Over the past decade, Zeng Fanzhi’s artistic output has been dominated by visions of tangled brushstrokes and brooding landscapes. Dense thickets of lines obscure nebulous backgrounds, entangling the eye in webs of wandering tendrils that prevent full contemplation of what lies beyond. By emphasizing the hand of the artist in each and every brushstroke, Zeng explores broad themes of chaos, decay and rebirth in his work, while actively challenging the perceived boundaries between abstract and figurative painting.
Born in Wuhan, Zeng’s childhood was defined by the Cultural Revolution that swept the nation in his early years. It was only upon enrolling in the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts that he was exposed to the works of Expressionist and Romantic painters. He recalls, “My biggest realization at the time was how to use line, color and form to convey my reaction to an issue, a shape, or a feeling. I learned how to use my feelings to engage in a critical examination of a subject, rather than producing an oil painting that merely visually describes it.” Like J.M.W Turner’s tumultuous seascapes, Zeng’s “landscapes” tend towards the abstract, seeking to convey a sense of the sublime rather than accurately represent the world around him. Beyond the net of painted lines, this work appears to capture a moment of creation emerging from chaos - the light suggesting a heavenly presence bringing illumination to the landscape. Zeng’s selective use of bold, intense colors and a tendency towards dramatization also evokes the works of El Greco, who sought to capture the emotional resonance of his subjects over their physical form.
Although this work is part of Zeng’s Landscape Series, and the lines that are interwoven across the canvas surface suggest foliage and brambles, the jagged “branches” that dominate these seemingly nocturnal landscapes have neither beginning nor end, and very little plant-like structure is actually discernable. Dabs of primary color and streaks of gray lend definition to the overall composition, providing balance and tempering the darker tones, but no attempt is made towards three dimensional modeling. The artist has stated anecdotally that it was a pot of Chinese wisteria that inspired his interest in vine-like forms, but the intensity of the brushwork and tactility of the paint Zeng uses also grounds this work strongly within the abstract realm.
Zeng’s recent practice has been compared to the works of Abstract Expressionist painters such as Pollock and de Kooning. However, Zeng drew his influence from even earlier sources, looking to traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy for inspiration. Unlike Western painting techniques, which traditionally valued planes, color, light and shadow, the Chinese artistic tradition has always revered the artist’s ability to execute a strong line. Shading was largely rejected, and lines were valued as an honest reflection of the artist’s true skill. Comparing Zeng’s work to the landscapes of Song painters, and the abstract “grass script” of early calligraphers, they share a similar keen awareness of line, consciously executed to capture the vigorous energy of the artist.
To create his works, Zeng continues to paint each stroke by hand without outside assistance. First, large brushes are used define the background composition, over which a medium or fine paintbrush is used to overlay a delicate net of “chaotic brushstrokes”. In order to create the wet-on-wet effect that he desires, Zeng specially seeks out paint that dries very slowly, and then works as quickly as possible in order to take advantage of the wet material. Frequently, he paints with two brushes grasped in the same hand; while one brush is steady and in full control, the other brush is far clumsier, allowing Zeng to simultaneously create with one brush and destroy with the other. This introduces an element of chaos and chance into his painting technique, to counterbalance the otherwise sublime order of the overall composition.
Visually, Zeng’s recent Landscape Series bears little resemblance to the early works that established his career as a fine artist. Zeng Fanzhi’s early work was characterized by starkly haunting images of hospitals, raw meat, and masked figures, drawn directly from his background and scenes he observed in his environment. Yet Zeng’s style has evolved dramatically over the years. “I was born in the 1960s into one political situation. By the 1980s we were living in a different political reality. Today, China is open, and it’s growing so fast. To work as an artist through all these changes, you have to be like a sponge. You must absorb all the different experiences, and take in all the different information. This helps you to find a style that is uniquely your own,” Zeng says.
Though Zeng no longer paints figures with faces obscured by grinning masks, he remains deeply interested in themes of isolation and alienation. The lines that he paints in the foreground of his landscapes form a visual boundary that floats upon the canvas, obstructing the viewer’s gaze and drawing focus to the painting’s surface qualities. Each work in this series is suffused with a powerful sense of loneliness, probing the unconscious effect of landscape on emotion and reflecting on the profundities of the human condition