An Imprint of Era of Reform and its existential conflict
Zeng Fanzhi's art grows directly out of observed living conditions and a concern for individuals and their inner experience, and features Zeng's revelatory insights into the conflicts between the individual self and the society-a subject of perpetual interest in the history of art. The individual, to obtain a sense of belonging and identity as part of a group, is forced to wear a mask concealing his or her real character, and in fact, to appear in costume so as to be consistently recognized by others. In the idealistic, collectivist era in which Zeng Fanzhi came of age, the red kerchief of China's Young Pioneers was a concrete embodiment of those kinds of life circumstances. But even in the 1990s, the era of commercialism and individuality, Zeng discovered the same phenomenon, only in the new uniform of well-pressed suits, dress shoes, shirts and ties. The experience of the two eras, under this artist's brush, are not just echoes of each other but become linked as one, as each era is imprinted with its own brilliant stamp. Zeng sets out the features of those eras, from a cultural and artistic point of view, giving voice to the changes in Chinese society over the past 30 years in the transition from collectivism to commercialism. This uniquely Chinese understanding of these eras, in the art of Zeng Fanzhi, attains a broader and deeper meaning as an exploration of universal kinds of experience: the face-off between the individual and society, the constant apprehension and loneliness of the individual, and the unbridgeable distances between people in society. These are the circumstances, the emotional dilemmas, that individuals have always faced, both in the East and the West, from antiquity to the present. The modern artist Francis Bacon created his work in response to the sufferings of the WWII era and the Holocaust; Zeng Fanzhi, in reflecting on the radical changes between China's era of collective idealism and its later periods of reform and opening, likewise derives art that inspires consideration of these broad,humanistic concerns.
In 1993, Zeng, aged 30, moved from Wuhan, his hometown, to the metropolis of Beijing. This change brought both new living experiences and a breakthrough in his painterly explorations. Focusing now on highly-pressured urban lifestyles, he began rendering human faces in a manner unprecedented in both Chinese and Western arts: portraits of masked figures and false faces. Two years later, in 1994-1995, he began to produce the first of what are now known as his Mask series of paintings. From that time onwards, Zeng developed portraits of mask-wearing figures in different compositions and styles of presentation, and his thinking on the subject continued to deepen and mature. Fly, from 2000, represents a creative summit in his Mask series, presenting the theme of the individual and social circumstances with the same insight as other works in the series, while probing new aesthetic levels and directions in a way that makes it the perfect cap for the series as a whole. At the same time, Fly led the way for a brand new series of works in which the masks came off, so that the canvas additionally both sums up all that went before, while being a point of transition on which much of his later work would hinge.
The Loss of Idealism
Fly places two male figures directly side by side. This arrangement, which has become a classic compositional structure over the course of art history, is also a hallmark of the mature development of Zeng's Mask series of works as they developed from early works with single figures to the later groupings of multiple figures, in which Zeng sought more complete, complex compositional and narrative circumstances. Attired in almost identical outfits, the two figures also both wear masks, hinting that any connection between the two remains veiled and obscured. Their physical juxtaposition brings no connection or interaction, seeming instead to highlight the distance and estrangement between them and to further emphasize the theme of conflict between the individual and the group.
The man on the right seems to have the face of Andy Warhol. The code might allow three readings: first, the man with black hair on the left represents the artist himself, or even Eastern artists at large, which is to say the shoulder-to-shoulder position he takes with the white-hair Warhol, a representative of Western contemporary artists, may imply the dialogue between Eastern and Western contemporary art. Second, Warhol looks gloomy. It is unusual of Zeng to put onto his work a familiar face and lay emphasis on his classic white hair; it induces us to associate this man with the pre-eminent, almost saintly Warhol and his very nonconformist, lofty, ultra-modern character, which may well represent modern men's state of mind. Apparently the image of Warhol is an immense attraction to Zeng, as reflected in many of his works embodying Warhol's portraits. Fly is his first painting of Andy Warhol, which becomes the harbinger, and an archetype, of his later work.
Zeng Fanzhi achieved a breakthrough in Fly in several ways, with the use of dazzling, variegated color, a scene resembling a stage setting, and a profusion of flowers in full bloom. These elements create a stark contrast between subject and manner of presentation that gives the work an even greater expressive effect. With bright colors, a deep blue sky, and dazzling flowers, Zeng depicts what seems a symbol of an idealistic, utopian world, yet as Zeng has noted, the stage-setting composition is one that he uses artistically for deliberate contrasts: "I made it especially brilliant, but also especially false and unreal, just like the settings on a theater stage." But in the midst of this beautiful, idealized setting, Zeng shows two subjects who are unable to connect with each other, and instead stand silently in their own worlds of self-delusion and self-absorption. Zeng has deliberately concealed contrasting and opposing elements within the work: intimacy and distance, the soaring jets of the background and the human subjects seemingly half-buried in the flower bed of the foreground, and the contrasts of their black and white hair. The most beautiful visual images here conceal the most distant and artificial human relationships. The tension of the work and its power to startle arise from these stark contrasts, urging us to consider whether there is in fact a necessary connection between "truth and beauty"; in the theme of the individual's clash with the group, the realities of the loss of idealism and of false, artificial loveliness become clear, making Fly the most fully expressive and thematically rich work in Zeng's Mask series.
The Motif of Flying
Two jets cut across the sky in Fly, leaving long vapor trails behind them. The theme of flight seems to have held great interest for Zeng Fanzhi during his creative career. Zeng's 1993 Flying Away (Fig. 1) is his earliest work to bear a title reflecting the theme of flight; in 1995 and 1998 he produced two paintings which each depict a single figure with flying jets appearing in the background (Figs. 2 and 3). With this Fly, dating from 2000, Zeng gives us two figures in the foreground, corresponding to the two arcs of the flying jets in the background, for a more complex setting and his most striking presentation yet of the flight motif. The jets and their arching vapor trails lend themselves to several interpretations. First is that they represent Zeng's method of adding three-dimensional elements to transform the flat space of the canvas. In his much earlier Hospital and Meat series, Zeng excelled at creating three-dimensional scenes setting off foreground and background spaces against each other. Initially, in his Mask series, Zeng emphasized the masks themselves, along with the Western suits and the large, blood-red hands of his subjects. Having established a mature and proficient grasp of his masked subjects, Zeng returned to his earlier pursuit of situation and narrative, elements which have seeped into hthe series. The addition of jets arcing gently across the sky and into the distance immediately creates new associations of distance and depth that are distinct and isolated from the figures in the foreground. Space now has more depth and dimensionality. Second, the jet may also represent Zeng's exploration of the expressive qualities of line. In other works, Zeng has placed rainbows (Fig. 4) or shafts of light (Fig. 5) in the background, with effects deriving from the same principle as the arcing vapor trails in Fly. The added lines in the background create the element of abstract structuralism, through which Western artists have used geometrical figures and lines that depart entirely from narrative, situation, or modeling of real forms to explore pure abstraction. While Zeng sticks to his symbolic realist style, based in the portraits and human situations that typify his work, Fly nevertheless does show the artist's attention to elements of abstract expression in line. The insertion of these elements into his otherwise figurative work makes possible a stealthy exploration of their expressive effects, and creates a direct link between Fly and Zeng's later series of landscapes composed entirely of interwoven lines. Finally, the unexpected element of the two planes following parallel tracks in the distance echo the relationship of the two foregrounded figures, the physical proximity offset by the loneliness of their individual fates.