’In one, over a vast expanse of blue background, a tangle of twisted lines of different colors were spiraling upward, crisscrossing and intertwining, some of them stretching and then suddenly turning and vanishing of the edge of the canvas… I could discern a distant echo of the tempo of Debussy’s music‘ (Zai Fu, quoted in Zeng Fanzhi, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, London, 2013, pp. 7-8).
Hauntingly beautiful and ethereal, Zeng Fanzhi’s Untitled is a defnitive example of the artist’s dramatic departure from the fgurative style of the iconic Hospital and Mask series towards his abstracted landscapes of the more recent years. Through the combination of painterly realism and ’automatic’ expression, Fanzhi creates layers upon layers of twisted and broken branches that extend skyward towards a gloomy, melancholic blue sky. To paint this forceful landscape, Fanzhi engages in a unique painterly method of painting with two brushes simultaneously; the large fat brush defines the ground and sky, whilst a finer brush allows him to intuitively intervene with
interlacing and overlapping strokes. It is through this process of improvised, creative destruction that the landscape is transformed into abstract field merging memory and imagination. As art historian Wu Hun notes, ‘in these paintings, the darting lines have detached from the simple function of delineation. They have become the subject of the painting expression itself’ (Wu Hong, quoted in Zeng Fanzhi, exh. cat., Hubei Institute of Fine Arts Gallery, Wuhan, 2010, unpaged).
Fanzhi’s complex painterly language borrows masterfully from Western art historical precedents and Chinese tradition. Indeed, the expressivity and gestural quality of these brushstrokes evoke the Abstract Expressionist drip paintings of Jackson
Pollock at the same time as the dramatic colour palette testifies to the artist’s enduring interest in German Expressionism. Simultaneously, Fanzhi’s meandering brushstrokes is anchored within the Chinese literati tradition, where the brushstroke functions as the performative trace of the artist’s creative expression. Fanzhi’s stark trees, vines and brambles thereby also evoke the pervasive
imagery of ‘wintery forests and old trees’ in Song dynasty paintings (960 – 1279), which symbolizes human endurance and transcendence. As such, Untitled fully captures what Zai-fu experienced when visiting Fanzhi’s studios: ‘these works were grounded in the tradition of oil painting but also displayed the linear brushwork of traditional Chinese paintings – a creative combination that was entirely Fanzhi’s. In one, over a vast expanse of blue background, a tangle of twisted lines of different colors were spiraling upward, crisscrossing and intertwining, some of them stretching and then suddenly turning and vanishing off the edge of the canvas…I could
discern a distant echo of the tempo of Debussy’s music (Zai Fu, quoted in Zeng Fanzhi, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, London, 2013, pp. 7-8).