'Because false faces exist, people cannot avoid the distance they create between each other. It is almost impossible to confide in each other as everyone hides their true nature, all of their desires, so that when they appear in public, the outer mask is all everyone sees.' (Z. Fanzhi, quoted in B. Feng, Zeng Fanzhi 1993-1998, Beijing 1998, p. 13).
Mask Series, No. 6 is the quintessential archetype of Zeng Fanzhi's most iconic theme: the mask. From the celebrated series that stretched from 1994 to 2000, the present lot is an early example that exemplifies Zeng's piercing insight into the conflicted feelings of his generation - a generation that witnessed China's phenomenal transformation from Communism to the new conditions of a capitalist-consumerist environment. In Mask Series, No. 6, the artist presents a lone figure against a nebulous and muted background. Sitting frontally behind a table, the man folds himself into an awkward and cramped position. Zeng further undermines the sense of awkwardness by setting a mask on the man, thereby rendering it a caricature. The facial features of the mask are sharp and exaggerated, and he is at pains to appear aloof, even emotionally exempt. Here, Zeng has inverted the traditional tropes of portraiture - it is not based on verisimilitude, nor is the 'face' a window into the soul. The impenetrable expression and the man's uncomfortable pose are tainted with artifice, contrivance and fashionable affectation. With a meticulously painted and disproportionately large hand that is pulsating with wrought veins, the throbbing tension within the composition makes abundantly clear the emotional and psychological strain on the individual in the ever-shifting social environment of the Post-Mao consumerist era. As such, Mask Series, No. 6 is not a portrait in the traditional sense - his protagonist rather stands as a symbol of China's new social order, one that is corrupted by superficiality and false surfaces.
Revealing the artist's on-going search for identity that is cultural and personal, the Mask Series has become the artist's passage to international fame over the past decade. Not only does the current lot encapsulate the breakneck speed of change in China, it points to the existential crisis of a generation in transition. Another artist who explored a similar terrain of the individual's position in society is Zhang Xiaogang, whose haunting paintings share strong affinities to the Zeng Fanzhi's work. In Zhang's Bloodline, Amnesia and Memory series for example, the artist constructs a world in which the historical, emotional and psychological discordance are ever-present. As seen in Comrade with Plum Blossoms (1998), Zhang presents a man clad in uniform, melancholically holding a book. The subdued palette and delicately painted details are analogous to that of Zeng's painting. Moreover, both artists have added a symbolic dimension. As in Mask Series No. 6, the incorporation of a book instantly calls to mind Maos's little red book. The sheets of paper soaring across the picture plane are presumably torn from the book in the foreground - a visual clue that ironically questions authority and history. Since the text is not made explicit to the viewer, the motif of the book, in its indecipherability, is suggestive of hidden secrets and remnants of the past. As such, the book in Mask Series, No. 6 can be seen as a consummate symbol of faith, discipline and ultimately of sacrifice. Reading the work in this light, the box of tissues can also be seen as an allusion to the shedding of tears and wiping away of the excesses of modern life; it also manifests Zeng's interest in affect and artifice. Zeng's protagonist therefore has a dual role as witness and victim of the new cultural pluralism emerging in China. Imbued with ideological and metaphorical colouring, such constructed symbolism in Mask Series, No. 6 resonates poignantly against the solitary figure, powerfully evoking the sense of alienation of the individual in the collective environment.
Zeng Fanzhi moved from the province of Hubei to Beijing in 1993, at a time when China was in the throes of unprecedented changes. Confronted by the cosmopolitan environment and rapid development of China's capital city, Zeng was perennially engaged in a private struggle to adapt to the alien urban surrounding. In the near collapse of three-dimensional space in Mask Series, No. 6, the palpable sense of claustrophobia instantly alludes to the suffocation Zeng felt as an outsider. The setting within the composition is also reminiscent of commercial studio portraiture in China, where staged images are valued not as documents of truth but a contrived representation of the self. Mask Series, No. 6 therefore tellingly expresses Zeng's own sense of isolation and angst.
From the beginning of his career, Zeng Fangzhi's art has been emotionally expressive. His iconic Hospital and Meat series from the early 1990s set a new aesthetic paradigm that was inspired by the influx of information and materials about contemporary Western art practices. Zeng has commented that the artists who influenced him most as a student were Max Beckmann and Francis Bacon. Harking back to the works by Bacon, Zeng found that the articulation of flesh brought him closer to profound and powerful metaphors about transitory human existence, emotional torment and mortality. Both artists render human skin to reflect the inner emotions and anxiety of their subjects. Zeng thus draws from the legacy of Western portraiture but layers it with his own set of artistic concerns. His work boldly challenges the conceptual line between western and eastern art, and the influence from the West has evidently led Zeng to seek greater psychological depth in his paintings.
Mask Series, No. 6 is a daring work that reveals the tension between contemporary urban life and the artist's abiding existential concerns. The painting is at once an ironic depiction a lost self and stunted self-realization. In the words of the artist, the mask paintings 'focus on life in the modern environment and, due to the distrust, jealousy and misunderstandings between people, a state of mind that is unavoidably forced upon them. In today's society, masks can be found in every place. It doesn't matter if you are after protecting yourself, or you desire to deceive others, the true self will always be concealed.' (Zeng Fanzhi cited in L. Pi, Zeng Fanzhi 1993-1998, Beijing, 1998, p. 84). Ultimately, Zeng's psychologically penetrating Mask Series, No. 6 expresses the emotional and psychological strain experienced by a nation on the brink of major transformation. ET