As an artist Zeng Fanzhi has always been strongly influenced by both his emotional and physical surroundings and by observations of human interaction. From his earliest Meat and Hospital paintings through his seminal Mask series, Zeng has brought an attention to corporal pain as both a physical reality and as a metaphor for larger social circumstances. As such, his paintings reside in the gap between external and internal perceptions, surface and form, and his painterly expressionism displays not only his affinity for Western-style oil painting but also his deep study of Chinese classical painting traditions. Of his now-iconic Mask paintings, Zeng has said that he was interested in exploring the distances between people. In the paintings that have followed, he has moved from this sharp focus on a particular social phenomenon, expanding it to incorporate a larger material world, but one where the texture of the environment is itself imbued with the internal turmoil of the subject.
Over the years, Zeng has painted more and more landscapes, some unpopulated and others with only lone figures. Of this series, he has said, " They are not real landscapes. They are about an experience of miao wu (marvelous revelation). Miao wu does not fall into the common categories of cognitive process. Nor has it anything to do with reason. Miao wu is a kind of revelation. Instead of making something obvious, miao wu brought about an unmarked world, which underlies the deep strata of life, both novel and familiar. In this respect, the miao wu type of revelation concerns a disclosure of what is already embedded in the artistic ego - the revealed world is there, but it is unfamiliar and amazing. Miao wu constitutes a restless journey of discovery. " ( Zeng Fanzhi, Acquavella Galleries, New York, 2009, unpaged)
Like classical Chinese literati painters before him, Zeng's exteriors are not descriptive renderings of a world scientifically observed, but a manifestation of a personal, poetic disposition. Dominated by lonely, empty roads, and oblique horizons, his backgrounds - previously Spartan or deliberately artificial - have been replaced by a dense thicket of expressionistic strokes. The brooding environment no longer serves to highlight the figure's social alienation but instead becomes the materialization of an interior state, exposing the figure's own psychological and physical vulnerability. In the monumental canvas featured here, Untitled 08-12-19 (Lot 1023), Zeng has reversed his usual subject-ground relationship. A single male figure moves silently through a dark and ambiguous forest. The depth of the landscape is delineated by mysterious flairs of white and red, and a deepening of the palette from Prussian blue to a blue-black, suggesting a long and winding path, but one without an end, an origin, or a horizon. The foreground of the composition is thick with Zeng's expressive brushwork, describing a veil of dry, lifeless branches with no apparent organic order other than the insinuated drive to envelope the protagonist.
The figure, in dark pants and red blazer, is flecked with strokes of blue paint that match the deep background of the canvas, suggesting his immateriality and the imagined space of the composition. As a result, the painting poses more questions than answers. Have the fires behind him lead the way, or are they the sign of the scorched earth that he leaves in his wake? The unnatural flare of night, undefined space, and ghostly figure suggest an alternate, metaphorical reality, one where the interior, repressed anxiety of the "Mask" paintings has been projected onto the landscape, one where the obstacles within have materialized in the form of an insurmountable and hostile landscape.
Like any good literati artist, Zeng has stated that his paintings increasingly rely on his own ephemeral moods and introspection. Nonetheless, a clear view of human nature and fate emerges from his body of work. Zeng Fanzhi's inquisition into the trials and psychological conflicts of his generation - at pains to appear at ease in a rapidly changing social and economic environment - has shifted to consider the paradoxes of "success" on these new terms. He is now lost to himself, setting forth confidently on uninhabitable terrain, relentlessly alone and without apparent hope for a clear path out.