There are few Chinese painters whose careers possess the depth and complexity as that of Beijing based artist Zeng Fanzhi. From the beginning of his career, Zeng Fanzhi's paintings have been widely recognized for their emotional directness, instinctive psychological sense, and signature expressionistic style, and while his artistic expressions have shifted throughout the years, he continues to reexamine his personal life and feelings in his aesthetic vocabulary, occupying a distinctive place within today's group of established contemporary Chinese artists.
Having arrived in Beijing in 1993 from the more provincial Wuhan, Zeng was confounded and overwhelmed by the cosmopolitan capital, and his apprehension over the alienation and psychological strain felt under such a tumultuous time emerged as the central theme inspiring the iconic works to come. His art is a response to his immersion in a more vacuous environment, and his Mask series displays the struggle between the artist's incessant existential qualms over the affectation and charade found in his new contemporary urban environment.
Painted in 2001, Society (Lot 29) is an exceptional distillation of themes within Zeng Fanzhi's Mask series bringing the series to a new artistic and conceptual level. Zeng presents a lone man, elegantly dressed, standing upon a rocky precipice seemingly at the pinnacle of success. He addresses, the viewer directly, right arm draped calmly at his side with the other holding an umbrella, standing complacent against a nebulous, cerulean skyline. Dressed with distinction in a tailored bourgeois suit featuring a mandarin collar reminiscent of the "changshan," a formal dress for Chinese men before Western style suits became popular in China, this man masked by Zeng stands for a symbol of the middle class echelon of society, a vision of desired self-presentation permeated by Western traditions and values, yet portrayed with a unique impression of Chinese modernity, underlining a shift in Zeng's own discernments of the social quandaries and exigencies of his age. Encased behind the seamless and impenetrable mask is the metaphor for his psychological state of indifference and vacuity. Zeng has said, "The image of the mask is a theme I have worked on for several yearsK [The paintings] focus on life in the modern environment and, due to the distrust, jealousy and misunderstandings between people, a state of mind that is unavoidably forced upon them. In today's society, masks can be found in every place. It doesn't matter if you are after protecting yourself, or your desire to deceive others, the true self will always be concealed." Zeng's attention to the discreet areas of raw, exposed flesh around the mask or in the awkwardly over-sized hands add a psychological note which plays against the superficially composed appearance of his subject, serving as an exodus for repressed feelings that must find conduit for release.
Zeng's paintings involve layers of meaning influenced by both Western art history and China's sociopolitical history, and Society offers an array of associations that inform the meaning of the work. In the painting, Zeng invokes the figure of the cosmopolitan dandy, a contemporary fl?neur, or "gentleman stroller of city streets" (Fig.1), but equally bring to mind the triumphant spirit of Caspar David Friedrich's iconic painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (Fig.2). At the same time the image of Society is reminiscent of one of the most important paintings of the Cultural Revolution period, Chairman Mao Goes to Anyuan (Fig.3). Painted by Liu Chunhua, Mao Zedong is portrayed in the forefront of a mountainous landscape surveying the scene before him wearing a traditional "changshan" fluttering in the wind. Behind the Chairman riots of clouds depict an approaching storm, but an umbrella under his right arm signifies his readied determination to surmount every difficulty to emancipate China. From the complex advent of European modernism to the Chinese revolution, subtle cues in all of these images, such as the lone figure standing in a Kantian state of self-reflection against a darkened sky, convey the possibilities of triumph during moments of profound shifts in culture.
Earlier works from the series were often more raw, figures painted in muted greys or acidic yellows (Fig.4). Such works emphasized the drabness of the social environment, and Zeng's technique was expressive of blunt, raw human emotion filled with anxiety, distress and frustration. Figures might appear alone or in groups, but this coupling with other figures only heightened their anxiety and the superficial quality of their camaraderie. Expanding on his earlier approach to the series, Zeng's palette in Society has become more refined, his figure more elegantly composed, the setting more artificial, and as a result, the canvas is infused with a higher degree of irony, suggesting that the newly capitalist, consumerist "society" has liberated the individual to be a free agent of self-invention and self-representation, and Zeng's depiction of the lone individual emphasizes that this exchange of environment has only replaced one alienation with another, leaving one ultimately alone with his or herself. While Zeng's earlier Mask series have highlighted the impossibility of connecting with others in an increasingly superficial social world, here it is not a crisis of interpersonal connections but instead the challenge of projecting an unassailable image of success where one is perpetually trying to overcome the gap between his own imagined, idealized self and the perception of those around him. As such, Society is not a portrait in the traditional sense - Zeng's protagonist rather stands as a symbol of China's new social order, one that is corrupted by superficiality and false surfaces while revealing the tension between contemporary urban life and the artist's abiding existential concerns. Zeng explains, "I grew up in the environment of the Cultural Revolution and all these ideologies take a lot of space in my mind, but when I paint I just want to portray my inner feelings and the people around me."
With themes spanning from portraits and abstract landscapes, Zeng instills the quotidian superficiality of shared experience in the rapidly changing landscape of contemporary Chinese culture within this societal flux. As such, with Society, Zeng once again demonstrates his extraordinary insight into the shifting dynamics of his social environment, and the emotional and psychological strain it places on individual lives. The diverse cultural appeal of Zeng's art stems from his honesty, fragility and beauty in portraying his raw emotions and in expressing his thoughts upon a universally-shared trait; our recurrent human desire to appear other than as we are. Yet they are always interpretations and reflections of the artist's personal life and his own feelings, as they tell of loneliness and isolation, to dialogue the economical, ideological and often painful social transformations of a burgeoning modern China.