In the range of works from Zeng Fanzhi featured here, spanning 1993 to 2005, we see the powerful thematic, spiritual and artistic evolution of one of China's most important painters. Beginning with Spirit (Lot 1408) from 1993, we can track the underpinnings of the artist's stylistic change between the Hospital to Mask Series. In Spirit, Zeng begins to syncretize different elements of expression to obtain a more profound understanding of life, strategies that would become increasingly central to his practice over time. The animal world was a rare subject for Zeng at this time; intermittently in the Meat Series, images of flesh-tearing tiger appear, but a lone animal, like the squatting dog in Spirit, is manifestly rare. Here the artist handles his subject by means of personification and symbolism, giving the dog a beastly build along with finger-like toes and a humanized gaze that seems poignantly lost, downcast and anxious. Like Meat (Fig. 1) produced in the same year, which juxtaposes carcasses with human flesh, the artist compares elides the distinction between man and to summon the state of savagery, revealing the barest, loneliest and truest essence of human existence. While conventional portraiture highlights idealized character and physical traits, Zeng's approach reveals instead unconscious and emotional aspects of our relationship to a subject, and he privileges expressionist techniques over realistic observation. Employing such intensely provocative colors as the Meat -red, the artist visualizes the image of the dog as a mass of raw, peel-off flesh bearing a rugged, veined face, engendering the vision of cruelty, torture and agony as felt when our flesh is cut and torn. Such theme, which stresses the vulnerability of lives in the throes of instability, remains in line with that of Hospital Series and Meat Series, while the veinous limbs of the dog are the prototype of the human hands in Zeng's later Mask Series . The bodily texture of the dog is exaggerated, rendering his lacerating brushwork a stark visual focus. The bloodreddish paint seems to be pulsating, running in rhythm; amidst such locomotion, the power of life stretches out, transforming itself into the crumbling, chapped strokes in the background. Detached from all objective entities, these strokes bear no narrative function, but wield by themselves an inflated, mysterious and sentimental power of expression that describes a ferocious, restless state of mind. Redolent of Chaim Soutine, these brushstrokes demonstrate Zeng's deft manipulation of expressionist brushwork and lines, foreshadowing the birth of Mask Series and, at the same time, substantializing the overall style of his later productions.
Zeng started his Great Man Series in 2004, producing a number of portraits of political and historic figures like Karl Marx and Mao Zedong. Painted in 2005, Mao + Calling (Lot 1409) is one of the earlier works of the series. At the core of the series is an arresting artistic idea: to portray the less-known temperament of the subjects by virtue of a new, unfamiliar style of expression, and, in this way, to tear down any prescribed, formulaic views of these great men and rediscover the pluralities within an individual. In this mode, Mao + Calling visualizes the vigor and audacity of Mao in youth with rhythmic, swelling and fierce brushwork. In the background the artist reproduces in painterly form Mao's Poem of the Long March (Fig. 3), a discursive calligraphy he bestowed on Li Yinqiao, his chief bodyguard, in 1962. Such endeavor strongly reminds us that Mao was, among other things, a literary and poet of considerable skill, who had articulated his emotions by literary means throughout his life, although his remarkable achievements in poetry and calligraphy were often overshadowed by his statesmanship. The Poem of the Long March was an immediate national success after its publication, and to this day stands in the collective memory as icon of the times. This epochal Spirit, too, is revealed in Mao + Calling, where the artist summons the memory of a generation, enriching the implications of his portrait and materializing the gist of his thought process. Poem of Long March, moreover, is regarded as a masterpiece of Mao's calligraphy; it showcases his consummate skills in balancing the use of centered tip and slanted tip, and in unleashing variations of calligraphic letters, which evoke endless mountain chains amidst roaring wind and scudding clouds. Mao's calligraphy was ebullient and majestic; in Zeng's hands, the artist uses oil to render this calligraphy, the artist underpins the vaulting loftiness and ambition of China's great leader. Zeng's pulsating lines are both a fresh new brushwork and an abstract element of sentimental expression bequeathed by the Chinese artistic tradition that maintains a homology between calligraphy and painting. The work, therefore, guides us to reflect upon multiple levels of China's past and present, in its historic and political passions, its long history of aesthetic expression and appreciation, and its recapitulation and reconsideration by Zeng Fanzhi, one of the new great interpreters of Chinese culture contemporary life.
Questions of asethetic expression, persists at the core of Zeng's artistic exploration: how can art express and illuminate the real state of human existence? Since his Mask Series the artist has been pivoting around this theme, eventually spawning a variety of new idiosyncratic artistic expressions unique to the artist. We Series: Self-Portrait (Lot 1407) is one such work. In the work, human faces are exaggerated and partially enlarged so that their facial details overfill the canvas, like a filmic extreme close-up. In stark contrast to the artist's empty-space portraits of the same period, the character in this work is overwhelmingly physical, fleshy and tangible. Here we may recall a distinct practice of Western contemporary art: through remolding and enlarging to a massive scale some quotidian, mundane objects and events, a feeling of alienation and estrangement is engendered, so much so that a new impression is brought to the surface when the audience, getting into the core of such strangeness, looks afresh at these familiar entities with a wholly new frame of reference and attitude. Examining We Series: Self-Portrait from this asethetic framework, the work creates a new sensual impact by artistic deformation.
Another essential aspect of the piece, too, is Zeng's innovative approach to brushwork; the swirling strokes of We Series: Self-Portrait, for example, is created through a method that removes, distorts and conceals the human face by repainting the painted canvas, construing up an obscure visual impression. These twisting strokes run back and forth over the canvas "like a meat grinder that grinds up human flesh". When the visually imposing lines assume symbolic meaning, they become an elucidation of the nature of human suffering and existence. Pulling together, closing-up and concealing, they create a dialectical relationship of a contradictory nature, highlighting a familiar, yet alienated, sense of distance. Being drawn into such a contradiction, the audience is asked to reexamine the human face and its meaning. Such is the theme of this work, which bears a logic of representation that corresponds closely to the Mask Series: while his Mask paintings portrayed human figures with hiding behind caricatured facades, the We Series makes use of swirling strokes to obscure individual human features, creating a universalized portrait even when the subject, as with this self-portrait, is a particular person. Both underscore human dissimulation in the form of negation, which reveals not only the dread and ennui of modern souls but also their camouflaged, self-deceiving lifestyle.