There are few Chinese painters whose careers boast the breadth and complexity as that of Zeng Fanzhi. From the earliest stages of his career, Zeng Fanzhi's paintings have been marked by their emotional directness, the artist's intuitive psychological sense, and his carefully calibrated expressionistic technique. Moving to the more cosmopolitan Beijing in the early 1990s, Zeng's art displayed an immediate shift, responding to his immersion in a more superficial environment, his seminal Mask series displaying the tensions between the artist's dominant existential concerns and an ironic treatment of the pomposity and posturing inherent to his new contemporary urban life. Throughout, Zeng's expressionistic techniques run counter to such techniques' conventional usage. That is, Zeng's representation of raw, exposed flesh or awkwardly over-sized hands is not an attempt at pure emotional expression, but instead play against the superficially composed appearances of his subjects, an ironic treatment of emotional performance as a metaphor for a lost self, of stunted self-realization. (Sale 2703, lot 513).
Over time, the series displayed marked changes in thematic focus and style. The earliest Mask paintings were portraits of barely contained angst, of tortured individuals incapable of overcoming the gulfs between themselves and others. In this work from 2000, Zeng offers a vision of dapper young man, impeccably dressed, seemingly at the pinnacle of success. He addresses the viewer directly, imploringly, with a rose in hand. Dressed in an impeccable suit, his features are hidden behind an inscrutable mask. Typically, Zeng treats discreet areas of the flesh, around the mask or in the cumbersome and enormous hands, to add a psycholotical note. The flesh is raw, throbbing and swollen, as though the outlet for repressed feelings that must find some inexorable venue for release.
The settling is deliberately artificial; the seaside setting is flat and painted in deliberately artificial tones, reminiscent of the false backgrounds one might pose in front of for a photograph or even for a novelty vacation photo. Indeed, the dandy-ish suit and spectacular skyline underline a level of fantasy inherent to the image. As such, it is a vision of desired self-presentation, highlighting a shift in Zeng's own understandings of the dilemmas and difficulties of his age. The features of the mask, though denying us access to the figure's actual appearance, stand as a metaphor for his psychological state: aloof, indifferent, mouth painted a lush red and eyes - no longer the window to the soul - are empty and impenetrable black marbles.
Earlier works from the artist may have highlighted the impossibility of connecting in an increasingly superficial social world; here instead the burden is a relentlessly lonely one. It is not a crisis of interpersonal connections - that appears to have been abandoned completely - but instead the challenge of projecting an unassailable image of a successful cosmopolitan man. In Zeng Fanzhi's hands, it is an aspiration that is its own undoing, one where the subject is perpetually trying to overcome the gap between his own imagined, idealized self and the perception of those around him.
Oil on canvas
Signed in Chinese; dated '97'; signed 'Zeng Fanzhi' in Pinyin (lower right)
Fanzhi Zeng , 21st Century, Paintings, canvas, oil, China, Contemporary, allegorical, portrait
ASIAN 20TH CENTURY & CONTEMPORARY ART
150 x 129.9 cm. (59 x 51 1/8 in.)
ShanghART Gallery, Zeng Fanzhi 1993-1998, Shanghai, China, 1998 (illustrated, p. 35).
Acquired directly from the artist by the present owner in 1999