Beijing-based painter Zeng Fanzhi began his iconic Mask series in 1993 and brought the series to a close by 2000. The earliest works from the series were often the most "raw", the figures and their features the most rough-hewn if not deliberately primitive, with clear stylistic links to the figuration of Zeng's earlier Hospital and Meat paintings. As the series progressed, Zeng's technique became more polished and refined just as his concepts about the series too evolved and became more pointed. Already in his three-figure Mask painting from 1996 (Lot 1025), we see how he has begun to emphasize the contrived poses of his figures and their somewhat dandified sartorial sensibilities. In the unique, intimate Mask Series portrait from 1998 featured here (Lot 1027), we can see how Zeng has continued to push the series into ever more heightened territory of artificiality.
An individual male faces us frontally and directly, his legs cut off by the composition at the knee. Already we have seen how Zeng began to shift his compositions in the Mask series so that all figures are essentially facing the viewer, implying that the composition is lifted from personal candid photographs, wherein the subjects are composing and performing themselves for the viewer and for posterity. Here that sense of contrivance is heightened as the composition is reminiscent not only of personal photography but fashion and mass-media imagery as well. The figure stands with one hand relaxed at his side, the other hand hooked casually around his belt. He does not engage the viewer's gaze directly or with a smile, but instead arches his head back, his lips slightly parted. The pose highlights the figure's aloof distance; despite the intense proximity of the space, he is intentionally remote. But his pose is also a kind of come-on, suggesting at once a hyper-masculinity and sensuality akin to male fashion advertising. Zeng undermines the figure's self-possession by setting a mask on his features, thereby at once freezing and exaggerating his expression, and rendering it a caricature. Finally, the "eyes" of the mask are ever so slightly askew, ultimately rendering his posturing completely ineffectual.
Another shift in the Mask series came in the form of Zeng's palette and his use of backgrounds. Increasingly, Zeng would use loud, pop colours in the dress and in the backgrounds of his compositions. Here the figure appears to be wearing a steely grey suit, but which appears mostly white as the artist emphasizes the highlights and sheen of the material. The background is a flat yellow sky against what appears to be a Mediterranean-blue seaside, but its flatness is suggestive of commercial studio photography or of novelty photographs of "fake" vacations. From the affectations of the figure's pose, to the sheen of his suit and the deliberately artificial backdrop, Zeng offers us then not a portrait in the conventional sense but a vision of the subject's desired self-presentation, the artificiality of the scene suggesting that this desired projection of self is at a far remove from any material reality.
Zeng's themes emerge not only in his imagery and palette, but in his handling of the paint itself. Typically, the hands, head and features are the figure are disproportionately large. Their flesh, contra the muted sheen of the suit and cool blue of the figure's dress shirt, is a harsh, flayed pink and red, riddled with the sinuous stokes of Zeng's calligraphic brushwork, suggesting the tortured emotions of the subject. Zeng's brushwork in the figure gives a sensual materiality to his clothing, and the contrast between the paint handling of the figure against the hard-edge colour fields of the background serve to further isolate him from his immediate surroundings.
The history of portrait painting in China stands apart from that of the West in its values and techniques. Unlike Western oil painting, it is not based on realism, but on metaphor and social standing, wherein the compositional environment and material objects contribute to creating a social, political, and historic profile of the subject if not always a literal likeness. Zeng draws from this legacy of portraiture and enlivens it with his additional layers of metaphor, psychological insight, and colour. In this sense, Zeng's Mask series are an extension of this tradition, and especially that embodied by the extraordinary self-portrait of the 19th Century artist Ren Xiong (fig. 2). His famous and unprecedented portrait combined the realist tradition of the West - brought to China by Jesuit missionaries and painters beginning in the 16th Century - with the wild and highly stylized brushwork of his robes, and an inscription that highlighted the confusion and loss of identity that Ren was experiencing as China already began to come under the influence of foreign powers and cultures. In Zeng's portrait, the figure's tie bears a pattern reminiscent of Chinese writing, perhaps an ironic treatment of how traditional Chinese culture had been rendered kitsch in the contemporary period, or perhaps standing in as a quiet reminder of the traditional inscriptions found in Chinese paintings. Whatever the case, it is clear that Zeng's kinship to this legacy then is not merely spiritual or one of affinity, but a revitalization of China's already highly conceptual legacy of portraiture, one that fully captures the spirit and confusion of his times and his generation as the nation passed through yet another period of historic transition.