Few Chinese painters can boast of careers with the breadth and complexity of Zeng Fanzhi. Of the wealth of Zeng Fanzhi's varied oeuvre, Mask Series No. 26 is an exceptional example from Zeng's most celebrated series.
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. From his earliest days as a student in the oil painting department at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts, Zeng was inspired by German Expressionism, employing its exaggerated and grotesque forms to explore the psychic and physical pain of everyday life. Arriving in the relatively cosmopolitan Chinese capital in the early 1990s, Zeng was overwhelmed by the anxiety and alienation felt in such a fast-paced urban environment. With his Mask series, Zeng questions the gap between public and private truth and the honesty of expression in modern Chinese society. He exposes the psychological torment felt by those compelled into new social roles.
Although the figures' postures suggest tranquility, closer attention to their hands complicates the psychological portrait. The over-sized proportion of the hands reminds the audience of the artist's control. The artist's palette knife literally scrapes them raw and the grotesque imbalance is unsettling. In Mask Series No. 26, Zeng depicts the existential crisis facing his generation. His works capture not only the painful gap between internal emotions and external appearances, but also the loss that occurs when a society is increasingly seduced by surface realities. In other works, the serene, cool repose of the mask hides the figures' faces. In this example, it would seem that the masks in fact reveal an inner psychological state. However, the theatricality of the figures' poses simultaneously implies that their anguish is itself a kind of posturing, as if the figures themselves are no longer in touch with their inner selves, and their pain is just another fashionable affectation.
Zeng has stated, "False faades is a theme I have worked on for several years now. The paintings are about real people. I exaggerate and embellish the figures to emphasize the falsity of forced intimacy and laughter. The group portrait aspect of the composition, the theatrical arrangement of the space, and the array of masked expressions create the effect of characters performing on the stage. Because false faces exist, people can not avoid the distance they create between each other. It is almost impossible to confide in each other as everyone hides their true nature, all of their desires, so that when they appear in public, the outer mask is all everyone else sees" (Z. Fanzhi cited in L. Pi, Zeng Fanzhi 1993 - 1998, Beijing 1998, p. 13).