In an era of constant change, how does one deal with new ways of living, societal transformations, emotional and attitudinal shifts? As an artist, Zeng Fanzhi has provided us with a concrete answer. Braving the wind of change in the world by diligently creating art that reflects his observations, he composed an invaluable chapter in Chinese contemporary art history. Between 1980s to early 1990s, he lurked inside the underbelly of society where he was deeply touched by daily tragedies. From this experience, he produced the tremendously raw but sympathetic Meat series and Hospital series. Since 1994, the artist has been revealing the collective sense of banality, anxiety, and detachment that are prevalent in contemporary Chinese society with the Mask series. Through the strength of these works, Zeng Fanzhi was propelled into one of the brightest stars in Chinese contemporary art, both in the market as well as in art history. Building on the success of the Mask series, the artist began the We series of paintings where he investigated into the expressive power of intense brushwork. At the same time, he created another new series of portraits based on raw linen. These two new paths indicated the artist’s ambitious explorations. After the turn of the millennium, Zeng Fanzhi entered a period of experimentation with abstract expressions where he indulged in the pulsating energy of lines and brushwork. As called by the artist, ‘human’s scapes’, this series of large-scale paintings became the centrepiece of his creative output between 2003 and 2006. 1 Measuring at 330 centimetres in length, I/We (Lot 38) is a monumental work that belongs to this period. It is an accumulation of artistic nutrients that the artist had been cultivating for over a decade. It combines the unique styles of previous series. The style of this new synthesis points to later developments such as the Sky series and the Wild Grass landscape series.
Despite being stylistically rich and diverse, as an artist, Zeng Fanzhi’s primary concerns have always been the fate of the Chinese society and the psychological transformations of its people. I/We inherits the visual language of the iconic Mask series — standing at the peak, the two figures solemnly exude an air of openness. Defined rendering of the musculature can be seen on the exaggerated faces and meaty hands of the figures. This highly textured depiction is borrowed from German Expressionism — one of Zeng Fanzhi’s favourite modelling techniques. It is reminiscent of Philip Guston’s painting The Line in which a gigantic and veiny hand is painted in brick red. Rough and direct, Guston’s treatment of the hand is characteristically expressionistic. Zeng Fanzhi’s use of colour is masterfully precise: every finger and strand of muscle is expressed in a myriad of tones. As a result, viewers’ attention is drawn to two pairs of otherwise ordinary looking hands casually hanging off the figures’ pockets. Zeng Fanzhi does not paint the texture of skin with a brush. He scrapes layers of dynamically coloured paint with a palette knife intuitively. The resulting textures from this process is both natural and intensely contrasted. The intricate modelling on small features such as the nasal bridges and ears of the two figures thoroughly demonstrates the artist’s meticulous use of colours. These highly detailed visual devices are nuanced yet restrained with resounding emotions. Through these unforgettable expressions, viewers can experience the passionate surges that the artist felt when he painted these figures.
By examining the hairstyles and facial features of the two figures, it is evident that they are painted as mirror images of each other by the artist, portraying the artist and his brother. In American figurative painter Alex Katz’s painting Double Portrait of Robert Rauschenberg, the artist utilised mirror images to investigate into the diverse aspects and temperaments of the subject. In Zeng Fanzhi’s painting, one figure is standing while the other is seated; one wears a western suit and the other wears a Chinese red guard uniform. They represent the struggles and contradictions that Chinese people felt as they are confronted with the liberal ideologies from the west. Combined with the title I/We , one cannot help but think that the artist is reflecting on this dilemma for himself as well as everyone in the society who is face with the same issue. With the same family background and collective social experiences, the characters are expressed differently. The figure on the left wears a red scarf and a shirt that befits the blue-collar class — his attire refers to his cultural identity as a member of the communist party. The figure on the right wears a tailored suit and a pair of finely polished dress shoes — he is at the height of his career in the business world. Side by side, these figures project the contradiction between the wealth obtained from massive economic changes and the new found desires introduced by new cultures towards the end of the 20th century in Chinese society. This treatment is similar to 19th century American painter John Singer Sargent’s depiction of female figure by using fashion to convey women’s increased autonomy. In I/We , the irreconcilable differences in attires between the two figures have locked them in a tense stalemate. Equally determined, they each seem to be in charge of the other person’s existence. This is an internal dialogue — a psychological struggle when a one is faced with a choice, and a battle when one is grappling with conflicting positions on an issue. Are the two figures representing the voices conversing in Zeng Fanzhi’s mind, the similarities and contrasts of the Zeng brothers, or are they metaphors for the collective struggles experienced by everyone in the society? Amidst the torrent of times in the beginning of the 21st century, the artist concisely formulates two figures that are loaded with symbolism to represent the changing tendencies in a new society. Its satirical power is charismatic.
In I/We , not only did Zeng Fanzhi represent an individual’s psychological, relational and social situations, by examining the setting, it is apparent that the artist has eloquently exercised his artistic language on every corner of the canvas. In the gradated skies and low hanging clouds, we see a much deeper rendering than the unmodulated colour backdrop that the artist used in the late 1990s. The amalgamation between the figures and the landscape seen here would inform the abstract expressionist treatment in his later Sky series. Amongst the many visual devices, using the landscape format to paint figurative portraits is exceptionally rare. The breadth of the setting puts the figures in a commanding position, and this empowers the painting with tension as well as an expansive feeling. In the middle of the painting, the horizon glows and brings out the purple hue in the clouds. It indicates either dawn or dusk — a time when change is imminent. I/We is not a static picture. The two figures are situated in a space-time where change is constant. The rubble behind the figures are the walls that crumbled under the weight of history. The ground that they are standing on resembles German Expressionist Max Beckman’s crashing waves. The brushstrokes are similarly bold, fluid, and charged with emotions. In brushstrokes that are primarily black, Zeng Fanzhi infused them with surrealistic colours such as indigo, plum, and neon yellow to bestow the mountain with personality. The artist’s gestural brushwork expresses the motions in the rolling hills. Such movements embody the artist’s tumultuous emotions like the surging waves. This unique style of dynamic colour use would be combined
with the palette of the later Wild Grass landscape series. It would be developed into a major subject matter for Zeng Fanzhi in the follow decade.
Painted in 2004, I/We is a collection of Zeng Fanzhi’s past achievements. It reveals the artist’s ambitions, investigations, and new directions at the time. And it foretells us of his glorious development in the future. In terms of figurative rendering, social commentary, artistic treatments, and the overarching conceptual organisation, this work demonstrates the artist’s seasoned execution. In the context of the rapidly transforming times, I/We embraces the expanding possibilities of contemporary art.