Property from a Distinguished European Collection of Contemporary Art

(Chinese, B. 1964)
Untitled No. 2
signed 'Zeng Fanzhi' in Pinyin; signed in Chinese; dated '2000' (lower left)
oil on canvas
148 x 129 cm. (58 1/4 x 50 3/4 in.)
Painted in 2000
Schoeni Art Gallery, Hong Kong, China
F2 Gallery, Beijing, China
Acquired directly from the above by the present owner
Britta Erickson & Pi Li (eds.), Raw Beneath the Mask, Shanghart Gallery, Shanghai, China, 2001 (illustrated, p. 25).
Schoeni Art Gallery Ltd., Beijing Inaugural Exhibition: Contemporary Paintings by 33 Artists, 10th Anniversary Celebration, Hong Kong, China, 2002 (illustrated, p. 101).
Hubei Fine Arts Publishing House, I/We: The Painting of Zeng Fanzhi - 1991-2003, Wuhan, China, 2003 (illustrated, p. 5).
Hanje Cantz Verlag, Every Mark Its Mask - Zeng Fanzhi, Ostfildern, Germany 2010 (illustrated, p. 79).
Beijing, China, Schoeni Art Gallery, Beijing Inaugural Exhibition: Contemporary Paintings by 33 Artists, 10th Anniversary Celebration, 2002.
Sale room notice
Please kindly note that the dimensions should read as 148 x 129 cm. (58 1/4 x 50 3/4 in.).

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Lot Essay

The year 2000 marked a crucial turning point in Zeng Fanzhi's career. That year saw him creating Fly, which capped off and summarized the entirety of his Mask series of works, while in another area, he set out along a new path by returning to the genre of the portrait as it has been more traditionally understood. Zeng now takes the masks off his subjects, exposing their real faces, and engages in a deeper exploration of their feelings and life circumstances. Untitled No. 2, from 2000, represents one of the early creative breakthroughs among this new group of works and reveals traces of its stylistic changes. To set side by side these two works created in the same year, Fly and Untitled No. 2, is a startling and conflicting experience because we see how radically the artist's painting style and treatment of human figures has diverged, pointing up the stylistic diversity and levels of meaning and expression in Zeng's work.

In Untitled No. 2 Zeng strips off his subject's mask. No longer adorned hidden behind the blank eyes of his masks, the brilliant eyes of this subject instead become a point of special focus through the pointing finger of the subject himself, as if to point out and announce to viewers the breakthrough of the artist in crossing over from the mask series to another kind of portrait. The subject directly reveals his face and expression, the outlines of his collar starkly setting off the transparency of his clothing for an almost naked frankness which reveals his apprehension and insecurity. The background imitates the blank, open spaces of traditional Chinese painting, communicating a translucent visual space that seems to suddenly open up a window into the interior world of the subject. The artist thereby creates exceptional existential circumstances for his subject, within which he seems a lonely figure standing in an uncertain, isolated space with nothing to depend on, revealed to the viewer as perhaps an expression of the isolated and emotionally ungrounded circumstances of modern human beings. In aesthetic terms, the empty space, the unexpressed aesthetic dynamic of its space, gives the work an unfinished feel and leaves viewers tremendous room for their own interpretation of this unfinished space. It reflects the way in which the artist has already shifted away from a concern with realistic depictions and toward a kind of expressionism, placing emphasis on the individual's emotional state and its reflection in his bearing and general aura, and in a relatively abstract manner, exploring the potentials of brushstroke, line, and color shifts for expressing feeling and conveying the life essence of the individual.

In his motifs and figuration, the artist moves further away from a strict realistic approach, towards expressionism, conveying a striking visual impact hues of an intense, meat-like red color. The artist depicts human figures with raw, seared flesh, and rugged, veined faces, which engender a vision of cruelty, torture and agony as felt when human flesh is torn. Brushwork as such is evocative of the artist's own Meat Series, and is also reminiscent of the styles of Chaim Soutine and Egon Schiele. Apart from the creative elements found in Mask Series and Meat Series, Zeng has also synthesized other artistic forms into his unified expression, which further enriches the visual power of his works. Zeng's vision is uncontestably original, and stems from the artist's observation and transformation of others' lives, which are, in turn, inextricably linked to a scene he witnessed as a youth: crowds of people sleeping on frozen carcasses for a bit of relief from the heat. In the confusion of living and dead flesh, the artist saw an impassive equation of humans and animals, suggesting a barbarous state of human existence at its most exposed, vulnerable, and honest. While portraits often focus on the perfect aspects of the human figure, Zeng singles out the hideous, almost frightful realities of human existence, hence skeptically reappraising the relationship between beauty and truth.

The portraits of this period often adopt the "abbreviated" brushwork of Chinese Zen painting, using its minimalist sketching to show its subjects as images formed virtually of only outlines. This is one aspect of Zeng's search for further expressive variety and refinement in brushwork, in which he also disperses ink in a style similar to traditional Chinese ink-wash painting. Above the man's head hangs a broad spread of pigments drawn in sketchy strokes, which blurs the human image and, at the same time, outlines it under a thin layer of color. The figure is thus projected like a theater image that fades out as lights die away, enhancing the artist' s reflection on the transience of life and experience. Zeng also adds Chinese calligraphy to the background, filling it with the inscriptions of calligraphic lines which are important here not for any literal text they may represent but for the expression of feeling inherent in their varying strokes, the halting, reversing, dotting, or pressure strokes of traditional calligraphy. In connection with his reverse strokes the artist recalled: "When I was working on Union Hospital, I had a special feeling towards the hands and the heads. On the last attempt I tried to reverse my strokes. The lines run in opposite direction, and my feeling is articulated." This technique calls to mind the logic and praxis of what were called the "reserve tip" and "ordered tip" in Chinese calligraphy. Through this nuanced and self-reflexive approach to brushwork and line, the artist materializes a repressed, despondent and restive state of mind. Art critic Li Xianting, commenting on Zeng's oil techniques, regards his lines as if they were refined from nature; they provoke the images of fallen leaves and withered petals, and of the calamity of life, and, as such, they do more than just give form to the figure, but contribute to the emotional tenor of the painting as well.

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