The iconic Mask series represents the pinnacle of Zeng Fanzhi's creation in the 1990s. This illustrious series describes, reveals, and subverts the traditional genre of portraiture in a manner hitherto unheard of in both the history of Eastern and Western art - focusing exclusively on the masked portrait, the fake face. Since its debut in 1994, Zeng sustained his interest in this theme, elaborating and refining it through carefully calibrated variations. By the time of the creation of Mask Series (Lot 2029) in 2000, the series manifests a new richness and maturity of expression. The painting, in addition to the established theme of the mask, is now enhanced by the startling expressionist colors and the more eloquent motifs, which subtly recount the artist's experience and understanding of the changes in the Chinese society. It encapsulates, too, Zeng Fanzhi's uniquely individual style of expression within the representation of the ethos of an age.
The well-cut suit, the bright red tie and the shiny leather shoes in Mask Series are the most pronounced motifs of the series. These elements vividly describe a new class of urban dwellers who sought advantage and status after China's economic reform in the 1990s. Zeng's models are invariably dressed in immaculate suits, paired with oddly veinous hands and loudly colored lips - a distincte use of lurid colors that give the canvases an unrealistic touch, implying the hypocritical and superficial values of urban life. These choices echo the artist's own statement: "I intend to make it distinctly sumptuous, so that it becomes distinctly fictitious, almost resembling a stage backdrop. The way people gesticulate - much like waiting for someone to photograph them - is simply a way of self-comforting. Their hands, too, are a feigned, pompous makeup of the urbanites." To accentuate these ideas, Zeng has, since 2007, introduced discreet new motifs into his works, one of them being the purebred dog. These animals serve as yet another accessory and extension of the figure's desired projected persona; to keep a purebred pet dog was a concrete sign of status, wealth or power. Even so, Zeng's men remain the focus of expression, and the representation of their image and class reflects by implication the drastic social changes taking place. These themes remind the viewer of the group of German expressionist artists in the 1920s, who, like Otto Dix (1891-1969, fig.1), made the image of middle-class a metaphor for the prevalent feeling of perturbation and moral decadence after the Frist World War. Noteworthy are the two points of view these motifs communicate. First, the anxious desire to submit to some external set of values suggests the suppression of individual freedom under collectivity, a phenomenon that, though the ideological circumstances have changed, was much the same as that of the communist ethos that Zeng grew up with in the 1970s.. Zeng observes the common thread the two epochs share: just as the red scarf of the Young Pioneers symbolizes the era of idealism and communality, the dandy-ish suit, leather shoes and necktie denote the 1990s, the age of commercialism and so-called individualism. City dwellers are still compelled to dress in a tacitly agreed upon uniform, and Zeng sardonically adds the red necktie to suggest the continuity between these two eras. The true self is veneered, only to fit in the social hierarchy, where it is recognized and revered. In Mask Series the artist draws a parallel between one epoch and another, which, though disparate in time and circumstance, resonate and coalesce, bearing with them equally noticeable emblems. From a humanistic and artistic perspective, Zeng describes the characteristics of China at different time and gives a dramatic narrative to the changes of China, from collectivity to commercialism, in the past 30 years.
"Every painting of mine puts forward a question - a question about men, about the course of living from birth to death. Since my solo exhibition in 1990 I have been committing to this aspiration, that is, to communicate all the throes of life."
- Zeng Fanzhi
The second viewpoint that Mask Series conveys is a recurrent theme of Zeng's works: the analogy between humans and beasts. These two images are often juxtaposed in the artist's works, beginning with his earliest Butcher Shop series. In Meat (fig.2, 1993), for example, the interchangeable images of the human flesh and the animal carcass identify man and beast as equal, intimating a barbarous state of human existence in its most exposed, vulnerable and candid form. In Mask Series, the comparison between the man and the dog is, moreover, as strikingly true as it is cruel: the low-intelligent non-primate species is ironically given the privilege to show its true face and real self, while human beings, for their gregarious nature, have to take on a camouflage, a mask that conceals one's true self. To these two manners of living the artist shows no preference, nor does he give any judgment. Instead, he puts forward a blunt observation of fact, one that reflects his meditation on human existence and his own personality and sentiment.
To Express with Obscurity: From Realistic Depiction to Liberal Expression
Facial delineation has always been the focus of traditional portraits. Zeng, however, adopts a contrary logic of expression in his Mask Series. Individuals are defined with their faces and eyes as windows to their soul. In Zeng's hands, the eyes are concealed; the real appearance of his subjects is entirely covered by the mask, leaving only a "false face". In contrast to the naked figures hitherto created, Zeng now adorns his figures with lavish outfits, obscuring the instinctive responses and true feelings of these creatures. He stresses, at the same time, their feigned, unnatural gestures to represent their fictitious, highly tailored and stylized existence. Paradoxically, the fact that they are willing to reveal only a fictitious demeanor exposes their dread and self-abasement to public gaze, just as the white and black masks, fusing tightly to the faces of their owners, single out every falsity of their facial expressions. As such, Zeng reveals a mode of living new to his generation, one obsessed with dissimulation and deceit, and his revelation of that disposition makes these works an incisive exposition of modern souls. Beneath such mode of representation lays the aesthetic concept of "expressing with obscurity" or "rendering realness with falsity", which, as a rejection of direct, realistic representation and replication, uncloaks the intrinsic nature of things by virtue of concealment, artistic recreation and imaginary disfigurement. This logic of artistic expression demonstrates the most penetrating reflection of the artist on themes of "reality", realism and representation. Yet we will not fail to observe the essentially Chinese aspects of the underlying philosophy: the very same technique of expression is found in the use of lian pu, literally "facial mask", in Chinese opera. Extremely abstracted, lian pu is a fake face which perfectly conceals, either by paints or masks, the real look of its owner. There is always a symbolic meaning behind the way a lian pu is drawn and colored; the personality of the character, whether he is loyal, villainous, kind or evil, is precisely written, though fictitiously expressed.
The Background in Expressionist Color
Mask Series exhibits not only the distinguishing figuration and motif of Zeng's art, but also his exploration of color expressionism. The river-like, ternary complex of background color is evocative of the Red, Orange, Tan and Purple (fig.3) of Mark Rothko. The earlier Hospital series and Meat series by Zeng are characterized by fiery reds, which communicate a strong emotional power. By depicting the blood red carcasses, the artist enshrouds his works with an inflated, mysterious and sentimental power of expression that points to a ferocious, restless state of mind. In Mask Series, the sentimental reds no longer find themselves attached to objective entities; instead, they flood the canvas as some autonomous, individual microorganisms, reverberating in the background with the blood red hand, bright red necktie and brownish red shoes in the foreground. Their composite heightens the suppressed and agitated ambience of the work. The white diagonal shade in the middle, too, is a typical expression of Zeng in this stage, but while it is usually represented as a kind of fencing (fig.4) or spatial demarcation, here it takes the form of pure coloristic expression, abandoning the narrative and figurative elements it contains. Here the white, abstract line extends towards the direction to which the man and the dog are heading, apparently suggestive of a kind of narrative or temporal resolution, but, for its inconclusiveness, also of anxiety and uncertainty. As with Edvard Munch's iconic The Scream (fig.5) in which we observe a similar diagonal fence, pure elements such as colors and lines are used to symbolize subjective feeling and emotion. Concepts and themese are united with aesthetic form, and it is such a compound that constitutes Zeng's complete and exhaustive artistic landscape.