As one of the leading Chinese contemporary artists, Zeng Fanzhi has undergone a few creative phases, from his early German expressionism influenced Hospital/Meat series, to his signature and most iconic Mask and after-Mask, and to the ‘chaotic strokes’ Landscape which constitutes his recent body of work since 2000.
In Enigmatic Night (07-18) (Lot 3024), a masterpiece and monumental work exemplifying Zeng Fanzhi’s ‘chaotic strokes’ landscape series, the interlacing web of rampaging horizontal, vertical, and diagonal lines form a lush woodland filled with entangled branches and twigs. At the same time, these spontaneous and kinesthetic brushstrokes are reminiscent of the cursive and running script of Chinese calligraphy. From this perspective, Zeng transforms into an alter ego embodying the modern day ‘crazy Zhang and drunk Su’ (nick name for Zhang Xu and Huai Su, two greatest cursive script master of Tang dynasty). Each mark, as Richard Shiff writes, has ‘its material character: monochrome or mottled, acutely edged or frayed, revealing or obscuring the textured canvas ground. Details of this kind recall ancient masterpieces of Chinese scroll painting, such as Fan Kuan’s Travelers Among Mountains and Streams (Fig. 1).’ 1
Furthermore, in order to work on a large work as such with a grand vision in mind, Zeng Fanzhi has to extend to and challenge the limit of his physical capacity and immerse himself completely in the environment. It commands a full gamut of human sensory to be activated and engaged with the creation of a landscape of this scale. Like Gutai artist Kazuro Shiraga, who painted with his body anchored by ropes suspended from the ceiling and directly with his bare feet dancing and furrowing in the thick deposits of oil on canvas laid flat on ground, Zeng Fanzhi attacks his canvas with similar uncompromising forces and action-packed trance-like bodily performance. In addition, for his Landscape series, Zeng employs wet-on-wet technique that requires working with concentrated rapidity and allows ‘no time to think, no time to step back’. 2
MIAOWU (MARVELOUS REVELATION)
‘Close your bodily eye, so that you may see your picture first with your spiritual eye.’
- Caspar David Friedrich
The panoramic landscape constitutes an allegorical space for Zeng Fanzhi’s mental and spiritual meandering (Fig. 2). In an interview with Michael Findlay, Zeng Fanzhi states that his landscapes do not represent any real landscapes. Instead, they are about ‘experience of miao wu (marvelous revelation).’ Further, he explains that miao wu does not related to any cognitive process, rather, it is about a sudden revelation. ‘Instead of making something obvious miao wu brought about an unmarked world, which underlies the deep strata of life, both novel and familiar. In this respect, the miao wu type of revelation concerns a disclosure of what is already embedded in the artistic ego…. Miao wu constitutes a restless journey of discovery.’3
The sort of enlightenment and discovery described by Zeng Fanzhi is visually evident in Enigmatic Night (07-18): the sapphire velvety overcast sky set as the distant background, the bold spidery branches lead to a vanishing point, and the purple, blue, and white dabs form a dramatic winding path. Occasionally, Zeng Fanzhi would incorporate animals, historical and anonymous figures, statue and ruins, or natural elements such as fire in his chaotic landscapes. For the current lot, the focus is on the shining path in the middle of the composition, which lays out as a magical carpet extending to the horizon, contrasting with the tangled and complicated frigid forest as the environment. The chiaroscuro effect reflects the Zeng’s fascination with and in-depth study of Old Master Paintings such as works by Peter Paul Rubens and El Greco (Fig. 3). In this painting, Zeng Fanzhi strives to achieve a perfect balance of two conditions, i.e. the objecthood of the subject matter and the equilibrium of an artistic ego. 4 Miao wu is something inexplicable, subjective, and transient. Yet, it is palpable by spectators who would glean the traces and follow the journey of discovery set by the artist in the painterly topology, a synesthesia for the minds alike.
DONGXI (EAST AND WEST)
Examining from an East and West paradigm, Enigmatic Night (07-18) records the artist’s bodily movement through space in a contingent, daring, grappling, yet eloquent, rhythmic, and elegant motion, combining the existential expressiveness of Western philosophy with the transcending introspective representation of Eastern thoughts. Zeng Fanzhi’s landscape is essentially abstract and expressionist and the canvas is emotionally charged. In Study after Velázquez's Portrait of Pope Innocent X, Francis Bacon, one of the artists Zeng reveres, employs a combination of subtle chiaroscuro lighting effects with highly expressive brushstrokes to depict a reverential solemnity, despair, and fury of the seated Pope. Zeng Fanzhi, on the contrary, imbues his canvas with an aesthetics of a Chinese literati painter, i.e. a poetic solitude being and an introvert reflection on self.
On the difference between Chinese and Western painting, Zeng Fanzhi says, ‘traditional Chinese painting employs only very basic materials and devices…for extraordinarily rich mindscape of literati,’ and In comparison, ‘Western painting reveals strong curiosities about craftsmanship: chiaroscuro contracts, vivid perspective and analytical knowledge.’5
Enigmatic Night (07-18) stands as an iconic painting from Zeng Fanzhi’s ‘chaotic strokes’ Landscape series, a masterpiece that rarely comes to market in recent years.
1 Richard Shiff, Zeng Fanzhi: Every Mark Its Mask, Hatje Cantz Verlag, Ostfildern, Germany, 2010, p. 17.
2 Ibid, p. 15.
3 Michael Findlay, ‘An Interview with Zeng Fanzhi’, Zeng Fanzhi, Zeng Fanzhi (exh.cat.), Acquavella Contemporary Art, Inc., New York, 2009, unpaged.
4 Ibid, unpaged.
5 Ibid, unpaged.