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Zeng Fanzhi

Masked Ball Author: Feng Boyi 2006

Everyone has a face but not everyone is free to wear their face as they please. That which we call professional face and public face are refined by social training and the imitation of others. But a real face should reflect an individual personality. Professional and public faces are a code required of everyone as they enter the external world, but a real face is the expression of an inner nature governing the features.

In the every day world, everyone adopts a form of camouflage that disguises their true nature. In other words, people always appear in public wearing a mask. In modern urban life in particular, the trend is to look no further than the surface It could be said that masks have become a way of daily life, though, whilst everyone silently recognises this, to acknowledge it has become taboo. In different situations, in different contexts, masks are as a gesture by which people communicate. Such gestures are as the actions of actors on a stage where the stage setting dictates the form of each mask. Thus without a mask, it has become almost impossible to take a place in society.

Zeng Fanzhi, taking the theme of false facades in his work, deals with the contradictions and disparity between the real face of people's inner nature and the masks worn to face the outside world. The connection between this series of works and his earlier paintings which expressed the nature of life with regard to the relation of people's inner consciousness to modern civilisation, is a very close one. Zeng Fanzhi examines the mechanics of "reason" which have created a distance between people and a dissolution of individual worth. He further points to the all-pervasive power of popular mass media to create false standards for all things in the modern metropolis. It seems that Zeng Fanzhi is not looking to reform the anxiety of the modern world into a perfect Utopia, but is more interested in taking a critical and cynical look at the life of urban people, that is aimless, appealing or pitiful, however you chose to see it. Zeng Fanzhi has said:"False facades is a theme I have worked on for several years now. The paintings are about real people. I exaggerate and embellish the figures to emphasise the falsity of forced intimacy and laughter. The group portrait aspect of the composition, the theatrical arrangement of the space, and the array of masked expressions as the faces of the figures, create the effect of characters performing on the stage. Because false faces exist, people can not avoid the distance they create between each other. It is almost impossible to confide in each other as everyone hides their true nature, all of their desires, so that when they appear in public, the outer mask is all everyone else sees."

In order to reinforce his concept in his painting, Zeng Fanzhi pushes aside traditional visual conventions, the natural appearance of forms, the accepted rules, and instead, uses a monotonous, standardised, repetitive mask and almost identical clothing in which to dress his figures. These he places in front of a beautiful and illusory backdrop rendered in high fashion colours. Therein lies the immediacy, simplicity and impact of the paintings. His figures each appear to have been cast in the same mould. All individual characteristics have been removed. Personalities all reduced to one. With their arms around each other's shoulders, the have been removed. Personalities all reduced to one. With their arms around each other's shoulders, the viewer is shown nothing of the figures beyond a hollow, fashionable exterior. In the language of his painting, Zeng Fanzhi employs a form of expressionism rich in symbols and allusion. The figures are outlined with a hard edge. The structure of their human form, adapted to his needs, is disproportionately exaggerated. Their expression is one of ambiguity. The veins on the hands are heavily accentuated. These aspects reveal the artist's attitude towards the tension of real life, the false nature of that life and the distance that exists between people. Perhaps this approach to painting reveals that Zeng Fanzhi has already breathed air from the winds of change that sweep in at the end of a century and rock the boat of normality. When a mask the winds of change that sweep in at the end of a century and rock the boat of normality. When a mask is placed on a face, in dividual personality traits are removed. Where the natural features are replaced by false ones in Zeng Fanzhi's paintings, the real and the false create a stark contrast in the faces and bodies of the figures and produce a ludicrous effect. This effect is illusory but , at times, a plausible reality. Illusion is found in the exaggerated distortions of the figures which suffuses them with a sense of falseness. The artist goes to great extremes to fabricates an unreal space which reinforces this. The plausible reality of the paintings lies in the poses of the figures and the social culture they represent which equally has a foundation in real life. Thus Zeng Fanzhi's paintings may be seen as a deliberate misunderstanding of reality, a manipulation of a scene, or a romantic, dreamlike entertainment. All social relationships may fall prey to his manipulative approach. The rearranging of proportions is never a question of chance but is consciously contrived. Where he brings together such obviously fake people and environments under his control, so the illusion becomes more convincing. However, illusions have two faces, and the other side of this illusion makes us aware of the great profundity and value of life. It does this because the artist himself is able to take a critically objective look at his own world.

From certain angles, Zeng Fanzhi's expressive approach to painting does not derive from an emotional attitude towards people or the complex workings of the society that people themselves have engineered. Instead, it relates to his own view of himself, a question view that is born of the incessant pricking of the outside world. This view is also full of contradictions - the question of self-awareness, and self-confidence versus self-doubt-which he constantly struggles against. His personal experience has taught him understanding and perception. In the urbanites he sees arrogance, self-satisfaction, vanity, ambiguity, and perhaps too, the disquiet, the boredom, the alienation and the loneliness that lurks in people's heart. From this perspective, the artist takes the stance of a photographer with a very particular agenda, a totally subjective one which allows him to place what most interests him about these figures right in the foreground. The cool approach to the picture plane, only serves to accentuate the presence of the artist as lord of their creation.

In what is a new era for art in China, characterised by many new subjects, approaches and schools, Zeng Fanzhi has frozen the subject of urban people, and the way they live their lives, in the frame of his vision. It is not only because the artist lives in the heart of a city but because the urban image can represent the aura of modernity and contemporary life. The artist's sensitivity and sense of social responsibility are revealed in the urban images and the masked figures he creates. At the same time, the work allows people to experience the critical look at reality which is this artist's mission, and the power of his emotional response to life. This mission and response embody Zeng Fanzhi's true stance, which never allows for any dressing up or glossing over of reality, does not attempt to pander too public taste, and serves to reveal the strength of this artist's personality. These attributes together confirm that Zeng Fanzhi's painting is valuable to addition to realism in art.

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