Portraiture constitutes the overwhelming majority of Zeng Fanzhi’s oeuvre — his illustrious Mask Series and We Series, for example, take as their central subject the psychological state of man, as manifest on their faces and bodies. The painting of portraits is a means by which the artist observes society and conveys his own inner feelings. A portrayal of the state of human existence reflects both his contemplation towards the same theme, as well as his own inner disposition; these themes constitute the distinct motifs and significance in Zeng’s art (Fig.1).
In 1993, Zeng moved from his hometown of Wuhan to the metropolis of Beijing. A change in life track not only brought for him a new living experience but also a breakthrough in his painterly explorations. Focusing now on highly-pressured urban life, he began rendering human faces in a manner unprecedented in both Chinese and Western arts: masked portraits and false faces. (Fig.2)The 'mask' is an emblem of the artist’s interpretation of the outside world, symbolizing the detachment and alienation between urbanites. The masked city dwellers live their lives anonymously and estranged from one another; their postures bear a self-respecting, arrogant air that suggest the hypocritical, playacting lives they are leading. These iconic figures, affixed to the environs of Chinese modernity, put urbanism, its values and its impact fundamentally into question. In addition to serving as a symbol of psychological conflicts facing his generation, the 'mask' also served as a personal symbol for Zeng himself, one that allowed him to pursue his own course of self-examination and soul-searching.
In 1999, Zeng began to shift towards a seemingly more traditional approach to portraiture; he began to 'unmask' his characters in order to convey their genuine inner beings and character through other visual strategies. Painted in 2002, the figure portrayed in Untitled lacks the garish coloring, lavish clothing, and pompous attitude exuded by Zeng’s earlier masked figures. In this work is presented a portrait of a man, simply dressed; though he faces directly out towards the viewer, face unmasked and raw, his eyes are distant and unfocused, making it impossible to meet his gaze. The figure appears in a trompe l’oeil frame-within-a-frame at the center of the canvas, suggesting perhaps we are viewing a portrait of a portrait. The imposed frame reinforces Zeng’s approach to portraiture as not one of pure representation, but as a genre he’s infused with emotional and existential conflict. (Fig.3)
In Untitled, the artist demonstrates his profound understanding of the expressive power of lines and his consummate technical skills in manipulating oil paint. While the figure’s face is unconcealed, the entire work is covered with a wash of vertically aligned markings, nimble columns of strokes and disordered lines that resemble calligraphic cursive scripts that effectively serve to mask him from the viewer. (Fig.4) The dark wash that covers the entire canvas begins to part intermittently in horizontal tears in the lower portion of the composition, further distorting perspective and distancing the viewer. By creating and destroying the integrity of his creation at the same time, Zeng uncovers the power of abstract expression which lies between 'intentional' and 'incidental'. Here objective depiction gives way to lines and colors in the representation of the real state of human existence; this, in other words, is a fusion of symbolism and abstraction contained in the art of portraiture, the novelty of which highlights the artist’s remarkable achievement of creating an utterly new artistic form and visual language. Our protagonist remains resolutely alone, his fixed gaze at odds with the cool, restrained and ethereal canvas that almost prevents him from fully realizing his own material existence.Instead, he is locked in a representation of himself.
As Britta Erickson has written, the arc of Zeng’s career follows the personal and psychological challenges facing his generation in the post-Mao years of reform, modernization, and consumerism. 'If we consider Zeng Fanzhi’s developing oeuvre as reflective of a psychological journey, where does that journey lead? Ten years ago the protagonists in his paintings were helpless victims inhabiting an illogical world. Next, they donned masks to participate in a realm of urban flaneurs sharing superficial relationships. Now the masks are off and the protagonists are utterly alone, stripped to raw flesh and dissolving. Having abandoned pretense, can they now rebuild a sense of self?' (B. Erickson, Raw Beneath the Mask, Yinghuazhi 2001).