ZENG FANZHI (Chinese, B. 1964)
ZENG FANZHI (Chinese, B. 1964)

Mask Series 1997 No. 17

ZENG FANZHI (Chinese, B. 1964)
Mask Series 1997 No. 17
signed in Chinese; dated '97' and signed 'Zeng Fanzhi' in Pinyin (lower right)
oil on canvas
150 x 179.5 cm. (59 x 70 5/8 in.)
Painted in 1997
Private Collection, Asia
Hubei Art Publishing, i/We - The Painting of Zeng Fanzhi, Hubei, China, 2003 (illustrated, p. 125).

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Lot Essay

One of the challenges with painting lies in how to convey the immense depth and scope of history onto the canvas, and for it to progress with time and to encompass various visions and missions. Within the framework of contemporary art, the topic of "representation" for painting is no longer referring to mere superficial depictions; it also must embody intellectual theoretical significances and to reflect the spirit of the particular era. Zeng Fanzhi once said that, "Each of my paintings is a question being raised; they are questions about people; a series of questions about life and death. I've already predetermined this goal and direction in the year 1990, as I want to point out all the adverse situations that mankind is facing." Zeng left Wuhan for Beijing in 1993, and the relocation led him to a rapidly changing stage filled with an endless stream of various characters. The Mask Series created between 1994 to 2000 marks an important turning point in Zeng's artistic career, because he was able to directly face the specific features of the era, and to act like a spectator to analyze the state of human existence. With this series, he took on a more reserved approach than his former expressionistic ways, and created dynamic contrasts with colors juxtaposed against a cold and aloof ambiance of reality. The pressure and alienation felt by the artist during this period prompted him to transform the experiences onto the Mask Series, with the paintings derived from his continuous self-criticisms from being immersed in an unstable environment. The series is a projection of individual struggles in the contemporary urban setting.

There is an air of unusual anxiety emitted from Mask Series 1997 No. 17 (Lot 42), which adds a sense of mystique to the masked man. Zeng does not focus on portraying the scenery before the eye; rather, he strives to capture the back stories behind the fa?ade propelled by the intangible yet dominating force. The man in the painting is elegantly dressed, and is wearing a boutonniere with his shoulder-length hair neatly combed, as he walks on an unidentified path and seems to be in a pinnacle state of success. He is looking directly at the audience, with his exaggerated yet slightly clumsy hands draped against his body; he appears confident and is standing before an intriguing setting composed of a dense yet slightly murky sky, an expansive field with green speckles of soil, and a grey path. The person in the painting is dressed in a Western-style suit; Zeng has placed a mask on this person to represent the Chinese middle class under the false consciousness caused by strong cultural influences, and the need for presenting the personal point of view to suggest the era of urgent social changes he is facing, and the bewilderment provoked by the situation. The tight and strong mask is a metaphor for psychological emptiness and aloofness. Zeng once stated that the theme of the mask is used to "focus on the suspicion, jealousy, and misunderstanding between people in today's society, which are unavoidably forced onto people's mindsets nowadays. Masks are omnipresent in the contemporary society. Regardless whether you are trying to protect yourself or to deceit others, the true self is always concealed." Earlier pieces from Zeng's Mask Series are comparatively rawer, with emphasis on the mundane homogenized society and the superficial camaraderie. Zeng's Mask Series, created from 1994 to 2000, took on a more elegant look after 1997; from which, the Mask Series 1997 No. 17 is the most profoundly iconic representation of the entire series, and was created in the later stage of development of the series in 1997. The large canvas is depicted with one masked character, and the backdrop positions the character in a simple stage-like setting. In this particular piece, the character is no longer placed against a plain backdrop seen in the earlier works of the same series. The intentional use of the vast scenery projects an infinite expanse and gives the painting an elusive sense of space. Expanding on his earlier approach to the series, Zeng's palette in Mask Series 1997 No. 17, has become more sophisticated, his figure more elegantly composed, the setting more refined, and as a result, the canvas is infused with a higher degree of irony, suggesting that the capitalist consumerist society has liberated the individual to be a free agent of self-invention and self-representation, and Zeng's depiction of the lone individual emphasizes that this exchange of environment has only replaced one alienation with another, leaving one ultimately alone with his or herself. With the self projected as an impeccably successful image, a ceaseless pursuit is embarked upon to chase after the imagined, idealized, yet nonexistent self.

The character in Mask Series 1997 No. 17 has abnormally large hands and pink fleshy skin from the features and brushstrokes visible in Zeng's earlier works. However, a progression is evident in his artistic expressive approach. The technique of using a painting knife has softened his otherwise expressive lines. The super flat background smoothly blends together and pushes the character towards the viewer. At the same time, the viewer is extracted from reality and placed in a completely foreign setting, and is thus impelled to question his/her own state of reality. The nonchalant character in his mask propels the viewer's self-reflection, pushing the viewer to ponder whether the condition of the subject is shaped by the surrounding environment, or it is an intrinsic choice by humanity. Traditional portrait paintings are often depictions of human ideals, and are reflections of perfection that might not exist in real life. Zeng's Mask Series takes a contrary approach and attempts to use portrait paintings to reflect an unconscious psychological state in the speculators. Surpassing the common ideas of aesthetics, an intellectual contemplation pertaining to the given era is thus incited among the viewers.

Zeng's paintings involve layers of meaning influenced by both Western art history and China's sociopolitical history. Mask Series 1997 No. 17 is a painting of multiple meanings and connotations. Zeng invokes the figure of the cosmopolitan dandy, a contemporary fl?neur, or "gentleman stroller of city streets", which equally brings to mind the Andrew Wyeth's iconic painting, Winter (fig. 1), with the hill in the painting representative of the artist's father, and the man roaming aimlessly is the artist himself. Similar to Zeng's Mask Series 1997 No. 17, the unusual vantage point is symbolic of the artist's alienation. The flat quality exuded by Zeng's paintings exemplifies what David Hockney was attempting to describe with "surface is illusion, but so is depth" (fig. 2). At the same time, the image of Mask Series 1997 No. 17 is reminiscent of one of the most important paintings of the Cultural Revolution period, Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan (fig. 3). From the complex advent of European modernism to the Chinese revolution, subtle cues in all of these images, such as the lone figure standing in a Kantian state of self-reflection against a darkened sky, convey the possibilities of triumph during moments of profound shifts in culture. With themes spanning from portraits and abstract landscapes, Zeng instills the quotidian superficiality of shared experience in the rapidly changing landscape of contemporary Chinese culture within this societal flux. As such, Mask Series 1997 No. 17 is not a portrait in the traditional sense - Zeng's protagonist rather stands as a symbol of China's new social order, one that is corrupted by superficiality and false surfaces while revealing the tension between contemporary urban life and the artist's abiding existential concerns. Zeng explains, "I grew up in the environment of the Cultural Revolution and all these ideologies take a lot of space in my mind, but when I paint I just want to portray my inner feelings and the people around me." As such, with Mask Series 1997 No. 17, Zeng once again demonstrates his extraordinary insight into the shifting dynamics of his social environment, and the emotional and psychological strain it places on individual lives. The diverse cultural appeal of Zeng's art stems from his fragility, honesty, and beauty in portraying his raw emotions and in expressing his thoughts through an universally-shared trait; yet they are always interpretations and reflections of the artist's personal life and his own feelings, as they tell of loneliness and isolation, to dialogue the economical, ideological and often painful social transformations of a burgeoning modern China.

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