Hailing from a difficult childhood, despite the auspices of a loving mother, Zeng's humble beginnings in Wuhan saw him cast in the role of a shy outsider, a child that was never fully understood and therefore socially segregated in a parochial town. As he matured, Zeng found a medium through which to release his grievous experiences by channeling his developing passion for art. His strongest inspiration were the expressionist works of German and Dutch artists such as Willem De Kooning and Max Beckmann, whose rich palette and broad brushstrokes can clearly be mirrored in Zeng's earlier works.
In Diving (1994) (Lot 826) the rendering of human flesh alone is filled with emotion. Strong lines contour the body and define muscles to nearly resemble a study of the human form. The reflection of the light on the undulating water is caught with equal precision. As the diver touches the water a splash can be heard together with the fresh sensation of cool seawater on the body. Zeng already demonstrates in early works such as Diving to possess an unusual depth and maturity for a young artist. And it is evident to see the progression from this period into the Mask series through the blazing colour and rough texture that Zeng continues to use in the portrayal of human flesh. Clearly the exposed emotions of the early works are now concealed, yet visibly and reluctantly dormant, in the Mask series.
A characteristic motif in Zeng's paintings for over seven years, the Mask series first emerged when Zeng moved from Wuhan to Beijing in 1993. In these unfamiliar new surroundings, the creation of the Mask series insulated Zeng and allowed him to identify the kind of 'face' one was expected to show in polite society. The less desirable aspects of his past or character could be concealed; he could become - or, more accurately, he could present - a new person under the guise of a civilized mask. The strong juxtaposition of contrasting elements creates the greatest impact of the Mask series; the tailored bourgeois suits and fitted masks coupled with the engorged hands and glimpses of skinned flesh with exposed sinews create a paradoxical image.
In Mask Series 1997 No.3 (Lot 824) an androgynous figure sits at a table on which he rests his elbows. He holds his head up with one hand reflecting with his body language the pensive mood the facial mask is expressing. If it is rare to encounter figures from the Mask series sitting or communicating emotion through their bodies, it is even more exceptional that the individual's mask mirrors the face that lies beneath. The background, normally plain, here in strong primary colours of red and yellow creating an immediate and strong visual impact, takes on a theatrical setting, indicating the importance of the backdrop to the story. Every element looks modern, perhaps reflecting what the character is thinking so intently about. He seems perplexed by the modernity of his fast-changing country, which accentuates even further, especially in big cities, the loneliness of individuals. Zeng is not poking fun, but rather sympathizing with all those people forced to wear masks.
As an artist Zeng has always been strongly impacted by both his emotional and physical surroundings and by the observations of human interaction. The evolution of his works post-Mask series continue to aesthetically and intellectually challenge the viewer, bordering on abstract and breaking the boundary between image and background.
The choice of Andy Warhol (Lot 825) and Handshake - Mao and Kissinger (Lot 827) is not casual. In his new series, Zeng purposely picks iconic images of individuals or events, which he then distorts dressing them with his latest 'mask'. Here Zeng transforms the mask into an abstract form of lines squiggling chaotically throughout the canvas, achieved by using at the same time two brushes of different dimensions. Andy Warhol in particular holds an important message. As the artist who became famous for his repetitive portrayal of celebrities and high-society, turning the artist himself into one of them, he represents what Zeng despises. Warhol wears the ultimate mask; the image is so disturbed that the artist is hardly recognizable; he seems an illusion under the swerving brushstrokes.
In Handshake - Mao and Kissinger Zeng re-creates a famous historical event that rekindled diplomatic relations between China and the United States in the 1970s. Both Mao and Kissinger are equally covered in frantic brushstrokes, which get more intense on the eye level, where the two men's looks meet, as to symbolize the strength of emotions in that moment. Very somber colours such as deep blue, gray and black add solemnity to the handshake.
After concentrating for long periods on figurative work, Zeng feels the need to cleanse his emotions, leaving his mind free to roam on the canvas. Untitiled (Lot 828), painted before Andy Warhol and Handshake - Mao and Kissinger, perfectly exemplifies a stage of complete abstraction. It is a painting of the early phase in this latest style, yet the controlled chaos strikes a perfect balance, in a similar way to the works of Jackson Pollock. Blues and reds take over the canvas, forming a surreal landscape where colors are inverted.
The diverse cultural appeal of Zeng's art stems from his honesty, fragility and beauty in portraying his raw emotions and in expressing his thoughts upon a universally-shared trait; our recurrent human desire to appear other than as we are. His anomalous artworks consistently challenge the conceptual line between western and eastern art, blending western artistic inspiration and paint material with eastern traditions and culture to dialogue the economical, ideological and often painful social transformations of a burgeoning modern China.