China, Macau, Contemporary Art Centre of Macau, FUTUROE Chinese Contemporary Art, 2000, p. 60
Much of the fascination of Zeng Fanzhi's works lies in the tensions that permeate them on many levels. Most immediately apparent is the contrast between the exuberance of the palette and/or paint-play, and the frequently angst-ridden subject matter. Within the subject, tension often derives from the obvious obscuring of the identity of the figures Zeng represents, and their seeming inability to reveal their true selves; and when more than one figure occupies the frame, their inability to connect with one another can be palpable. On yet another level lies the clash of the present with the past, played out in both subject and style. Mao (Lot 860) is a tight package of anguish and intensity. The Chairman's bust dominates—his facial contours are conveyed via the artist's bold yet faltering brushstrokes, as are the outlines that comprise an expressionist rendering of his suit. Save a supplement of grey swirls to his side, Mao broods in a space uninterrupted. A victim of his own childhood, one that is spent under Mao's reign and one that is met with its fair share of psychological ordeal, the artist has been granted an opportunity to nurture his natural propensity for introspection. Line and colour, when Zeng Fanzhi paints, are deployed not to achieve representation but to capture emotions. This portrait depicts the icon of modern China to an overstated exterior and amplified presence yet his eyes remain simple and steely in their gaze, reflecting an authority forever intact and unchallenged. A member of the nation that lived through the days of the Cultural Revolution, Zeng Fanzhi purges the trauma and torment of his own recent past by laying down on his canvas an image of the great helmsman, at once haunting and penetrating. Worthy of note is that the artist seldom ventures into the territory of politically charged subject matter, thus making Mao a bold undertaking as well as a rare specimen within his oeuvre.
Along with Mao, Untitled (Lot 863) was created during Zeng Fanzhi's transitional period, geographical as well as artistic, which has proved to be pivotal for all that is to follow. His migration from his hometown Wuhan to Beijing brought about his progression from the early Meat Series and Hospital Series to the eventual Mask Series. A study of the self is carried out in Untitled—a thematic strand that has always coursed furiously through the artist's creative voyage. The mirror, a motif that Zeng toyed with most probably for the first time and that would come to resurface again and again in his oeuvre in an increasingly distilled manner, is wielded to visually coagulate the artist's intent. Along with the inclusion of the mirror is the complementary motion of the protagonist's gentle stroking of his own face, hesitant yet earnest, in a desperate search for his own identity. An alternative portrait (of the artist himself?), the painting is executed in a binary of reds and greys so that the viewer's contemplation shifts away from the signifiers and onto the signified, the struggle of the psyche.
Upon his move to Beijing, Zeng Fanzhi is confronted with the task of adapting into his art the issues and underlying currents of contemporary Chinese society, such as the unavoidable topic of urban economics. The transformation that overwhelmed China in the 1990s was nothing short of dramatic: most notably, urbanization and the rise of commercialism and a 'socialist market economy' took precedence over all other aspects of society. The existence of living contradictions in contemporary China—a socialist, collective identity at odds with the newly formed individual identity —foster a strange and turbulent atmosphere, rooted in tradition, yet determined to evolve. During the Mao years, young people moved to the countryside to learn from the peasants, but with the end of the Cultural Revolution, China's cities became over populated with these same peasants looking for jobs and opportunities. Though Mao had championed the farmers and peasants as the beacon of Chinese communism, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, these peasants had become displaced and in their place, the young urbanite arose, secularized, fashionable, and savvy. The concept of self, of creating an identity in a rapidly growing urban landscape, ruled by the omnipresence of mass media and digital electronics, becomes urgent. This, undoubtedly, challenges Maoist philosophy of the social self, a piece and part of the collective, working of the collective good. The masked figures in Zeng's Mask Series emerge under this atmosphere, in hopes of grappling with the dilemma of self-expression, and while their clothes and their mannerisms may put them apart, they are inherently a representation of every Chinese person, living in post-cultural revolution and post-Deng era China.
Through the body of Mask Series works, 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, troubled, less accepted. 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 masks in these paintings. In Mask Series No. 4 (Lot 862), two men sit next to each other in a configuration that would suggest a certain level of friendly engagement between them, yet a gentle concealment of their real faces immediately destabilizes the equilibrium. The distance between the two, originally negligible, has been indefinitely magnified. Executed in the very first year of the seven-year spell spent investigating and cultivating the Mask Series, the painting hails from a time during which the artist was his most internally tumultuous and socially tortured. It was Zeng Fanzhi's initial burst of painted agony—an expression of his personal response to the threatening forces of contemporary society. Created in the same year, Mask Series No. 19 (Lot 861) presents a figure impeccably dressed in a Western suit, flanked by a scrawny greyhound. A gentleman's best companion, the dog is a marker of wealth and social standing in Western society, a custom that is slowly infiltrating the impressionable Chinese nation. He, or rather, his mask is screaming in anguish, an act incongruous to his sitting casually on a stool against a hint of a background. A dialectic between internal upheavals and external restrictions characterizes the apparatus, inciting profound disquiet and uneasiness in any viewer thrust into commiseration or sympathy.
In a publication featuring Mask Series, critics speculated on the series and its origins. Not surprisingly, it was the venerated Chinese curator Li Xianting who offered the first extended interpretation of this series, in a 1995 essay entitled "Life Masks: Symbol and Expression in the Recent Paintings of Zeng Fanzhi." His interpretation still holds power today:
"The masks become the focal point of the paintings. The qualities of detachment and rationalism are particularly achieved through a change in technique. Rather than the bold, expressionistic strokes and neurotic patterning of Zeng's first period, the artist now uses the palette knife to scrape the surface flat, blurring or even obliterating the brushstrokes. The flat background that emerges is at the same time both shadowy and insubstantial. There is a sense of suspension between reality and unreality, accentuated by the presence of unexplainable shadows and traces of light coming from nowhere, pushing the characters into an alien environment and eradicating the intimate quality of familiar reality."
Li's essay goes on to compare the early Mask Series to Chinese ink painting, seeing the way the artist chose to render the clothes of his new figures, a reference to an earlier style of brushwork, as well as an implicit response to the more explicitly expressionist styles Zeng had embraced in his post-student days. "There is an added element of composure, and even of elegance," notes Li, claiming that the neurotic tone of works like the earlier Hospital Triptych has all but disappeared. Of course no one knew at this point in Zeng's career that these sparse background paintings would be just one phase in a trajectory that would soon move on to several other expressionist styles. At that moment, Zeng's departure from the raw scenes of his early career seemed absolute.
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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