From the earliest stages of his career, Zeng Fanzhi's paintings have been marked by their emotional directness, the artist's intuitive psychological sense, and his carefully calibrated expressionistic technique. His earliest "Hospital" and "Meat" series, painted in the early 1990s, while the artist was still in provincial Wuhan completing a degree in painting, displayed his inherent humanism and sympathy with the daily existence of those around him. Moving to the more cosmopolitan Beijing in the early 1990s, Zeng's art displayed an immediate shift, responding to his immersion in a more superficial environment, his seminal "Mask" series displaying the tensions between the artist's dominant existential concerns and an ironic treatment over the pomposity and posturing inherent to his new contemporary urban life. Throughout, Zeng's expressionistic techniques run counter to such techniques' conventional usage. That is, Zeng's representation of raw, exposed flesh or awkwardly over-sized hands is not an attempt at pure emotional expression, but instead a play against the superficially composed appearances of his subjects, an ironic treatment of emotional performance as a metaphor for a lost self, of stunted self-realization.
This stylization of emotion becomes more pronounced as Zeng's works evolved into his so-called "behind the Mask" paintings of the early 2000s. In 2002's Untitled portrait, Zeng reveals a fastidiously dressed cosmopolitan standing solemnly in the center of a tastefully gray canvas, built up in casual but sensual layers of wash. His arms relaxed at his side, his brow slightly furrowed, he engages the viewer with his intense gaze. This however is not an unmediated engagement, as the figure appears in a trompe l'oeil frame-within-a-frame at the center of the canvas. He appears then as if assessing himself within a mirror, or perhaps we are viewing a portrait of a portrait, mediated by Zeng's own layered re-interpretation. The imposed frame then reinforces Zeng's approach to portraiture as not one of a pure representation, but as a genre he's infused with emotional and existential conflict. Zeng adds a wash of vertical calligraphy, and even signs his painting-within-a-painting in the traditional Chinese manner, further highlighting his subject as one with gentlemanly and literary aspirations. At the same time, he is resolutely alone and isolated, his fixed gaze at odds with the cool, restrained and ethereal canvas that almost prevents him from fully realizing his own material existence. Instead, he is still locked in a representation of himself.
As Britta Erickson has written, the arc of Zeng's career follows the personal and psychological challenges facing his generation in the post-Mao years of reform, modernization, and consumerism. "If we consider Zeng Fanzhi's developing oeuvre as reflective of a psychological journey, where does that journey lead? Ten years ago the protagonists in his paintings were helpless victims inhabiting an illogical world. Next, they donned masks to participate in a realm of urban flaneurs sharing superficial relationships. Now the masks are off and the protagonists are utterly alone, stripped to raw flesh and dissolving. Having abandoned pretense, can they now rebuild a sense of self?" (B. Erickson, Raw Beneath the Mask, Yinghuazhi 2001).