As an artist Zeng Fanzhi has always been strongly influenced by both his emotional and physical surroundings and by observations of human interaction with their environment. As the artist has moved beyond the Mask painting, his focus has shifted to man's relationship to a landscape imbued with dark and inexplicable moods. Dominated by lonely, empty roads, and oblique, destination-less horizons, his backgrounds - previously Spartan or deliberately theatrical - have been replaced by a dense thicket of strokes. Dark and haunting, the environment no longer serves to highlight the figure's isolation but instead becomes a metaphorical forest, highlighting the figure's vulnerability, the frailty of his material existence.
Zeng takes these interests even further in his most recent works that have eliminated the human figure entirely, featuring instead solitary and mysterious animal figures. This series, in part, reflects the artist's own philanthropic work and interest in nature conservation. The painting featured here in Christie's Evening sale, The Leopard from 2010, is offered on behalf of the artist himself, and all proceeds of the sale will go to the environmental organization, The Nature Conservancy.
Here Zeng has reversed his usual subject-ground relationship. In this monumental canvas, standing nearly three meters tall, Zeng Presents a lonely and low-lit leopard, moving cautiously through a dark and ambiguous forest. The foreground of the composition is dense with Zeng Fanzhi's expressive brushwork, describing a thicket of dry, lifeless branches with no order other than the insinuated drive to envelope the protagonist. The depth of the landscape is delineated by mysterious flairs of white, the powdery blue snow embankment. The leopard is passing over this ridge, with an infinite black sky, peppered with tufts of snow, behind him.
The painting poses more questions than answers. The landscape is at once bucolic and forgiving, the gentle snowfall at odds with the thicket of branches that denies the viewer's easy access. The surface of the canvas is built up through a range of brushstrokes ranging from the broadly expressive to the truncated, calligraphic branches, and the soft inviting texture of the animal. Areas of the composition seem deliberately blurred, as our vision would be in trying to gaze through a snowstorm. The handling of the leopard is particularly evocative, highlighting the soft subtle beauty of his coat, varying from white to ochre to soft amber, speckled with his black spots and the snow gathering on his back. His gaze is almost shockingly human. The viewer, knowledgeable of Zeng's practice, becomes aware that the artist has afforded the animal a greater humanity than his human figure-based paintings. Strangely, the animal appears to be lit from beneath, adding further the haunting quality of the scene. On the one hand, this could merely be the light of the moon on the snow, reflecting off the soft underbelly of the animal. At the same time, it suggests a light source on the other side of the hilltop, and the leopard gazes at us warily, as if guiding our way, and equally concerned that we might indeed pursue him.
In Zeng's figurative works from this same period, his canvases are dense with an insurmountable and hostile landscape. In these paintings, it is as if the internalized, repressed anxiety of the Mask paintings has been projected onto the landscape. Here Zeng seems to be reversing the ground, implicating the viewer as his post-modern flaneur, wandering erratically through an uninhabitable terrain, and our path out comes in the ambiguous form of this leopard, at once a potential threat and our only spiritual guide.