‘Traditional Chinese painters started by imitating their masters from a young age, learning the rules of painting by studying the manuals of painting. To paint bamboo, one first mastered the techniques in the manuals before going into nature to observe. To be a great artist, the old rules must be transcended, and new rules established by one’s own experiences, observations, and inner perceptions’
Simmering with intensity, a young man stares forth from the raw canvas of Zeng Fanzhi’s Untitled (2003). His skin gleams in rich, fleshy paint, with the slick texture of the artist’s distinctive wet-on-wet technique; dragged upwards from his face and dripping from the hems of his unfinished trousers, the medium asserts itself as an elemental physical substance. Zeng’s highly-wrought rendering carries an Expressionist quality of psychological force, amplified by the man’s exaggerated features – the oversized hands and head are typical of Zeng’s work – yet made enigmatic through his deadpan demeanour. The artist’s internationally acclaimed Masks series of the 1990s explored the emotional distancing and self-deceptions of Chinese urban living through the motif of the mask, with fixed, artificial countenances hiding the faces of his subjects. Similarly, the present work uses clothing as an index of roles performed in society. The tie, not widely worn in China until the growth of the private sector during the economic reform of the 1980s, is a signifier of capitalist aspiration; the double-breasted blazer conveys similar sartorial pride, but undercuts these associations with the blazing, insistently communist red of the Cultural Revolution. The hazy green scenery behind, meanwhile, seems to make watery reference to Monet’s Expressionist bridges and lily-ponds as much as to traditional Chinese xieyi landscape painting. Informed by a period of rapid and immense change in China’s society, this vivid cocktail of allusions and styles is worked in a pictorial idiom that is entirely Zeng’s own, capturing the unique tensions, contradictions, anxieties and vitality of contemporary Chinese existence.
Admitted to the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts in 1987 at the age of 23, Zeng’s early artistic training taught him the propagandist Soviet style of Socialist Realism; he also became interested, however, in Expressionism, and in 1991 began work in China’s dawning advertising industry. ‘I was obsessed with Willem de Kooning,’ he says of this period; ‘I’d never seen his work in person, only in reproduction, but I was obsessed with his brushwork. I also loved Max Beckmann’s figures. There’s something very theatrical, grotesque, and dynamic about them. And Francis Bacon’s distortions of the figure. They were all hugely influential to me as a young artist. Later I also saw Lucian Freud’s portraits, which instantly left me transfixed. The eyes of his subjects show an interiority that came to me like an epiphany … No one could teach me anymore so I found my own teachers’ (Zeng Fanzhi, quoted in P. Bui, ‘Zeng Fanzhi with Phong Bui,’ Brooklyn Rail, 9 December 2015).
During the early 1990s Zeng produced his groundbreaking Hospital and Meat series in a wild concoction of these influences, bringing tactile emotional vigour to visions of Chinese life inspired by his own experiences at a local clinic and butcher shop. He magnified his figures’ hands and eyes, and also began to use red for its bodily and political drama, approaches which both find their way into Untitled. ‘I used red because I found it stimulating and provocative,’ he says. ‘Beyond flesh and blood, the color red also has a sense of political correctness. Red could also be the color of skin. I painted skin, flesh, and blood together in the same red’ (Zeng Fanzhi, quoted in P. Bui, ‘Zeng Fanzhi with Phong Bui,’ Brooklyn Rail, 9 December 2015). As his practice evolved – through the Masks series to later works that reinterpret famous Western masterpieces and explore Chinese calligraphy – this direct attention to the raw power of paint as a medium has remained constant, his swift application methods and large-scale compositions requiring unswerving commitment to what he calls ‘the natural flow of thoughts and feelings’ (Zeng Fanzhi, quoted in U. Sigg, ‘“Chineseness” – Is There Such a Thing?’ in Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection, exh. cat. Kunstmuseum Bern, 2005, p. 54). This dedication to paint allows a syncretic union of Chinese and Western influences that explores both specific and universal concerns. For all the emotional presence and societal potency of his portraits, however, Zeng’s art is introverted, and his own thoughts and feelings ambiguous. Even as every brushstroke reveals his subject, paint acts also to obscure internal truths, constructing its own reality on the surface of the canvas: like a picture of civilisation at large, the result is an image made compelling, mysterious and dazzlingly alive with what lies beneath.