Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Chinese artists broke with their academic training and began experimenting with new styles and approaches to art-making, seeking new aesthetic paradigms better-suited to a post-Mao, rapidly modernizing nation, inspired by a new influx of information and materials about contemporary Western art practices, but also by their own subjective experience of China's 20th Century. The confluence of these circumstances- the rigor of the training received in its art academies, the turmoil and upheavals of the first Cultural Revolution and, later, the breakneck pace of modernization, globalization, and economic growth - laid the groundwork for one of the most extraordinary breaks with art history in recent memory.
Even so, the relatively low-key stirrings of a nascent movement were not always immediately appreciated or understood within China, and it is not surprising that diplomats, journalists and other foreign 'China hands' were often among the first to intuit that something much larger was at stake, that these experimental works - at turns understated, fearless, humorous, and utterly bizarre- represented a complete re-definition of Chinese contemporary culture and how we would understand Chinese subjective experience of the last several decades.
The collection of Kathy and Lawrence Schiller from Southern California is one such collection. Mr. Schiller is an award-winning photographer, Emmy-winning motion picture producer and director, and best-selling author, and Mrs. Schiller has been a Hollywood studio photographer for over 30 years. Their relationship with China spans nearly four decades, beginning with Mr. Schiller's work as a photojournalist in the 1960s, and over the years he has produced historic images of Richard Nixon, Robert Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe, Muhammad Ali, O.J. Simpson, Lee Harvey Oswald and Dr. Henry Lee. Mr Schiller's films of Dr. Lee were selected for special broadcast by the China Central Television Bureau, and Mr. & Mrs. Schiller first travelled with Dr. Lee and later lectured at universities throughout China in support of the arts. As a result, the Schillers came in closer contact with the Chinese art world more than ever before. During this time, they became close friends with many artists, discussing in intimate detail their personal lives and experiences to better understand how it informed their art. Soon they began to build a collection scaled to suit their home in Southern California, focusing on what they perceived as the major cross-currents underpinning the nascent movement, wanting a collection they could live with and one that reflected their own years of experience in China.
The centerpiece of the collection is a monumental Mask series (Lot 1022) painting by Beijing-based artist Zeng Fanzhi. There are few Chinese painters whose careers boast the breadth and complexity as that of Zeng Fanzhi. From the earliest stages of his career, Zeng Fanzhi's paintings have been marked by their emotional directness, the artist's intuitive psychological sense, and his carefully calibrated expressionistic technique. Having arrived in Beijing in 1993 from the more provincial Wuhan, Zeng was stunned and overwhelmed by the cosmopolitan capital, and his concerns over the alienation and psychological strain felt under such a tumultuous time emerged as the central issue motivating the iconic works to come. His art displayed an immediate shift, responding to his immersion in a more superficial environment, his seminal Mask series displaying the tensions between the artist's abiding existential concerns and an ironic treatment over the pomposity and posturing inherent to his new contemporary urban life. Throughout, Zeng's expressionistic techniques run counter to such techniques' conventional usage. In the hands of artists Zeng greatly admired, like Francis Bacon (Fig. 1) or Max Beckmann, such techniques might lend themselves to an understanding of an alienated or corrupt soul, whereas Zeng's representation of raw, exposed flesh or awkwardly over-sized hands is not an attempt at pure emotional expression, but a instead play against the superficially composed appearances of his subjects, an ironic treatment of emotional performance as a metaphor for a lost self, of stunted self-realization.
Over time, the series displayed marked changes in thematic focus and style. The earliest Mask paintings were portraits of barely contained angst, of tortured individuals incapable of overcoming the gulfs between themselves and others, while later works displayed less struggle with an external world, suggesting that personal and emotional strains were more deeply internalized. In this work from 2000, Zeng offers a vision of dapper young man, impeccably dressed, seemingly at the pinnacle of success. He addresses the viewer directly, arms at his sides, standing relaxed - however improbably - atop an apparent mountain peak. Dressed in a three-piece suit, his features are hidden behind an inscrutable mask. Zeng treats discreet areas of the flesh, around the mask or in the cumbersome and enormous hands, to add a psychological note. The flesh is raw, throbbing and swollen, as though the only outlet for repressed feelings that must inexorably find some venue for release.
The setting is deliberately artificial; the "mountaintop" appears equally to be a modeled canvas tarp before a flat backdrop. Indeed, the flamboyant yellow suit and spectacular lavender skyline underline the level of fantasy inherent to the image. As such, it is a vision of desired self-presentation, highlighting a shift in Zeng's own understandings of the dilemmas and difficulties of his age. The features of the mask, though denying us access to the figure's actual appearance, stand as a metaphor for his psychological state: aloof, indifferent, his eyes - no longer the window to the soul - are vacuous and impenetrable black marbles.
Zeng has said, "I was interested in expressing the attitudes of moods of people, an individual person, and to do so in a direct response, aimed at conveying the person's expression, emotion, thinking and my own sense of that person, captured and completed in a matter of hours rather than laboring for the time proscribed by the school" ( I/We: The Painting of Zeng Fanzhi 1991-2003, Hubei Arts Press, ShenZhen, 2003, p. 56). This sentiment points to a traditional aesthetic view associated with Chinese literati painting, suggesting that the paintings are not meant to be representations of an objective, material reality but an expressive extension of it, displaying "truths" revealed by the hand of the artist. This approach significantly complicates Zeng's conceptual Mask portraits, highlighting key philosophical distinctions between Western and Eastern notions of painting, portraiture, and personhood. In the conventional sense, the Zeng's portrait does bear the idealized desires of the subject, projecting an elite social position as evidenced by his unflappable style. At the same time, it indexes shifts in contemporary social values, where the figure does not exist in relation to anyone else - no family or community is remotely suggested - but instead is attempting to embody a new notion of rugged individualism. As such, it is also reminiscent of the wildly popular phenomenon of commercial studio portraiture in China, highly staged and romantic images that are valued not as documents of experience but conceived as truer representations of the self, a phenomenon that is nearly a literalization of Jacques Lacan's famous mirror stage theory of psychological development, positing that an enthrallment with the image of the self is a fundamental structure of adult subjectivity. Ultimately though, the subject's desire for a romantic and idealized portrait is in conflict with the multivalent associations that Zeng has brought together, implying the failure in the figure's cool and aloof self-presentation with his raw, anxiety-ridden flesh and gracelessly over-size hands.
Earlier Mask paintings may have highlighted the impossibility of connecting in an increasingly superficial social world; here instead the burden is a relentlessly lonely one. It is not a crisis of interpersonal connections - that appears to have been abandoned completely - but instead the challenge of projecting an unassailable image of success. In Zeng Fanzhi's hands, it is an aspiration that is its own undoing, one where the subject is perpetually trying to overcome the gap between his own imagined, idealized self and the perception of those around him.