that imbues the series with a fascinating depth. The Mask Series captures the anxieties and alienation of city life that the artist was experiencing in Beijing at the time. This was reaction to China's burgeoning economy that impacted social life in the 90's causing people to use a "mask" to hide one's true feelings and to shield the individual from a larger group.
Painted in 1998, Mask Series 1998 No. 26 (Lot 119) is a mature and rare work from this series. When compared to earlier paintings from the same series, the colours are more vibrant and the lines exhibit control and restraint. We are not sure if the suited man is staring into a mirror or at a painting. All we see is the image of a man from the city leisurely walking a dog on the beach seeming to flaunt his comfortable life. It is lacking to interpret this work as only expressing the desires of the modern middle-class, but begs also the question "what are we willing to sacrifice of ourselves in exchange for a better life?" The mask is a symbol of modern man's loneliness and marks a generation of urban Chinese that are lost, anxious, and searching for who they are. When you compare Mask Series 1998 No. 26 with other works from the series, it becomes clear that this work has a deeper narrative and level of discovery that are emblematic of this series. Moreover, the subject matter encapsulates the essence of the series and is a portrait of China's rising middle-class in the 90's.
Many have traced the energy of this series to the discomfort Zeng felt upon moving to the capital. Zeng himself has said that, "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." As Zeng began to achieve success in his adopted city, he began to feel distance with the environment in which he had come of age. "I felt the material change in my life, but nobody [in my hometown] has changed in any way, my relatives and friends. Every year I go back to visit them and my own personal change and growth estrange me from them a bit."
The mask of course is a symbol of hiding, an effect that is heightened
formally by Zeng's use of a palette knife or scraper to flatten and thus accentuate the surfaces that cover his faces. His technical inspiration came from a few of the later paintings in his Meat Series, where he began to experiment with the palette knife. "I got the idea of painting a person wearing a mask with these techniques, a big one so that the effect would be obvious," he notes of his earliest Mask creations, of which the present lot is a prime example. Still, the attempt to hide away feelings and put on a "poker face" comes off as incomplete. Li Xianting noted that, "the overall effect is of people who are trying to suppress their emotions in order to appear calm—but are betrayed by their hands,which they are unable to conceal."
One thing most critics can agree on is that these early Mask works
derive their power from their understatement. While later versions
of the series would employ brightly coloured backgrounds and
large, sometimes theatrical, configurations of individuals, these
early works are explorations in simplicity: large swaths of
untouched canvas and figures left to stand alone in the gray void.
And it is against this fundamental emptiness that a micro drama of
individual existence plays out. And Zeng's work is nothing if not
individual. He has mused in public many times about his unwillingness
to continue with any particular style of painting—regardless
of its popularity with critics or collectors—beyond the point at
which his personal feeling for it dies out.
In the end, Zeng Fanzhi's art has assumed such power in the context
of contemporary China not simply because of its considerable
formal merits, but because this artist's story is that of so many of
the current new elite. Born into humble circumstances, they have
made their way through society with a rigid determination and tactical
savvy that often calls for the kind of self-concealment that
Zeng's paintings so poignantly depict. Zeng belongs to the second
generation to come of age after Reform and Opening, ever so
slightly distinct from the lionized '85 New Wave artists that came
before him. As critic Pi Daojian—a professor at the Hubei
Academy of Fine Arts during Zeng's student days, and among the
very earliest observers of his work—has noted, "[Zeng] started his
artistic activity from a higher place than the '85 Generation. He did
not need to think, as they did, about 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 just followed
his heart, using colour and line to express the difficulties and loneliness
of contemporary life."
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