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The Trauma of the Soul

Author: Robert C. Morgan 2006

I am in awe of this young painter, Zeng Fanzhi. Without recourse to either sentimentality or overdetermined commentaries, I believe his paintings carry the vigor or an evolving and fresh interpretation of Chinese society. From the perspective of a critic, based in New York, I find Zeng's work original, vigorous, significance, and open to a breadth of unpredictable interpretations. Two decades ago, with the influx of Postmodernism, the notion of "cultural specificity" came heavily into the foreground of art criticism. At the time, there was very little resistance to this idea. Today it is possible to openly question the authority of this position. "Cultural specificity" proposed that unless the observer of a work of art was of the same culture and was raised with the same history and values as the artist, that it would be naive, if not impossible for that person -- particularly a foreigner critic -- to understand the artist's work. In retrospect, this notion of receptivity to avant-garde art is rather conservative. It denies the complexities of living in a transcultural environment which, in recent years, has become our reality.

The reception of art is not only about "cultural specificity" but about worldly significance, including psychological, social, and political issues, that have become embedded into our aesthetic understanding. On a subjective level, there are many occasions where I have felt the work of an artist from another cultural tradition with such intensity that I could not deny the connection. This suggests to me that recent art has become as subjective as it is formal, and that art is capable of signifying values that cross over between cultures. In one sense, advanced art of the past decade is defined more by transcultural values than by an essentialist reading that separates one culture from another. As I have sought to resist the superficial values of my own culture, imposed through the omniscience of television and mass advertising, I become more aware of art that reveals the artist's struggle to become more fundamentally human in a world fractured by cynicism, greed, and pernicious threats of power. It is precisely this conceptual understanding of art and this attitude towards aesthetics that emanates from the paintings of Zeng Fanzhi.

In Zeng's paintings, I sense a certain resistance to the history and values of his past as a way of coming to terms with the validity of the present. His paintings are not only representations, but a reconstitution of memory within the historical present. Some critics believe that Zeng's work has emerged out of Socialist Realism and that the traces of that era are connected to his expressionist approach to the figure over the past decade. This may well be the case. But in order to understand the present, the artist cannot escape memory. The manner in which Zeng applies paint to canvas in order to capture the figure or a group of figures is always understated, but always forceful. They may be personages with whom he has shared friendship or simply moments of deep mutual understanding. Whether he represents them in Mask Series No. 6 (1995), where two standing male figures embrace another, or in Mask Series No. 11 (1996), a singular portrait shown as a sequential diptych, there is a sense of the past and the present inextricably bound to one another. The moments expressed in these paintings embody time. Through them, we observe the instrumental changes that have occurred within Chinese society as history has moved from one moment to the next. Zeng shows us the human realities of his youth. His paintings interpret his past experiences from the vantage point of the present.

In April 2002, while visiting the old warehouse space of Lorenz Helbling's Shanghart Gallery, I recall seeing a series of the Masks from the mid-nineties, and then the more recent figures without masks. Finally, I recall a large abstract landscape -- separate from the others -- painted with heavy gestures in black, white, gray, and brown. I was immediately struck by the incisive quality of a gestural work, entitled A Series No. 3 (2000). Its power and visual force, its energetic delivery and vitality were of a character much different than the Abstract Expressionists so familiar to New Yorkers. Zeng's abstract "landscape" held a taught sense of historical change, a definitive feeling of transition, as if moving from one moment to the next. I felt that he understood time, not as a banality representing schedules and routines, but as an historical process. For Zeng, time is a condition of reality not exempt from painting, but intrinsic of it. In Feng's painting, the space becomes invisible; only the turbulence of memory is left to speak. Here the momentum of the gesture enfolds upon time, passing between one mark and the next, in search of some unknown self.

In comparing A Series No. 3 with his portraits, such as Untitled No. 2 and No. 4, one may sense a coagulation of meaning. The two Untitled portraits were also done in 2000 -- the same year as the landscape. Whether figurative or representational, I was convinced of the meaning of these works as being inclusive of a kind of distant irony related to the figure. What made the irony apparent was the distance of the portrait, the unfinished remnants of the body, and the application of impulsive gestures. In Untitled No. 4, the male portrait is painted within a frame within the actual frame of the painting. Yet what counters this distance is also significant. Feng employs the use of red pigment in and around the head of his subject, reminiscent of his earlier Meat and Hospital paintings at the outset of the nineties. In Untitled No. 4, the subject wears a conventional Maoist shirt and coat. He is caught within a moment of tradition and transition as he moves outside of one reality into the mental state of another. It is as if the head and the body of his subject are separate from one another, thus suggesting a division between the psyche of the individual and the imposition of Maoist philosophy on the social self. (There is little doubt that the Masks, painted between 1993 - 1998, represent a oppositional tendency between the desire of the individual to escape this parody of the social role.)

In Feng's Untitled portraits, the masks are alleviated from his subjects. Instead of anonymity, the individual psyche is portrayed in the throes of re-acculturation, searching for a social role. The ensuing tension of Feng's subjects -- as revealed in Untitled No. 6 (2001), where the male subject wears a bathrobe, or Untitled No. 10 (2001), where three male subjects don formal attire -- implies a frustration in trying to locate a new social role where the individual psyche is no longer divided against itself. In these paintings, the role of the individual is not disdained, but modestly accepted within the context of the whole -- the society at large. The two portraits present different sides of the argument in which the dignity of the individual stands in relation to formal power. The psychological and economic realities characterize the current transition in China's history by revealing the conflict of identity. When Zeng paints a portrait, he borrows signs from Socialist Realism -- the red kerchief, the fake Maoist script -- but only as a means to project irony.

In contrast to Social Realism, the artist transforms the body of his subjects through the use of strong expressionist mannerisms -- the large hands, the wide eyes, the flayed appearance of the naked torsos, arms, and head -- and thus shows the transparency of his subjects who are often portrayed in terms of their sexuality. This is exemplified in works such as Untitled No. 5 (2000) and in Untitled No. 8 (2001). Though not included in the exhibition, the beauty of the latter painting is inexorable. A standing male subject is bare to the waist with simulated ideographs pouring like rain or blood over and through his body. The impression is one of either suffering or sickness, the dissolution of the self, but it is also an attempt to reconstitute meaning of the self insofar as the self as an agent of suffering. One may see the content in these portraits, inherited from Buddhism, where the universality of suffering is acknowledged as the fate of all sentient beings -- a theme shown in a highly secularized manner in Hospital Triptych (2001). The conflict represented in Zeng's figures resides in the overwhelming odds against traditional values made evident in the advance of secularization through the rapid technological growth and the expansion of urban life throughout China.

The featured work of this exhibition are a series of work painted in 2002-2003 and devoted to a large frontal view of the artist's face. Each self-portrait is tightly cropped from above the eyebrows to just below the lip, and from either side beginning just inside the outer edge of each eye. Given the exaggerated scale of these works, the impact of these expressionist portraits offers an experience of heightened subjectivity that is characteristic of his other series as well. What sets these works apart from the rest is their deliberate intensity, their staggering optical appeal, and their dynamic reverberation that ascends far beyond any nuance associated with Socialist Realism. From a Western perspective, one is attempted to see these portraits as a bricolage, or possibly an overlay, somewhere between Byzantium and Der Brucke. The expressionist use of repetitive spirals painted over each of these faces gives an hallucinogenic quality, one that moves outside of the frame into the atmosphere itself, a distorted hologram that has lost its focus.

One might read these self-portraits as a kind of male hysteria, a therapy by which the artist desires to remove himself from the imposed social identity of the past, the clinging vestiges of the Cultural Revolution. Still, there is the encumbrance of trying to come to terms with himself existentially or perhaps seeking within the process of painting a kind of Buddhist absence, a removal. In either case, the artist's indulgence is impressive as is his willingness to go beyond the past and beyond the simulation of predictability or academic formulas. None of that is present. Instead, Zeng has opened up a discourse that depends fully on the subjective demeanor of the artist as a model of the transcultural present. His portraits are not media images, nor are they about the media. They are straight-forward accounts of how the artist sees himself in the act of painting and how he understands himself at the moment he stands in front of himself -- his image -- trying to accumulate data that is less than objective, but intentional with regards to his position as a human being.

The focus of color is black, white, and red -- colors that are consistent with his other full-bodied, unmasked figures from the late nineties. This triad of colors has a certain symbolic significance in relation to China's past, but for the artist there is an opportunity to focus on his facial features from an intentional or psychological viewpoint rather than simply trying to render his physiognomy. Clearly the expressionist position becomes an important factor -- the deep penetration through a focus on the undivided self to the point of erasing any surface appearance. This erasure is not unrelated to Buddhist mediation where the self is removed from awareness, a practice known as samadhi (in the original Sanskrit ).

Zeng Fanzhi has the remarkable ability to transform himself through painting.

Such an act is not inevitable or is it a predilection that is expected from advanced art. As a Chinese artist at the outset of the twenty-first century, Zeng's position is at the very core of the issue. He raises the question as to what direction is possible for maintaining Chinese identity in relation to the emergence of global economy. This is not a deliberate intention, but it is an indirect statement. The core of the issue for Zeng is what is happening to the human being in the throes of such a challenging historical situation where change is inevitable. Zeng Fanzhi is willing to look at himself, to confront himself through the act of painting. By doing so, he reveals a metaphor for existence -- that to exist in the twenty-first is more than making money or making time. It is a matter of coming to terms with the existential realities of the self without denying a sense of social responsibility.

In staring back at the permutations of his face that confront us, we come to realize that time is a reality and that each epoch of human life is a rare and potentially wonderful moment. He sees himself in relation to the world. What is personal is, to some extent, also social. The responsibility of the self calls for a new way to exist in a world where electronic information pulls us away from the center into the stratosphere of material concerns. Zeng Fanzhi is an artist who understand this phenomenon, and also understands the price of the human soul unless one is willing to come to terms with existence as a spiritual reality in a secularized world.

Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His recent books include Art into Ideas: Essays on Conceptual Art (1996), Between Modern and Conceptual Art (1997), The End of the Art World (1998), Gary Hill (2000), and Bruce Nauman (2002). He writes for Art News (New York) and Art Press (Paris) and is a Contributing Editor for Sculpture Magazine (USA) and Tema Celeste (Milan). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History, and is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute. He presented a conference at the Symposium for "Urban Creation" at the recent Shanghai Biennial in 2002.

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