(Chinese, B. 1964)
Mask Series
signed in Chinese; signed 'Zeng Fanzhi' in Pinyin; dated '1999' (lower left)
oil on canvas
71.5 x 55.5 cm. (28 1/8 x 21 7/8 in.)
Painted in 1999
Hubei Fine Arts Publishing House, I/We: The Painting of Zeng Fanzhi 1991-2003, Wuhan, China, 2003 (illustrated, unpaged).

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Eric Chang

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Lot Essay

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, p. 13).

The present Mask Series, painted in 1999 (Lot 428) is the quintessential archetype of Zeng Fanzhi's most iconic subject. From the celebrated series that stretched from 1994 to 2000, the present lot is an exceptional example that exemplifies Zeng's piercing insight into the conflicted feelings of his generation - a generation that witnessed China's phenomenal transformation from Communism to the new conditions of a capitalist-consumerist environment. In Mask Series the artist presents a lone figure against a nebulous and muted background. Dressed in the muted tones of the intellectual elite, the figure confronts the figure directly, his features impassive and his eyes wide and slightly unfocused. His shoulders slump slightly, suggesting an emotional indifference, and a solitary shadow falls lightly behind him. The facial features of the mask are sharp and exaggerated, and despite his direct orientation towards the viewer, he appears at pains to seem emotionally remote and aloof. Here, Zeng has inverted the traditional tropes of portraiture - it is not based on verisimilitude, nor is the 'face' a window into the soul. The impenetrable expression and the man's uncomfortable pose are tainted with artifice, contrivance and fashionable affectation. With his meticulously painted and exaggerated flesh tones pulsating with wrought veins, the throbbing tension within the composition makes abundantly clear the emotional and psychological strain on the individual in the ever-shifting social environment of the Post-Mao consumerist era. As such, Mask Series is not a portrait in the traditional sense - his protagonist rather stands as a symbol of China's new social order, one that is corrupted by superficiality and false surfaces.

Mask Series is a daring work that reveals the tension between contemporary urban life and the artist's abiding existential concerns. The painting is at once an ironic depiction a lost self and stunted self-realization. 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.' (Zeng Fanzhi cited in L. Pi, Zeng Fanzhi 1993-1998, Beijing, 1998, p. 84). Ultimately, Zeng's psychologically penetrating Mask Series expresses the emotional and psychological strain experienced by a nation on the brink of major transformation.


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