(Chinese, B. 1964)
Mask Series: No. 10
signed in Chinese; dated '94' (lower right)
oil on canvas
148.5 x 128 cm. (58 1/2 x 50 3/8 in.)
Painted in 1994
Hanart T Z Gallery, Hong Kong, China
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Hanart T Z Gallery, Behind Mask: Zeng Fanzhi, exh. cat., Hong Kong, China, 1995 (illustrated, p. 14).

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Lot Essay

In the decades following the death of Mao Zedong and the liberalisation policies of Deng Xiaoping, China had undergone social, economic, and cultural changes on an unprecedented scale and pace. After decades of turmoil after the fall of the imperial system, brutal wars with Japan and its own Civil War, the nation under communism eventually became cutoff from the outside world, its fine arts beholden to propagandistic aims, its citizens subjected to the whims of political agendas. Into the 1980s and accelerating into the 1990s, China made yet another radical and tumultuous leap, now into the age of globalisation and consumption. Chinese contemporary art of this period is defined by those artists whose lives have paralleled these leaps, but who have also revealed the historical, personal and artistic paradoxes and pains of just such a transformation.

The evolution of the painter Zeng Fanzhi perfectly mirrors and highlights contemporary China's transformation. Zeng stands at the culmination of events and artistic advances in China, and he brings his responses to his environment into a dialogue with the history of art in the West. Mask Series: No. 10 (Lot 33) from 1994 is an important work bridging Zeng's early works with the series that defined the artist as well as the identity crisis of his generation. The mask has been a characteristic motif in Zeng's work, beginning with his move from Wuhan - a place where he had lived his entire life - to Beijing in 1993. n the more provincial Wuhan, Zeng had already produced two major bodies of work - his Meat and Hospital series - ambitious canvases that coupled Biblical tableaus with the banality and anonymity of everyday life in a highly bureaucratized state (Fig. 1). Zeng's figures and strokes were blunt and crudely evocative, paralleling the harshness of the environment and the psychological alienation of his subjects. Moving to Beijing in 1993, Zeng's art took an immediate creative turn; stripping his works of obvious social, historical or art historical clues, he focuses instead on highly personal symbolic systems and on the fraught psyche of individuals around him, and his engagement with representation, Chinese and Western art history, became all the more subtle and profound.

In these unfamiliar new surroundings, the creation of the Mask series insulated Zeng and allowed him to identify the kind of 'face' one was expected to show in polite society. The less desirable aspects of one's past or character could be concealed; one could become-or, more accurately-could present-a new person under the guise of a civilised mask. The strong juxtaposition of contrasting elements creates the greatest impact of the Mask series; the tailored bourgeois suits and fitted masks coupled with the engorged hands and glimpses of exposed sinews create a paradoxical image. Focusing now on highly-pressured urban lifestyles, Zeng began rendering human faces in a manner unprecedented in both Chinese and Western arts: portraits of masked figures and false facades.

Mask Series: No 10, painted in 1994, is one of the first significant works of Zeng's iconic series. In it we see two male figures, dressed in three-piece suits, their arms casually around each other's shoulders and waste in a gesture of friendship, as if caught in a candid moment or posing for a photograph. Their features though are hidden by the coarse lines and harsh grimaces of their masks. Shifted now away from the bureaucratised life of a provincial town, Zeng is surrounded by urbanities struggling to enact the role of the capitalist bon vivant . Their display of bonhomie and good cheer is undermined by their ill-fitting Western clothes, crude impersonations of more fashionable attire, the awkwardness of their gestures, and the raw flesh of their hands and features. These jarring juxtapositions are at the heart of Zeng's practice, and this early work mirrors Zeng's own struggle with adapting to this urban, capitalistic life, as can be seen in his self-portrait from the same period, as a strangely vulnerable dandified flaneur, replete with three-piece suit and walking stick.
While he has done away with the Biblical tableaus of earlier works, Zeng hones in on the history of portraiture to upend our expectations. Like Renaissance canvases or the soulsearching portraits of Rembrandt van Rijn, Zeng draws our attention to the hands and eyes of his figures (Fig. 2). But Zeng's light is not romantic or poetically dappled. Instead, his light is blunt, the flatness of the composition reinforcing the superficial features of the masks which, rather than allowing us to penetrate the psychology of the figures, reject our prying interest. The hands fall like unwieldy chunks of meat from the figures' arms, emphasising not their elegance and poise but their fundamental discomfort in their own skin. Zeng Fanzhi's Mask paintings have generally featured solitary figures. The rare canvases in which Zeng has composed multiply-figured compositions have been the occasion of a deepening and expansion of these core themes (Fig. 3). Here we have a two-figure composition, two men performing the casual conviviality of old friends, a stance that presages Zeng's magnum opus just two years later. His solitary figures suggest the psychic angst of the individual; with Mask Series: No. 10 we additionally have the tragedy of superficial surfaces and relationships, the great yawning distance between these two apparent friends, unknown to each other and themselves.

The tension and pathos of the work is heightened by Zeng's subtle and sophisticated engagement with both Western and Eastern approaches to painting. Zeng was heavily influenced by German Expressionists, and in the form of the mask too we can see some allusion to the works of the likes of James Ensor (Fig. 4). Ensor's masks suggested the debauchery of the carnival, the decadence of his times, as well as the specter of mortality and death. For Zeng however, the meaning of mask is clarified into one of psychological torment. These figures may be trying to convey a carnivalesque attitude, but this desired projection remains a poor fit. The mask then, as Zeng has stated, is about man's inability to connect not only with each other but with himself. Zeng has stated, "With masks, people keep a certain distance from each other, closing the path of really knowing another. When everybody is hiding their true selves and desires, what they show to us is in fact nothing but a mask." In this sense, the mask is all there is; any hidden depth is already lost to the wearer himself as he strains to embody the role of his projected self. The mask as a symbol then is one of profound psychic strain and alienation.

At the same time, in the tradition of great Chinese master painters, the unpainted spaces left upon the canvas and the lack of perspective or depth to an artwork were intentional pauses left within the composition by the artist, a dimension of interaction with the viewer wherein they could bring their own imagination to the work to 'fill' the space (Fig. 5). The 20th Century master Zao Wou-Ki likened these spaces to the intake of breath at the end of a sentence whilst reciting a sonnet. Zeng Fanzhi brings an aspect of this traditional concept to his works as we often find a featureless background whereupon the viewer is invited to imagine the space beyond. In this regard, Zeng Fanzhi achieves a unique merger of suggestive Western interpretation with Eastern tradition. An immediate and striking aspect of Zeng's Mask Series: No. 10 is the manner in which Zeng renders space. His works appear to be without perspective yet they are not entirely flat as they offer us a complete view - akin to the 360 degree angle of a panoramic camera - of the painted scene. In this regard, Zeng creates a new perspective that merges both Eastern and Western painting traditions (Fig. 6 & 7). The direct viewpoint coupled with the seemingly flat surface and suggestion of unknown space adds considerable power to its visual and emotional impact.

As an artist Zeng has always been strongly affected by both his emotional and physical surroundings and by the observations of human interaction. The diverse appeal of Zeng's art stems from his honesty, fragility and beauty in portraying his raw emotions and in expressing his thoughts upon a universally-shared trait; our recurrent human desire to appear other than as we are. His anomalous artworks consistently challenge the conceptual line between Western and Eastern art, blending Western artistic inspiration and paint with Eastern traditions and culture to create a personal dialogue on the economic, ideological and often painful social transformations a burgeoning, new modern China.

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