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. His Mask series remain his best recognized, but his meticulous and expressive fusion of form and content can be found throughout his oeuvre. Even in studies for Mask paintings, Zeng seeks to maximize his chosen medium to its technical limits. His Sketch of Mask Series from 1999 (Lot 1502) is not merely a preparatory drawing but a fully realized composition, displaying the aesthetic choices that gave the series such enormous emotional impact. Two figures appear apparently by the seaside, dressed in brightly colored casual attire, in a pose of relaxed conviviality. Their arm are wrapped around each other's shoulder and torso respectively, but they maintain a studied distance from each other, and magnified proportions of their hands and their attenuated veins highlight the superficiality of the image, the ironic, sometimes jaundiced attitude of the artist apparent in the overly artificial tones of the composition and the falsely flat vacation setting, the lipstick of their theatrical masks, the whites of their tight grimaces further echoed in the highlights found in their sun-drenched clothes.
Throughout his career, Zeng has returned to the image of Andy Warhol. Warhol's visage (Lot 1332) contained the enigma of his personality and career: an under-stated figure notable mainly for his shocking "fright" wig, whose career of choosing the most mundane subjects revolutionized the art world. In Zeng's hands, the artist takes Warhol's most immediately recognizable image and makes it his own through a web of ecstatic, fluid strokes. Against a muted grey background, the likeness emerges through the intermingling of abstracted pure color lines that coalesce into a recognizable form. In many ways, Warhol's own self-image is the perfect corollary to Zeng's Mask series and his career in general. Where Zeng has sought to find thematic and technical expression for the suppressed angst and insecurity inherent to modern life, Warhol radically asserted that the surface of things - from celebrity to common consumer objects - was all we needed to know. As such, his own self-representation was always deliberately aloof, cool, bordering on the intentionally vacuous and child-like, confounding the viewer's expectation to encounter some romantic notion of the tortured, suffering artist. As such, such, the psychological aggravation is entirely Zeng's own, manifest in the rapid sinewy brush strokes that delineate Warhol's features and surge outwardly and across the surface of the canvas. It is as if, at last, Zeng cannot penetrate the surface of things; in some ways, Zeng's portrait of Warhol is the obverse to his "Behind the Mask" paintings; rather than giving us his quick and almost ruthless rendering of character, he suggests instead the ways in which despite our best efforts, certain aspects of other people's character will always remain unknowable.
Zeng Fanzhi's post-2000 paintings witness the artist returning to a fully elaborated canvas. These works display less investment in metaphor and symbol; instead, Zeng relies on the seemingly "automatic" flow his brush to reveal his own feelings on his particular subject. Increasingly, Zeng took his subjects out of doors, to more fully explore his interest in man's relationship to his environment. These paintings, however, are not conventional landscape paintings, but further extensions of the artist's interest in subjectivity. In his hands, they become metaphorical projections of an inner state.
With his Sky No. 2 from 2002 (Lot 1333), Zeng displays his inherent empathy for the emotional bravery and vulnerability inherent to contemporary life. A boy in white slacks and red sweatshirt walks precariously along the edge of a precipice, described in florid and excited calligraphic strokes. The sky behind him is high, an indifferent ceiling of white, flecked with the same red of the boy's clothes, as if at dusk. The ambiguous gesture of the boy suggests he has lost his balance, and the dramatically low vantage point of the viewer underlines the quiet menace of the scene. As such, something as innocent as a young man enjoying a late afternoon stroll becomes a metaphor for the perils and pitfalls of coming of age as the boy ventures out resolutely alone, the landscape and evening air trembling around him. The diversity and appeal of Zeng's art stems form the honesty, clarity, and beauty with which he portrays his raw emotions and in expressing his thoughts upon a universally-shared trait; our recurrent human desire to aspire to goals beyond our inherent limits, our desire to appear better than what we are. Zeng is able to return to his core concerns again and again, finding new metaphorical and technical terrain to explore the essential human concerns of our times.