"It beguiled me to depict a man, to depict individual. I tried to do it by dint of direct responses, so as to encapsulate the person's expression, sentiment and thoughts. And my own feeling towards this being."
- Zeng Fanzhi
Within the realm of Chinese contemporary art, Zeng Fanzhi is widely regarded as an artist whose style and prominence is undeniably global in scope. His body of work is a detailed expression of the artist’s psychological state at each period of his life. Unlike most of his contemporaries who are happy to stick with winning formulas in their artistic practices, Zeng has consistently introduced new series and pushed the boundaries of his art-making to capture arresting expressions. From his early provocative and symbolic Hospital and Meat series that display humanitarian responses to the existing reality, to his celebrated Mask series that reflects the Zeitgeist through the veneer of a cool and inscrutable mask, Zeng’s awareness of inner emotional turmoil is ever-present. (L. Hegui, exh. cat., Zeng Fanzhi 1989-2007, n.p.)
The turn of the millennium was an important time for Zeng’s career. His works were a consolidation of the artist’s personal understanding of Expressionist tonality, which were overlaid with new, indiscriminately Chinese nuance. The period of luanbi (wild brushstrokes) is unfettered, uncurbed, as if engaging in a systematic establishment of the works. The effect of this echoes that of traditional Chinese ink paintings, where Zeng’s spontaneous strokes and scrapes resemble the whimsical brushworks in the Chinese watercolors. The frantic nature of his works is also exemplified by Zeng’s use of two paintbrushes, a symbol, perhaps of a split inner-state. One controlled, one left to swing and trace naturally, the two brushes represent the dichotomies of life. As the artist explained, 'This new technique, I create and yet I destroy. One of the brushes is creating while the other three have nothing to do with me. I like such creation which happens by chance.' Similar to Gerard Richter, he simultaneously creates and obscures his images, achieving a heightened sense of emotion and sensitivity.
Zeng started his Great Man Series in 2004, producing a number of portraits of political and historic figures like Andy Warhol, Karl Marx and Mao Zedong. At the same time, he presents an arresting artistic idea: to juxtapose the iconic figures such as Andy Warhol with a new, unfamiliar style of expression, and, in this way, to tear down any predetermined and formulaic views of these great men and rediscover the pluralities within an individual. Painted in 2004, Andy Warhol is Shooting Picture is a quintessential work from the series. The main figure in the painting, Warhol's photographic subject, is a typical Zeng character and true to his personal vocabulary expressing the core of the individual. He seems distant and remote, much like the figures in Francis Bacon’s seminal pictures such as Three Studies of Lucian Freud. With the metaphorical ‘unmasking’ of his characters, a new quest for identity came to the view. Zeng began implementing a method of removal, where a palette knife was employed to remove layers of paint, creating the somewhat fanatic effect one sees in works such as Andy Warhol is Shooting Picture. An impressionistic coloring, moreover, renders a striking visual impact: with the use of a hue an intense, meat-like -red, the artist depicts human figures with raw, seared flesh, and rugged, veined faces, which exudes the vision of cruelty, torture and agony as felt when human flesh is torn. Brushwork as such is evocative of the artist's own Meat Series, as well as to the styles of Chaim Soutine and Egon Schiele. Apart from the creative elements found in Mask Series and Meat Series, Zeng has also synthesized other artistic forms into a unified tone, which further enriches the visual power of his works.
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 raw background, the likeness emerges through the intermingling of abstracted pure color lines that coalesce into a recognizable form. Andy Warhol epitomizes the supremacy of commercialization in the art world as one of the leading figures in the Pop-art market of 1960s and 1970s New York. Warhol, more than any other artist, considered himself not as an individual, exploring and asking deep questions, nor as an artist, experimenting with modes of expression, developing and maturing his art form, but instead he presented himself and his works as the ultimate commodities. For Zeng, Warhol, the artist, is the ultimate symbol of the commoditized artist, obsessed with creating his own wealth, fame and celebrity. Warhol adopted global pop icons such as Mao and Marilyn Monroe as primary subjects of his works, portraying them not as individuals but as stylized iconic images easily recognized and digested by a mass audience. As his works achieved huge commercial success, Warhol began producing self-portraits, some of monumental proportion, giving himself, what for him, was the ultimate trophy piece of being a recognized global celebrity and pop icon. Warhol produced his works for public consumption and often the works bear hallmarks of mass production techniques such as with his silk screens. His works lack intimacy or personal qualities, and are stripped of any roughness or ferocity.
For Zeng Fanzhi, Warhol's ethos and artistic practice could not be more diametrically opposed than to his own. Zeng is a deeply personal artist, driven from within to contemplate and explore his feelings and thoughts, giving expression to his inner turmoil and perturbations on canvas. The contrast with the plasticity of Warhol's works could not be stronger. Andy Warhol is Shooting Picture bares a raw intimacy, which immediately connects psychologically with the viewer, as if we are intimately confronted by the raw emotions and feelings of another human being. The diverse cultural appeal of Zeng's art derives from his honesty, fragility and beauty in portraying his raw emotions and in expressing his thoughts upon a universally-shared language; our recurrent human desire to appear other than as we are. As such, with Andy Warhol is Shooting Picture, Zeng once again demonstrates his extraordinary ability to present the dynamics of his social environment, as well as the emotional and psychological strain it places on individual lives.