As the urban landscape of Beijing is transformed by the 2008 Olympic Games, the creations of Chinese avant-garde artists from the 1990s seem all the more extraordinary and prophetic. It was during this time that many mainland Chinese artists' works grew in sophistication and maturity. This deepening of the cultural scene took place across all media, with artists producing critical insights into the rapidly changing culture and society around them. Painters in particular tended to expand on their academic training in realism, observation and focus on the figure, using this training as the basis for an investigation into the shifting realities around them. Beijing-based artist Zeng Fanzhi's iconic Mask series from this period anticipate the psychological crisis and materialist values to come as the country embarked on its breathtaking path towards modernization.
Arriving in the relatively cosmopolitan Chinese capital in the early 1990s, Zeng began to focus instead on the psychological strain of individuals in rapidly changing urban settings. Zeng himself was overwhelmed by the anxiety and alienation felt in such a fast-paced environment, fascinated by the anxieties of social performance imposed on urban China's aspiring cosmopolitans. With his Mask paintings, Zeng began to question the ironic gap between public and private truth, the honesty of emotional expression in modern Chinese society, exposing the psychological torment felt by those compelled into new social roles.
In this unusual work from 1998, Zeng's male protagonist is - typically - alone, fastidiously if not flamboyantly dressed, his flesh treated in tones evoking raw meat, and his eyes and facial expression obscured by a cool, inscrutable mask. He edges into the mirror as if hesitant to confront his own image, and his hands, usually a telling site of expression in Zeng's paintings, are notably hidden in his pockets in a gesture of casual defensiveness. The mirror is a potent metaphor underlying Zeng's dominant themes of alienation and performance, and the lone figure's appreciation for his own performance, his interiority tragically remote even in private, points to the artist's sophisticated insight into the spiritual crisis of his generation.