Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964)
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Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964)

Mask No. 3

Details
Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964)
Mask No. 3
signed and dated '95 Zeng Fanzhi' (lower right); signed in Chinese, titled and dated '95, Mask No. 3' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
58 7/8 x 50¾in. (149.5 x 129cm.)
Painted in 1995
Provenance
ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai.
Anon. sale, Christie's Hong Kong, 25 November 2007, lot 453.
Private Collection, France (acquired at the above sale).
Acquired from the above by the present owner in December 2009.
Exhibited
Beijing, CIFA Gallery, Central Academy of Fine Arts, Zeng Fanzhi Works 1993-1998, 1998.
Shanghai, ShanghART Gallery, Zeng Fanzhi Works 1993-1998, 1998.
Special notice
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Katharine Arnold
Katharine Arnold

Lot Essay

'In the mid-’90s, China was transforming very fast. Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties,’ he said. ‘Everybody wanted to look good, but it also looked a bit fake. I felt they wanted to change themselves on the surface, and these are the feelings that I represented in the earlier Mask series’ (Zeng Fanzhi, quoted in S. Kolesnikov-Jessop, 'Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation’, in The New York Times, May 3, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/03/arts/03iht-jessop.1.5546075.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, [accessed 1 September 2014]).

‘Because false faces exist, people cannot avoid the distance they create between each other. It is almost impossible to confide in each other as everyone hides their true nature, all of their desires, so that when they appear in public, the outer mask is all everyone sees’ (Zeng Fanzhi, quoted in B. Feng, Zeng Fanzhi 1993-1998, Beijing 1998).

Painted in 1995, Mask No. 3 stands as one of the earliest paintings from Zeng Fanzhi’s iconic Mask series. Zeng offers a vision of dapper young man, impeccably dressed, seemingly at the pinnacle of success. Dressed in an impeccable suit, his features are hidden behind an inscrutable mask. His true identity hidden behind a serene, pure white facade, it is the raw, reddened hands exposed below his cuffs that reveal his suppressed tension beneath the tranquil surface. The flesh is raw, throbbing and swollen, as though the outlet for repressed feelings that must find some inexorable venue for release. Zeng treats discreet areas of the flesh, around the mask or in the cumbersome and enormous hands, to add a psychological note. Capturing the zeitgeist of a young generation in modern China, the disguise becomes a poignant expressionist device offering a psychological, intense and vital means of painting.

Created at a time when China was in the throes of unprecedented socio-political changes, Zeng’s Mask series charts both a personal and country-wide attempt to adjust to a rapidly changing social landscape. Following Zeng’s move from the province of Hubei to Beijing in 1993, the artist struggled to connect with others and felt alienated in the throngs of the concrete jungle. Channelling his feelings of estrangement and solitude, Zeng developed the Mask series as a poignant reflection of his personal urban experience. As the artist recalled 'because false faces exist, people cannot avoid the distance they create between each other. It is almost impossible to confide in each other as everyone hides their true nature, all of their desires, so that when they appear in public, the outer mask is all everyone sees’ (Z. Fanzhi, quoted in B. Feng, Zeng Fanzhi 1993-1998, Beijing 1998).

As such, Mask No. 3 is not a portrait in the traditional sense. Here, Zeng has inverted the traditional tropes of portraiture - it is not based on verisimilitude, nor is the ‘face’ a window into the soul. Upsetting the traditional format of Western portraiture, the impenetrable, vacant expression is tainted with artifice, contrivance and fashionable affectation. Set against the muted grey tones, the figure’s impeccably pressed suit and gleaming, coiffed hair are sharply delineated, but provide no further insight into the identity of the mysterious figure. The perfected appearance renders the character aloof, even emotionally exempt. As the artist states, 'In the mid-’90s, China was transforming very fast. Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties,’ he said. ‘Everybody wanted to look good, but it also looked a bit fake. I felt they wanted to change themselves on the surface, and these are the feelings that I represented in the earlier Mask series’ (Z. Fanzhi, quoted in S. Kolesnikov-Jessop, 'Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation’, in The New York Times, May 3, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/03/arts/03iht-jessop.1.5546075.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, [accessed 1 September 2014]).).

A generation that witnessed China’s phenomenal transformation from Mao’s ideal Communism to urbanism, Zeng’s elusive protagonist stands as a symbol of superficiality inherent in the new conditions of consumerism. In the words of the artist, the mask paintings ‘focus on life in the modern environment and, due to the distrust, jealousy and misunderstandings between people, a state of mind that is unavoidably forced upon them. In today’s society, masks can be found in every place. It doesn’t matter if you are after protecting yourself, or you desire to deceive others, the true self will always be concealed.’ (Z. Fanzhi, quoted in L. Pi, Zeng Fanzhi 1993-1998, Beijing 1998, p. 84). Ultimately, Zeng’s psychologically penetrating Mask No. 3 expresses the emotional and psychological strain and pain experienced by a nation on the brink of major transformation.

Paradoxically it was the Mask series, which delved so intimately into Zeng’s feelings of solitude, that made this artist so popular. Having first established himself as an artist with his raw Meat and Hospital series, it was through the Mask set that the artist refined his practice. Later the artist would recall that ‘I felt Beijing was the place where I could create art and where my work would be taken seriously. In Wuhan, when people looked at work they would smile, and in their smile I could see they thought I was crazy. In Beijing they saw I was a person with ideas’ (Z. Fanzhi, quoted in S. Kolesnikov-Jessop, 'Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation’, The New York Times, May 3, 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/03/arts/03iht-jessop.1.5546075.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, [accessed 1 September 2014]).).

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