As the urban landscape of Beijing is transformed in preparation for the 2008 Olympic Games, the creations of Chinese avant-garde artists from the 1990s seem all the more extraordinary and prophetic. It was during this time that many mainland Chinese artists' works grew in sophistication and maturity. This deepening of the cultural scene took place across all media, with artists producing critical insights into the rapidly changing culture and society around them. Painters in particular tended to expand on their academic training in realism and focus on the figure, using this training as the basis for an investigation into the shifting realities around them. Beijing-based artist Zeng Fanzhi's iconic Mask series from this period anticipate the psychological crisis and materialist values to come as the country embarked on its breathtaking path towards modernization.
Already in his earliest works, Zeng had displayed an interest in the physical pain of daily life, the harsh qualities of existence. The influence of Zeng's study of Max Beckmann, Francis Bacon, and German Expressionism is most evident in his Hospital and Meat paintings; with these works, Zeng painted groups of figures in desultory and quotidian moments, their flesh appearing literally like raw meat destined inexorably for slaughter.
In contrast, arriving in the relatively cosmopolitan Chinese capital in the early 1990s, Zeng began to focus instead on the psychological strain of individuals in rapidly changing urban settings. Zeng himself was overwhelmed by the anxiety and alienation felt in such a fast-paced environment, fascinated by the anxieties of social performance imposed on urban China's aspiring cosmopolitans. With his Mask paintings, Zeng began to question the ironic gap between public and private truth, the honesty of emotional expression in modern Chinese society, exposing the psychological torment felt by those compelled into new social roles.
Mask Series No. 9 from 1996 is one of the most striking images from the series, a concise statement signaling the materialist trappings of class aspirations and the associated strain on individual psyches. Two young male figures sit casually on a small sofa, a spotted bull dog at their feet; all three are turned to engage the viewer. The men are modishly and fastidiously dressed, in near matching outfits painted in subtly alternating tones. Both figures wear jaunty red scarves evoking those worn by the Red Guards of China's Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) or of young Boy Scouts. These add an ironic if not feminizing touch, one in direct conflict with the figures' studied masculinity.
Various aspects of the composition seem drawn from commercial advertising and fashion magazines: The orientation of the figures, the self-consciously candid composition, the attention to sartorial details. Zeng's painterly attention is directed mainly to the exquisite forms of the figures and the dog, while minimal attention is paid to their surroundings or environment. Even the dog should be considered a sign of status: Only the relatively well-to-do could afford the annual license to keep a pet in the city. Here the pedigreed animal itself seems an accessory selected to suit the figures' tastes.
Despite the carefully composed setting, various elements of the composition destablize the figures' seamless appearances and force the viewer to question the veracity of individual's self-presentation and indeed the representation of reality itself. Both figures wear the eponymous mask of the series' title. In classic Western portraiture, facial expressions and the eyes themselves should provide insight into character and be "windows on the soul". Here, however, the two males' real facial expressions are hidden behind the smooth masks; their eyes are like those of a marionette, dull and vacuous, and reveal nothing. At the same time, the figures' hands are disproportionately large, the flesh raw and bloated with pulsating, wrought veins, betraying an anxiety that can barely be contained. The left-hand figure's forthright engagement with the viewer culminates in his violently clenched hands. The right-hand figure attempts to settle back into the depth of the sofa, folding himself into an awkward and cramped position; his left hand is poised awkwardly around his face, almost as if he has missed his cue. The apparent gap between the figures' expressions and their body language allows the viewer an insight into the individual's true character, showing their discomfort with their ability to fully embody their newly adopted social personae.
In Zeng's hands, the candid nonchalance of the scene is revealed to be carefully composed, betraying the artist's own discomfort with the legibility of surface appearances. These sets of contrasts, between the impenetrable and cool facial expressions and the bodies' awkwardness, the hyper-reality of the figures versus the vague stage-like surroundings, point to the existential crisis of a generation in transition. Despite the close quarters of the two men, their only apparent point of physical contact is between their discretely touching shoes and the indifferent overlap of their knees. In fact, Zeng has always emphasized that the Mask series is about the loneliness created by false surfaces: "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)