Zeng Fanzhi belongs to a group of artists who pioneered contemporary art in China, developing new expressive forms and providing critical insights into the radical changes taking place around them. Born after the founding of the People's Republic of China, trained under the rigorous Socialist Realist style, and coming of age during the tumultuous transitions in the post-Mao period, these artists were able to draw upon their training and experiences to thoroughly redefine face of Chinese art.
From the start, Zeng has been heavily influenced by his physical and emotional circumstances. Zeng's first mature series was his "Hospital Series", inspired by the scenes he witnessed in the local clinic near where he lived. At the same time, as an art student, Zeng studied German Expressionism, and the preponderance of social upheaval and intensely felt emotion, against a backdrop of social upheaval, had resonance in his own life.
Hospital Series -- Seeing Patients is a rare canvas from this historic series; painted in 1992, Zeng offers a quotidian moment between a nurse and a patient. The work is painted in primitive, nativist style. The features of the two figures are both exaggerated and simplified. The subject and title of the work is reminiscent of public works of the communist era, typically scenes of uplift and edification, displaying the idealism, heroicism and self-improvement supposedly inherent to the masses. Zeng's treatment of the subject is lightly deconstructive while also offering a much more raw, intimate and humanistic vision that one would find in its Socialist Realist corollary. The figures appear in a cramped and almost vertiginous composition with a casual, almost distracted intimacy between them. There is no indication of the seriousness of the encounter, and indeed the overall mood of the painting is one of a sustained numbness. The figures feature over-sized, vein-ridden hands characteristic of Zeng's later paintings – a detail that points to the artist's fundamental interest in the psychological depths and existential concerns that lie under the surface of everyday encounters. In this deliberately anti-climatic scene, Zeng channels the visual culture of the communist period, while quietly reworking it based on his own psychological perceptions; it is in this subtle shift away from the programmatic and towards the personal that ushered in the historical emergence of the Chinese contemporary avant-garde.