One of the greatest challenges with painting is how to render profoundly a segment of history onto the limited canvas space and to further allow the work to project different ideals and missions as time progresses. Under the parameter of contemporary art, the issue of "represented reality" in painting is no longer restricted to the portrayal of immediate images; it must also embody intellectual theoretical context and reflect the ethos of the time. As an iconic Chinese contemporary artist, Zeng Fanzhi's artworks are depictions of the social reality and collective destiny that the generation of post Cultural Revolution intellectual youth are facing. The artist has keenly observed that the issue pertaining to "survival" is cruel yet common, which has inspired his earlier Hospital series. After Zeng left Wuhan for Beijing, his Mask series created from 1994 to 2000 has come to mark an important turning point in his artistic career. He has deliberately held back his previous expressionist style and opted to use strong contrasting colours to express a cold reality. The conflict is derived from the artist's sense of alienation and his attempt to adapt to a new environment. His self-struggles and confrontations are transformed into visual allegories, which have come to form Zeng's unique art vocabulary.
The Mask Series (Lot 31) is comprised of two masked men sitting adjacently behind a round table with a blue sky backdrop. The blue sky in Zeng's work is painted with a surrealistic approach, and it is almost impossible to determine whether it is the scenery outside the window or it is another painting. The uniformed mask is a representation of a symbolic portraiture, which annuls the identities of the characters, as the notion of the other is individually alienated and estranged, and ultimately silenced amidst the masses. However, the depiction of the hands remains as a clue that reveals the personalities of the characters and also the internal state of the artist, albeit the distanced and disaffected feeling projected by the painting. The emotions expressed are of anxiety and oppression for being in a communist social system.
There is an unusual air of tension in this painting, which adds to the mystique of the masked men. Zeng is not merely focused on illustrating the scenario; his objective is to capture the anonymous yet commanding force behind the veneer of things, which is analogous to the message behind Western art virtuoso Lucian Freud's painting: Through the historical heritage of the painting itself, the collective subconscious of each era is thus unveiled. This portrayal holds similar meaning as Magritte's La condition humaine (Fig. 1); they are both questioning what's before the eye, and hope to discover the truth after thorough contemplation. Through the meticulous arrangement of the characters and composition, the connection and dialogue Zeng has conducted with history make the created in the later period even more profound and significant.
The man depicted on the left of the painting is looking directly at the audience, and with a quill in hand, he seems to be ready to fill the blank pages before him on the desk. The other man dressed in a red suit and green tie positioned at the right side of the painting is in a higher position and is pointing at the book sternly and authoritatively. Upon analysis of the characters portrayed, the man holding the quill pen symbolizes wisdom and the unbounded freedom and absolute power that a creator holds; this masked character is the manifestation of Zeng, and with this evidence of the artist's presence on scene, it makes this painting synonymous to a self-portrait. Western classical master painters, such as Velázquez and Rembrandt, have all included images of themselves on their important masterpieces (Fig. 2 & 3). This implication of placing an image of the self in his painting is rarely seen in Zeng's art, and thus it demonstrates that this painting is one of the more iconic and critical works from the entire Mask series.
The other man depicted in the painting wearing a suit and tie is representative of the image of the bourgeois, decadent and corrupt, based on the social cognition of the old Chinese society. The juxtaposition of the two characters shows the artist being confident and unperturbed and is looking fearlessly forward. Next to the well-dressed and aggressive looking man, the message the artist is trying to convey is that in the midst of hardship, he is determined not to give in to compromise and will remain poised and focused in creating art. Flemish painter Marinus van
Reymerswaele depicted precisely in his painting, Two Tax Gatherers (Fig. 4), the scenario of two corrupt government officials collecting wrongful dues. In this piece by Zeng, he has further illustrated the struggles and confrontations between the individual and the system.
After the "85 New Wave Movement," Chinese contemporary art has shown multifarious developments, and this could be traced to artists of Zeng's generation, for their perseverance to overcome the confusion and struggle while standing at the crossroads of the new era, and to open up the learning and exploration of Western modern art concepts. Using painting as the sole medium, political pop and cynical realism have become the most eyecatching representation of art in this day and age, which have constituted a critical context comprised of self-parody.
This phenomenon has unveiled the prelude of Chinese contemporary art and has become the commonly familiar and accepted face of the era. The Mask Series is a response to the state of emptiness in the society arising from the countless self-oppressions that have occurred in the shared times. It is a seemingly harmonious facade that is filled with never-ending bewilderment and anxiousness, and is at the verge of a nervous breakdown. Zeng has successfully used this theme to be a part of this era, but has also kept a distance from reality. Through his art, he has calmly pointed out the irony embodied by this generation.