Among the icons of Chinese contemporary art, Zeng Fanzhi has always had a unique visual language. While the likes of Yue Minjun and Zhang Xiaogang aped artists from the 1980s, Zeng's distinct approach to oil painting makes him more than just a flash in the pan. Best known for his Mask Series, in which subjects bore the same masked expression, he grabbed the attention of the international art market with his sombre paintings. His works began selling for millions of dollars in the mid-2000s, reaching a crescendo in 2008 when Christie's sold his Mask Series 1996 No. 6 for a record $9 million in Hong Kong, a record that he still holds for a living Chinese contemporary artist.
While this month's ShContemporary fair is sure to include galleries hoping to bank on his vaulted status in the market, it is his solo show at the Rockbund Art Museum that seals his reputation as one of the most significant contemporary artists in China. His first solo museum show in Shanghai since 2003, these new works, many of which were made especially for RAM, expand on his landscape and animal-focused paintings that he debuted in 2008. There is nary a reference to his Mask Series, save for the opening painting that greets viewers on the ground floor; here, a slaughtered bull flayed and butchered is composed on a bare linen canvas, hinting at similarly composed past works. Elsewhere, landscape paintings featuring thickets of branches partially obscuring various animal subjects – a hyena eating its prey, a lone wolf growling at the viewer – make references to the building's history as a natural history museum. But rather than displaying its animal subjects in a reverential or scientific way, these are more visceral and potent images. The artist has expressed his concern for the welfare of endangered species, and while this connection between his work and his environmental concerns seem forced, his powerful brushwork and sombre colour palette provide a compelling argument for his cause. Most notable are a pair of ten metre paintings of landscapes aflame, his largest works to date, where the vibrant movement of his brush strokes perfectly replicate the violent flicker of flames.
In addition to these monumental paintings, the exhibition features sculptural works, the first time the artist is working in this medium. These pieces have a religious tone that makes allusions to traditions in Western art history and its relationship to the Church that local audiences may not entirely catch. Covered Lamb, which depicts a headless lamb placed on an alter and covered with a sheet, brings to mind biblical themes of sacrifice, redemption and Christ. But knowledge of Western religion is not required to admire Mammoth's Tusks. Originally conceived to be a true to life reproduction of the extinct animal itself, the artist opted instead to focus on the creature's most distinguished feature, here scaled larger than the actual tusk. The immense teeth, pointed directly at the viewer upon entering the gallery, both intimidates and awes, with the addition of a religious symphony added to the reverential tone. It is an impressive contrast to his paintings and is a step in the right direction for an artist hoping to expand his practice.
The religious tone reaches a crescendo in the second part of the exhibition, an installation of stained glass windows in a disused church at the end of the Rock Bund development. The artist used paintings from 2008 for the window images, creating a sort of house of worship for art. It is a lovely way for the artist to display old works but the poor quality of the materials shows through; the artist opted not to use real stained glass but rather printed plastic. It unfortunately looks cheap if observed closely. Still it makes a lasting impression and the connection between religion and art, and art as religion, is palpable. Zeng Fanzhi is already considered a kind of legend and could easily spend the rest of his career doing the same old thing (as other artists are guilty of doing), but with this show he is on his way to creating a lasting legacy while challenging himself in whatever way he can.
Xhingyu Chen, author of Chinese Artists: New Media 1990 to 2010, Schiffer Publishing (firstname.lastname@example.org )