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ZENG Fanzhi: Raw beneath the Mask

Author: Britta Erickson Oct,2001

To be human is to live in uncertainty, exposed to the gaze of a merciless world. There is a stark terror at the foundation of existence, coupled with a yearning for love and acceptance, or at least for a secure perch. This personal point of view runs as a constant thread through Zeng Fanzhi's paintings of the past decade and more. Most people have these feelings to some degree, valiantly attempting to deny or hide them. Zeng Fanzhi, by contrast, ruthlessly exposes such widespread human insecurities in his gradually evolving figure paintings.

From 1994 and until 2001, Zeng Fanzhi worked through his well-known Mask series. Each figure portrayed in this series wears a white mask fitting smoothly over the face. These figures armor themselves for their excursions into society not only by putting on a false face, but also by donning clothing proclaiming a secure status. That status might be the formerly politically elevated station of a Red Guard, or the current economically enviable position of a young urbanite garbed in the latest fashions. The paintings themselves put on a smooth front in keeping with their theme: in every square inch of the background, the canvas is covered evenly with paint, smoothly applied - often using a palette knife to achieve a smooth surface.

Shortly before beginning the Mask series, Zeng Fanzhi moved to Beijing, having graduated from the oil painting department of the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts in 1991. No doubt the move engendered a degree of self-consciousness in the artist: Beijingers are notorious for their attitude of cosmopolitan superiority towards those from outside the capital. Perhaps the anxiety inherent in such a major life change has now worn off-we can only speculate-but whatever the reason, Zeng's figures have removed their masks. Removing the masks indicates only a willingness to face the void, not a conquering of it. Now that the masks are off, the frail egos exposed seem lost and uncertain. With masks gone, the flashy colorful clothing often featured in the Mask series has disappeared. So, too, have the backgrounds of simple props or scenery. Most significantly, companionship has vanished: recent paintings depict single figures only.

Having stripped his subjects down to their bare selves, it is as if Zeng Fanzhi is starting afresh, hiding nothing. The canvas glows through thin applications of paint, and the paint, where it is thicker, has been laid on in a painterly manner. This is the joy in working with oils, and it is good to see Zeng Fanzhi returning to a style where he is more personally involved with the medium. As in the Mask series, the brushwork is more expressive in each figure's face and disproportionately large hands, and it is in the face and hands where emotion is concentrated.

The painting, 1999 No. 1, is one of the earlier "unmasked" works. Ironically, this piece bears many traits typifying the Socialist Realist style taught in art academies when Zeng Fanzhi was a student. A mysterious light source illuminates the upturned face of the central figure, suggesting he looks to a superior entity as the source of meaning in his life. Twenty-five years ago the source of meaning would have been Mao and, indeed, the figure depicted here sports the red neck scarf indicating loyalty to Maoist thought. Three traits considered all-important in Socialist Realist paintings-that they be "bright, shiny, and red"-characterize the face of the man depicted in 1999 No. 1. Instead of suggesting the joy of political correctness, however, the shiny redness conjures flayed flesh. Acting as a backdrop, vertical lines of calligraphy display the attenuation typical of Mao's writing, but the characters bear no meaning. While the figure's face and hands are solid in their painful fleshiness, the body dissolves: through his white clothing we see traces of the calligraphy.

The work 2000 No. 2 is similar to 1999 No. 1, except that the figure looks out instead of up. He seems to assess his position, rather than seeking motivation from a higher source. Figures in other paintings from 2000 and 2001 gaze outwards too, some appearing frighteningly stern, others pathetic and empty. We see a return of the transfixed helplessness characterizing victims in the Hospital paintings Zeng Fanzhi completed as his graduation work. The young man in 2000 No. 3, for example, wide-eyed in his innocence, has been symbolically immobilized by the painted frame affixing him to the canvas. Slashing lines cross behind his neck, and elegantly empty calligraphy cuts vertically through his face and chest, leading to dilute paint drips running out the bottom of the frame, as if the young man bleeds from numerous slashing wounds.

Blood and stripped flesh have long been powerful metaphors for Zeng Fanzhi. After all, under our anxieties, that is what we are-meat. Over a decade ago, he gouged so deep in his endeavor to expose human frailty that he painted the Meat series. Now he has revived this theme, painting abstract forms reminiscent of exposed flesh. Behind the suppurating bloodiness of 2000 A-1 run slight lines of slender calligraphy: words underlie psychic wounds. Perhaps enjoying the pure paint play involved in creating such abstracted "wound" paintings, in 2001 A-4 the artist substituted grays and browns for the pinks and reds of 2000 A-1. The resulting painting reads as a landscape of hills along a river.

If we consider Zeng Fanzhi's developing oeuvre as reflective of a psychological journey, where does that journey lead? Ten years ago the protagonists in his paintings were helpless victims inhabiting an illogical world. Next, they donned masks to participate in a realm of urban flaneurs sharing superficial relationships. Now the masks are off and the protagonists are utterly alone, stripped to raw flesh and dissolving. Having abandoned pretense, can they now rebuild a sense of self? We can look forward to following this journey as it continues to unfold.

October 2001

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