ZENG FANZHI (Chinese, B. 1964)
signed in Chinese; signed 'Zeng FanZhi' in Pinyin' and dated '2005' (lower right)
oil on canvas
250 x 170 cm. (98 1/2 x 67 in.)
Painted in 2005

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Eric Chang
Eric Chang

Lot Essay

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 displays the artist's dominant existential concerns and an ironic treatment in response to the atmosphere in his new contemporary urban life. 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. Painted in 2005, Untitled (Lot 30) is a portrait of a fastidiously dressed cosmopolitan standing solemnly in the center of a backdrop of blue sky and shadowy grassland in the foreground, built up in casual but rich layers of wash. His bright red suit contrasts strikingly against the blue background, he stands for a symbol of the middle class echelon of society; one penetrated by Western traditions and values. Gazing into the far distance, the man seems to be striking a pose before a beautiful backdrop, waiting for a camera to capture him in this setting yet he is not photographed but painted in portraitures of sorts. Zeng's approach to portraiture is not one of pure representation, but is a genre that is infused with emotional and existential conflict. 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. This existential image of a lone figure standing in nature, gazing absently off into the distance, symbolizes the sense of alienation and detachment triggered by the overwhelming rush to acquire and consume in modern day China.

Dominated by a luxurious red, the canvas in Untitled is typical of many of Zeng's early works but notably different in its usage. Red of course symbolizes the color of the revolution. In accordance to Chinese cultural traditions, the color red also stands as an allegory to prosperity and joy, as a dominant color linking the figures to each other; it is the color of collective success and celebration. Zeng's choice of these colors creates a vision of merit, happiness and achievement. At the same time, Zeng's deepens the emotional content of the image in his use of red, by revealing the character's mask-like, contemporary uniform -the red suit - that is symbolic of a specific history, but also allegorized desire, power and passion. The composition and subject of the painting evokes that of popular historical images, specifically evocative of the mass-produced images from the early years of the 1960s into the Cultural Revolution. The elevated status of the figures and the loftiness of their goals imply a kind of historical predetermination, a sense of destiny.

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).

The disclosure of the subject's face is a demonstration of Zeng's slow move towards comfort and emotional security in a new city such as Shanghai, a vastly expanding city of this very moment. In spite of the face's appearance, Zeng and the figure himself are not ready for complete and direct interaction with the world; with his eyes averted, the man's mind wanders far away into the distance. Despite the sense of movement in the grass depicted in the foreground, the face is motionless and his expression is static revealing to the viewer no more than a masked face would. Perhaps Zeng's inclusion of the red suit, like the red neckerchief depicted in his earlier Mask paintings, is a coy reminder of the subject's past, a survival of the communist years, one that the subject himself tries to escape by thriving in the middle class world. By the same token, it is equally possible that the man has been forced to conform to the worldwide standards of modern society and is uncomfortable in his own skin and thus is unable to visually confront the viewer. The flexible interpretation of Untitled is part of Zeng's appeal of wide audiences as the feeling of alienation and misfit is experienced by a variety of people of different generations and ethnicities.

The diverse cultural 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 material with Eastern traditions and culture to dialogue the economical, ideological and often painful social transformations of a burgeoning modern China.

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