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Masks Series 1993 - 1998

Author: Karen Smith 2006

Zeng Fanzhi graduated from the oil painting department of Hubei Academy of Fine Arts in 1991. He moved to Beijing in 1993, and the collection of works that can be seen here reflects the transformations that have occurred in his painting during this time, and in the face of a dense, modern, and rapidly changing, capital city. The move from Wuhan to Beijing precipitated a dramatic shift in Zeng Fanzhi's art, largely in terms of the painting surface itself, its texture, structure, and the range of pigments with which it is coated. The early works were raw expletives of emotion in paint, youthful angst perhaps for the recent works are calmer, more mature is the logical conclusions. Yet, if we compare the earlier works with the most recent ones, there is a sense in which these paintings are very much the same. Now, looking at works spanning half a decade, and wondering what might come next, it is certain that whilst the superficial elements may be altered, the theme which lies at the heart of Zeng Fanzhi's work, will remain with him. Amongst China's young artists, there are few whose work is so directly attuned to their own being and sense of the world. 

Zeng Fanzhi is an obsessive artist who tends to wrest all possible life force from an image. In the beginning, it was the clinical interior of a hospital, that provided the backdrop and the atmosphere appropriate to conveying human frailty in the face of sickness. These hospital settings were not so much the bright, sterilised secession of white-wash typical of the modern metropolis, as like emergency, make-shift structures full of the casualties of some indeterminate disaster. This may seem a far-fetched interpretation, but the extreme and macabre tension between the patients and doctors which is evoked here, serves to stress Zeng's premise; Man is always alone, even in the midst of the densest crowds, alone and isolated, and yet at the same time bound together by the fact of his humanity into this thing called life. That is Man's pain - that he is no different to the next man - and his sorrow, for the next man - equally as fragile in ego - seeks to distance himself from others and thereby keep himself safe from society. 

So, first Zeng Fanzhi made allusion to the inherent sickness of humanity confronting viewers with the precincts of holy medics. Then it was cruelty in a series entitled simply Meat. Cruelty is in the nature of all things, vegetable and animal. Cruelty is defined by social mores and, therefore, an almost totally abstract concept. It might be said that cruelty keeps Man alive for without it how would he be tough enough to place meat upon the family table? The job of the butcher is one from which many people shy away, yet how necessary it is. All things balance on that delicate watershed of acceptable practice. Beyond that line of acceptability lies the kingdom of Unnatural, and beyond that the desert of Insanity. We sense that Zeng Fanzhi's butchers have already entered the kingdom, but then, a piece of meat is just a piece of meat, right? Rembrandt thought so. So did Chiam Soutine. It is important to remember that artists respond first and foremost to their visual senses, to colour and texture. The theory is invented later. 

Over the last five years, the dominating image in Zeng Fanzhi's painting has been that of a masked figure. It is natural to associate masks with the balls of Venetian carnevale, the theatre of Greek tragedy, the death masks of the Egyptians, and the frivolity of mardi-gras. Life and death, pleasure and pain, these opposites are not so far removed from one another. As comparatives, they have their points of correlation and are illustrated most naturally by the Chinese spirit of yin and yang. 

The viewer should not be duped by the bright, fashionable colours of Zeng Fanzhi's more recent works into believing that these paintings are light-hearted musings on the anonymity of today's cat-walk idols. The gulf between public and private, the face that people present to public view, is often the aspect that is most intriguing about figures of fame and notoriety, but perhaps few people stop to consider the masks that ordinary people don when they leave their private domain to enter the public arena. Zeng Fanzhi speaks of much more ordinary people than society's idols. He points to people like he and she, you or I, the kind of young men and women that are increasingly prominent on the streets of the Chinese capital and in other major economic centres. These people stand out for the garb in which they drape themselves, be it as style guru or fashion victim, for the ideal they pursue in custom-made or designer weaves. Westerners have long been familiar with the saying "the clothes make the man", and in societies the world over, roles are staked out by costumes that reinforce social demarcations; I wear, therefore I am. To Zeng Fanzhi, this is acutely apparent. His masked figures are sharp dressers, stylish and confident in their attitudes. As wearers of modern modes, they are like the models that grace the pages of fashion magazines; good bodies with little individuality. Their copy-book expressions smile out from blank, undefined settings, all their personal traits concentrated in the veins of their exaggerated hands. Behind this facade, the individual is lost, and yet we can also sense that despite the broad smiles of Zeng Fanzhi's clowns, burns the sorrow of the Harlequin. What to do? Keep smiling... In public, features and personality will always be seconded to the image the costume presents; the mask in Zeng Fanzhi's paintings highlights both our inability to see beyond immediate facade, and the increasing lack of any urgent need to do so. 

Last year, Zeng Fanzhi began to introduce more specific landscapes to the compositions. An expanse of sky, of sea, the natural environment, each illustrating how far-removed from nature modern man has become. The more convincingly the artist renders waves on the shores, pathways beneath feet, the more fake they seem when occupied by his figures. The viewer might be distracted by the stance of a lone man walking his dog, a gang of beautiful young things ambling on a beach, the embrace of lovers, or the squint of eyes caught in a patch of sunlight, but all of these are as a subplot to the main story. This large series offers a conundrum which is a test for the audience; yes, this is Zeng Fanzhi's realm of make-believe, but which is more unreal, the stages he makes his vision, or the world from which the viewer regards his paintings? 

Karen Smith

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