Zeng's works have been f?ted by the collective international. He painted his Mask series from 1994 to 2000, the earlier works from the series had obvious stylistic association to the neurotic tone and expressionist figuration of Zeng's earlier Hospital and Meat series. Mask series represented the existential seclusion and underlying misery felt by many Chinese during one of the most tempestuous social churn in 1990s. Painted in 1998, Mask Series (Lot 44) has an added element of sophistication.
Upon Zeng's move from Wuhan to Beijing in 1993, he began exploring the psychological turmoil inflicted by urban estrangement. In Mask Series, he employs embroidered forms influenced by German Expressionism, as the figure wears a white mask which merges with his facial features, the combination of what is on the surface with what lies beneath suggest a disturbing notion that this mask is the face, as if he is victim of his own roles. Hauntingly illustrating the personal uneasiness cruelly besieged by the unmanageable wave of modernization, Zeng reveals, "No one appears in society without a mask." Behind the stagnant fa?ade of wide smiles, burns the sorrow of the harlequin.
The figure wears a tailored western suit, bright red bowtie and shiny leather shoes, paired with oversized hands and piercingly coloured lips. The use of loud colours gives a sense of illusion, implying the duplicitous and shallow values of urbanities. The scratchy texture of etching, angularity and the prominent ornamentation remind viewers of Max Beckmann's Portrait of a Carpet Dealer (Fig. 1), painted in 1946, where the bourgeois subject is an allegory for disaffection and moral decadence of society after World War II. Zeng discloses the anguish and tension of the subject under an incessantly distancing culture in the constantly alert and defensive manners.
Mask Series exhibits Zeng's exploration of colour expressionism. The ternary complex of background colour is redolent of the iconic centralized compositions of Mark Rothko's No.18 (Fig. 2). The yellow shape on top could represent the sun in the hazy sky, the blue shape beneath it proposes the ocean and creating a horizon, with different shades of blue forming waves, and the ochre colour at the bottom that implies a beach. Softly brushed and indefinite edges of shapes represent incandescent void, hover in spatial indeterminacy. The meditative minimalism of the background invites silent contemplation, which is also a common motif in Chinese literati painting. The flat background is insubstantial, contrasts with the expressive characters, forming a sense of moratorium between realism and fantasy, pushing the figure into an incongruous environment and exterminating the intimacy of recognizable veracity. It evokes the sublime, replacing the representations of figures in nature with an infinity and abstraction.
This piece delivers the correlation between humans and animals, a recurrent theme in Zeng's works. Similar size and interchangeable images of the human flesh and animal carcass in Man and Meat (Fig. 3) identify man and animal as equal, intimating a barbarous state of human existence in its most vulnerable and candid form. In Mask Series, the relationship between man and animal has strikingly become harmonious. A scrawny Weimaraner flanks the figure, serving as an extension of the figure's desired projected persona. Dog is a sign of wealth and social standing in Western society, a custom that infiltrates the impressionable Chinese nation. Dogs are a common visual motif in Western art since 15th century, as a medium for conveying a perplexing amalgamation of compound symbols. Church fathers, poets, scholars and humanists were symbolised and accompanied by dogs. As with Albrecht D?rer's engraving of Saint Jerome in His Study (Fig. 4), the saint works on his letters while a dog guards the entrance, presents a vivid symbol of loyalty and the contemplative life. The dog here is more of a companion, imitating the emotional states of the lonely masked figure.
Mask Series attempts to reflect an insentient psychological state in the spectators. As the mirror stage suggested by Jacques Lacan, "The self is constituted by what is reflected back: by a mirror and by others in social relations generally". However, behind the extravagance, can a bowtie - a western symbol, replace Zeng's absence of red scarf as a child? A dialogue between internal cataclysms and external constraints stir profound disquiet in onlooker shove into commiseration. This piece encapsulates Zeng's intellectual emotional depth and the representation of the ethos of an era.