Strikingly, in Portrait 08-1-5 a single vertical brushstroke morphs into a figure of a man, as his head and legs dissolve and evaporate into running paint drips and smears. Thus the present work becomes a poignant articulation of the binary between abstraction and figuration, as well as the inventive possibilities of the portraiture genre. Art historian Fabrice Hergott writes, “The power of Zeng Fanzhi’s work stems from this abstraction, from this way of showing an image and, as it evolves, the unreality of its foundations” (Fabrice Hergott cited in: Exh. Cat., Paris, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, Zeng Fanzhi, 2013-2014, p. 178). Yet in the present composition the wide brush marks that seem to trace through the figure seem to be pulling the head upwards, in a peculiar column of air that makes the figure’s hair stand on its end. This elusive visual effect is recurrent throughout Zeng’s repertoire, and might offer a metaphor, or an intricate allusion, of his sitter’s personal aspirations: “All the individuals that Zeng describes as having an ideal, as aspiring to a more exciting life, or having a more elevated image of the world are endowed with this upward pulling effect” (Henry Périer cited in: Ibid, p. 193).
Zeng grew up during the period of the Cultural Revolution in China and received training within the parameters of state-approved Socialist Realism. It was only in the 1990s that the artist’s visual language became uniquely his own, as he loosened his brushstrokes and exaggerated certain elements of his sitters’ physical bodies, most significantly their eyes and hands. This paradigm shift in the artist’s style directly mirrors the opening of China in the eighties and nineties, and Zeng’s entire repertoire, one could say, negotiates the notion of a country in a constant state of flux, and indeed the alienation of the individual within such strange geo-political circumstances. While it is easy to place Zeng’s work within the context of contemporary Chinese politics, the artist claims that his work is more deeply concerned with the personal and intimate experience of ordinary people in China: “In the last decade I became increasingly reliant on introspective representation. My sentimental fluctuation leads to the periodical differences among my works” (Zeng Fanzhi cited in: Op. Cit., n.p.). Zeng’s corpus transcends the sphere of contemporary Chinese art, for he is undoubtedly one of the most celebrated artists of our time; Portrait 08-1-5 offers an exceptional example of his renown, as well as the artist’s remarkable painterly skill and ingenious imagination.
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