Brent Wadden (b. 1979)
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Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964)

Mask Series No. 11

Details
Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964)
Mask Series No. 11
signed in Chinese and signed and dated in English ‘97 Zeng Fanzhi’ (lower right)
oil on canvas
58½ x 50 ¾in. (148.6 x 128.9cm.)
Painted in 1997
Provenance
ShangART Gallery, Shanghai.
Private Collection.
Anon. sale, Sotheby’s New York, 21 March 2007, lot. 12.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
Literature
Li Xianting and Feng Boyi, Zeng Fanzhi 1993-1998, Beijing 2004, p. 54 (illustrated in colour, p. 55).
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Lot Essay

‘In the mid-’90s, China was transforming very fast. Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties. 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, 3 May 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/03/arts/03iht-jessop.1.5546075.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, [accessed 12 May 2015]).

‘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).

Against a foreboding leaden sky, the twin protagonists of Zeng Fanzhi’s Mask Series No. 11 cling to each other amidst a field of yellow tulips. Painted in 1997, the work stems from the series of Mask paintings that propelled the artist’s rise to international acclaim during the early stages of his career. Representing his most important body of work to date, Zeng’s Mask paintings express his own feelings of isolation and alienation within the social, political and economic upheavals of Chinese culture during the 1990s. Tapping into the psychological anxiety of a country caught in the throes of radical transformation, the Mask paintings capture the increasingly prominent void between public and private. Whilst the figures’ enlarged hands pulsate with the visceral impulses of German Expressionism – an important influence on Zeng’s practice – their faces are concealed by white ectoplasmic masks, redolent of Chinese opera or Italian commedia dell’arte. Reduced to faceless archetypes, the figures in Mask Series No. II confront the viewer like cardboard cut-outs of human emotion: metaphors for a population disoriented by cultural change. ‘In the mid-’90s, China was transforming very fast’, writes Zeng. ‘Chinese officials started wearing suits and ties. 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, 3 May 2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/03/arts/03iht-jessop.1.5546075.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, [accessed 12 May 2015]). Flung together like puppets in a vast unknown landscape, Zeng’s entwined figures profess the fleeting superficiality of human relationships in a world hurtling towards globalisation.

Raised in the province of Wuhan during the final years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Zeng began his Mask paintings after moving to Beijing in 1994. It was here, in a city increasingly dominated by consumerist trends, that Zeng experienced the deep sense of solitude that would form the conceptual backbone of the series. He identified with individuals who felt ostracised by the city’s rapidly changing environment, as well as the obligation of social performance imposed on urban China’s aspiring cosmopolitans. ‘Because false faces exist, people cannot avoid the distance they create between each other’, Zeng explains. ‘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). The red neckerchief worn by the two figures in the present work has a significant autobiographical resonance for Zeng: at the height of the Communist regime, the scarf stood as an emblem of social acceptance – a coveted membership badge within a society governed by conformity. As a child, Zeng was not granted this exclusive item of clothing, and its subsequent prevalence throughout the Mask series may be interpreted as a symptom of his own deep-seated sense of alienation. The palette of the present work is also tinged with cultural overtones: according to Chinese tradition, red symbolised prosperity, joy and success, whilst yellow implied authority and royalty. Shades of these two colours dominate the Mask series, imbuing the works with an additional layer of façade: a celebratory gloss upon portraits of inner turmoil. Etched into his subjects’ skin, Zeng’s red paint becomes raw, bloodied flesh, veins bursting with psycho-somatic tension.

Following on the from Meat and Hospital series that had brought Zeng his earliest artistic accolades, the Mask series engages a complex dialogue between Eastern and Western visual traditions. As a student at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts, he had studied the work of the German Expressionists, and held particular admiration for Max Beckmann. As the artist recalls, ‘The biggest received experience was in using line, colour and form to express my response to a topic, form or emotion. I learned to utilize my emotion to produce a deep reflection upon a subject rather than making a painting that merely illustrated something’. Whilst the Meat and Hospital works had brought some of this training to bear upon his quasi-Biblical tableaus, it was upon arriving in Beijing that the artist first felt able to fully explore these techniques. ‘I felt Beijing was the place where I could create art and where my work would be taken seriously’, he has claimed. ‘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’ (Zeng Fanzhi, quoted in S. Kolesnikov-Jessop, ‘Zeng Fanzhi: Amid change, the art of isolation’, in The New York Times, 3 May 2007, http://www.nytimes. com/2007/05/03/arts/03iht-jessop.1.5546075.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0, [accessed 12 May 2015]). Like Francis Bacon’s visceral painterly impressions, Zeng’s rarefied depictions of human anatomy bringing the pulsations of the nervous system to the very surface of the flesh. Bringing a distinctly European sensibility to his depictions of national anxiety, Zeng captures the conflicted psyche of a population caught between two rapidly diverging worlds.

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