Among the highlights of the collection of Howard and Patricia Farber is the magnificent self-portrait by the artist Zeng Fanzhi from 1996. The genre of the self-portrait has always been one of the most intriguing forms in art history. Whatever else an artist might create in a career, self-portraits are occasions where artists turn their practice on themselves, offering critical insight into how they want to be viewed, their self-representation revealing essential aspects of their art practice and worldview.
Moving to Beijing in 1993, having already completed an extraordinary body of work with his Meat and Hospital series paintings, the artist would soon embark on his most iconic series, the Mask paintings. Begun in 1994, these paintings display Zeng's interest in the psychological impact modernization was having on himself and his contemporaries, the alienation and loneliness that resulted from the compulsion to perform in an increasingly diverse range of social venues. Painting mostly men in fashionable "Western" attire, these figures' raw and tortured flesh is barely hidden behind the inscrutable expressions of their masks.
At the height of this series, Zeng has painted a full-figured self-portrait, the mask removed and his features fully revealed. He stands casually in slacks, blue t-shirt, red scarf and a long open trench coat, one hand by his side, the other with his thumb hooked in his pants' pocket. The red scarf has multiple associations in Zeng's oeuvre. It appears in a famous self-portrait of Max Beckman's in 1917, an artist who greatly influenced Zeng in his formative years. At the same time, the red scarf signified membership to the elite group of Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and, for Zeng, references deep-seated feelings of being an outsider.
It was the badge of membership in a society governed by rigid conformity was immeasurable. Zeng was not granted a red neckerchief as a child; an action which has clearly resounded upon his adult psyche as a large number of his subjects throughout the Mask series bear this symbol of belonging. It appears again in the masterful eight-figure diptych painted that same year, where the bright optimism of the palette and the apparent shared membership to a group, signaled by the red scarf, is at odds with the men and women's over-sized hands and forced hard-edged expressions. The red scarf in Zeng's self-portrait therefore has a dual meaning, signaling the artist's conflicting desires - to embody the elite status of bohemian, avant-garde artist and social commentator in the mode of Beckman (an association further underlined by the white, dandyish painter's smock that he wears), and, simultaneously, to no longer feel as an outsider among his peers.
Unlike the more restrained palette of his self-portrait from just one year prior, or the relentless optimism of Zeng's diptych, his self-portrait from 1996 features a more restrained, carefully calibrated palette, indicating the artist's transition from the severity of his earlier works to the ironic, deliberately superficial pop color choices that would follow. In this canvas, Zeng juxtaposes a somber ochre background with the bold, blood red of the watermelon at his feet and scarf around his neck, which is further echoed in the modeling of his hands and features in raw, fleshy tones.
Watermelons are a mysterious motif in Zeng's career, appearing periodically in large and small canvases. In China, they are the ubiquitous indulgence of summer -- sweet, refreshing, and cheap -- universally enjoyed but perhaps especially associated with laboring classes. Chopped, splayed, and discarded at the artist's feet, they evoke the mundane brutality of Zeng's earlier Meat paintings. The artist stands nearly life-size, surrounded by these abandoned rinds, further signs of his ironically triumphant passage to a new stage in his life and career, referencing perhaps the humble origins that he has left behind to establish himself as an independent artist in cosmopolitan Beijing.
Zeng typically has left the backgrounds of his Mask paints empty and flat, to highlight both the artificiality of the scene and the alienation inherent to the sitter. Here Zeng stands before an acid field of color, delineated by a shallow horizon line. This deliberate flatness is accentuated by the unusual calligraphic inscriptions surrounding the figure. This compositional form, the solitary, heroic figure standing surrounded by calligraphy of the artist, appears to be a direct quotation of a famous self-portrait by the 19th century artist Ren Xiong. In his extraordinary and unusual image, the artist depicts himself as a kind of warrior-monk, his finely modeled features juxtaposed against the highly stylized figuration of his robes, drawn more from Japanese rather than Chinese ink painting traditions. Ren was active in Hangzhou and the Shanghai region at a time when the region had come under increasing influence of colonial powers. These radically juxtaposed techniques suggest the conflicted identity of the artist, which is revealed further in his inscription, where he describes the cultural anxiety felt at the time.
Zeng's portrait then reveals not only his artistic but philosophic kinship with the earlier work, his career already fundamentally an investigation into the anxiety experienced at a time of enormous and rapid social and cultural change. The most astonishing aspect of Zeng's self-portrait, at the height of the Mask series, is his removal of the mask for the purpose of his own self-presentation. Where the Masks served as a literal and metaphorical purpose, symbolizing the failure of individuals to reveal themselves to each other, the removal of the mask does not necessarily affect a revelation of Zeng Fanzhi's character and personality. Instead, his self-portrait is akin to the conceptual photography of Cindy Sherman, whose use of her own self-image renders her simultaneously hidden and revealed, and we are offered not a vision of psychological interiority or a "true self", but of an identity constructed via a dialogue through the sartorial codes, compositional choices, and symbolic and literal attributes and references orchestrated by the artist. Here the artist's expression is neutral, his mouth set and his gaze fixed ever so warily under his quizzical brow, looking cautiously towards the horizon. His hair is tidily coiffed and, contra the pretentions of the three-piece suit of his self-portrait just one year prior, now he appears as a citified bohemian, the jaunty blue of the shirt juxtaposed with the red scarf, combined with his casual stance, suggest a desired effect of ironic detachment. His enormously over-sized hands and head however suggest his feelings of awkward vulnerability and emotional exposure, but the diaristic inscriptions along the background of the canvas. Unlike Ren Xiong's, however, these do not reveal the thoughts of the artist himself, but are obfuscated beyond legibility. As such, Zeng suggests the stylization of interiority, the slippery illusion of self-knowledge, as even his self-presentation is yet another form of alienated performance.
Taking into consideration the rich, long, and varied histories of portraiture and self-portraiture, East and West, Zeng's painting is the work of a profoundly self-aware artist at the height of his powers. As a self-portrait it is as stylized as it is brutally critical. Rather than the aspirational dress codes of his self-portrait from just one year prior, Zeng's technique, palette, and symbolic choices all point to an artist moving deeper into the mature period of his career as an independent artist, the simultaneous vulnerability and heroicism of an artist powerfully aware of his humble origins, his place in history and art history, and the zeitgeist of his generation.