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The Visual Epos of Zeng Fanzhi

Author: Lóránd Hegyi Translator: Beverley Blaschke, Vienna 2007

Although a historical reconstruction of the language of Zeng Fanzhi's oeuvre would certainly provide occasion for numerous legitimate comments and observations on the development of his painting, his historical preferences in art and his chosen influences, it seems to me that a more fruitful approach will be to focus on the concrete, unique phenomenon of his painting and the question of the contextualisation of the visual references employed by Zeng Fanzhi in our radical here and now. This also means that rather than attempting to reconstruct his individual development as a painter within the Chinese culture of contemporary painting, it will be preferable to try to perceive the concrete, sensual, visual actuality of a Zeng Fanzhi's painting and to describe its specific, immediate impact mechanism. Zeng Fanzhi's paintings are evocative, powerful and dynamic; they invoke a sense of constant, unending evolution and transformation without foreseeable results. This makes them exhilarating and exciting, suggestive of hidden, complex stories that could be continued in all possible directions, so that the painting becomes an adventure, its surface a map for an expedition into terra incognita. By adventure I mean the humorous, vivid, spontaneous unfolding of unforeseen events within the composition of the painting, in other words, the fertile evolution of its implicit potential, which is embodied in various imaginative contexts, in various emotional and associational environments, by the sensual structuring of the painting on the canvas. This concretisation of the primary acts of visual and plastic composition in painting puts the different thematic links and the various references in the foreground and draws attention to the narrative which thus evolves.

In this light, it is understandable that Zeng Fanzhi's painting – first and foremost, at least – offers us content that is rich and exciting, linked with history, politics, emotions and memories, psychology and fantasy, and somewhat anecdotal and didactic, so that the painter becomes a storyteller, a commentator. But the true narrative is to be found behind the storyteller's tales, behind the commentator's observations: it is the narrative of the painting's creation, which makes it plain that the unceasing transfiguration of the visual figure is the only true condition, the only immediate reality, the true dramatic and, for us, relevant event. The process of becoming is the actual narrative here, manifested in the various connotative contexts of the embodiment of the act of painting.

The dynamics of Zeng Fanzhi's manifold pictorial events, the rich structuring of his sometimes gigantic canvases with their hidden, yet extremely significant, multifaceted, fictively three-dimensional, imaginative, almost illusionistic spatial dimensions, the complexity of the light effects which not only animate and emotionalise his paintings but also, in another, one might almost say quasi-mythical, sublime context, give them the transcendental character of epic narratives, exhort us to contemplate his works in the context of a painting discourse that is contemporary per se. Paradoxically, it is precisely this apparent divergence between the newly found sublime context and the intellectual strategies of deconstruction in visual language, with their connotations and methods, that characterises the discourse of contemporary painting practice, with the new narrative clearly seeking to be integrated, albeit cautiously and somewhat covertly, into the radical contemporary context. Remarkably, Zeng Fanzhi's paintings manifest an idiosyncratic combination of deconstructivist methods and picturesque painted stories, so that the creation of the painting, as such, becomes the actual narrative.

Thus we can avoid the danger of an oversimplified, pseudo-historical, anecdotal approach and an even less interesting psychological analysis, those frequent, comprehensible but ultimately useless attendant phenomena of discussions of Chinese contemporary art by Western art critics, which, however, do draw attention to exactly what is lacking in the Western context, namely sound knowledge of the intellectual, philosophical and historical background, social structures, politico-cultural constellations and development perspectives of various disciplines and cultural fields.

Zeng Fanzhi's oeuvre provokes a different answer; it demands another form of perception based on a direct aesthetic examination of the quiddities of his painting, which of course have been developed and moulded by real historical situations and specific mental constellations. For me, the questions of why and under what circumstances, under what psychological or emotional and moral constraints, under what influence he painted his hospital paintings, or his "Mask" series, and which European masters of expressionism provided him with formal influences, concrete models and certain methodological guidelines, or which classical modern masters had an impact on him, are less interesting than the fundamental question of the creative energy that is constantly manifest in his various artistic periods, the highly concentrated intensity of the dynamic force of his painting. This is where I see his authentic, specific contribution to contemporary painting; this is where he sets his special mark, all the more distinctive due to the path he has followed, his Chinese background and orientation.

In other words, for me the important questions pertain to the quiddities of his painting as such, which have characterised his work more or less from the beginning and have affected the process of form creation, irrespective of whether they have to do with an oriental – unavoidably generalised and probably simplified – tradition or a psychological/personal or political/collective perception strategy. Of course the development and the methodological evolution of these quiddities must be seen against the backdrop of specific historical, politico-cultural situations with their concomitant Weltanschauung, and of course his artistic path can only be interpreted in this intellectual and historical context, but the quiddities of his painting, as such, can no more be fully explained by or deduced from these historical conditions than they can be forgotten or ignored in presenting an overall view of his oeuvre.

Constantly changing, fluid formations filled with movement, vigour and power, evincing partly mimetic characteristics and partly écriture-like, gestural, motoric improvisations or physical, tangible structuring, fill the dynamic canvases of Zeng Fanzhi today. The elementary, unbridled intensity of this robust, unceasing movement gives none of the presented constellations the chance to become truly consolidated; this painting is essentially unconsolidated, and thus it is not localisable or identifiable, either methodologically, formally, or at the narrative level. This narrative changes and evolves as a matter of course, as does the methodology of the structuring on the canvas. In this specific eclectic methodology, Zeng Fanzhi's style of painting resembles the strategies of deconstruction, but nevertheless his paintings present provocative stories that communicate the narrative of the painting's creation. Painting techniques which in one painting create space and depth, a complex, fictive, almost illusionistic spatial stage, in another painting create totally different effects, a different narrative, letting the painting tell a different story, although the directions taken in their interpretation are not altogether mutually preclusive. There always remains free space in which to follow different courses concurrently, and there is always an intensive interweaving, a confusing reciprocal exchange of effects to be observed.

In this state of ephemerality, of fluidity, of unconcludedness, lies, perhaps, one of the most important and most specific elements of his art. Just as the swirling brushstrokes, through their division and separation, concentration and diffusion, accompanied by dramatic-emotional, connotative-narrative light and shadow effects, freely, inexorably and unceasingly bring new formations into being, introduce new stories and create landscape visions, human bodies or portraits out of the paint he puts on the canvas, only to melt them down and transform them again, so, too, do Zeng Fanzhi's pictorial situations evolve, as if a large-scale visual epos with many parallel strands were unfolding, continually weaving new subplots into the central storyline and incorporating new particulars and new details into an opulent, all-encompassing whole.

This gigantic visual epos, unfolding in numerous picturesque details, repeating certain main motifs as leitmotifs and continually creating different pictorial situations, flows like a huge, broad, deep river that passes through flat and hilly landscapes, familiar and unknown countries, exotic cultures and well-known, familiar communities before it reaches the sea. Zeng Fanzhi's paintings tell stories, reveal unexpected situations and report unforeseen events, all of which were brought into being by the artist's act of painting on canvas. In this lies the unique quality of this artist's painting: his art does not illustrate stories that already exist outside of the painting, but rather shows the creation of all the possible stories contained in the painting, as a painting event, as the capacity to create something narrative out of complex painting processes. For this reason, his stories have no intrinsic boundaries; the structure of the painting, with its changing contexts, specifies no particular directions in which possible connotations must unfold.

Radical and irrevocable ephemerality is the state in which it exists: this is its essence and this is the key to understanding the surprising questions it poses, its unforeseen connotations, its unexpected turns and transmutations, which can suddenly let the gestural composition suggest illusionistic spaces, or transform expressive, emotional improvisations into mimetic associations. This gives rise to a rich, complex, unlimited aura of fantasy and remembrance, of poetry and emotion, which offers all possible associations with various experiences and unlimited expansion of the scope of the painted picture.

Ephemerality, mutability, flow, irregularity, openness and mysteriousness characterise Zeng Fanzhi's paintings. In this context, the titles of his works are apposite and relevant. "This Land So Rich In Beauty" is the title of a series of paintings which evince an almost abstract expressionist, calligraphic gesticulation, then again an almost touching, dynamic, explosive, monumental landscape portrayal, here again a human figure – and Mao, at that, arisen out of memory – and in all this, the dynamics of the painting and the unceasing transmutation of the connotations of the massive gestural composition reveal an inner coherence. The continuous metamorphosis of connotations is the existential form of the painting's vital structures. Fluid, irrepressible, unchannelable transmutation is the quasi-biological, spontaneous, intuitive content, and at the same time describes the quintessence of Zeng Fanzhi's painting: it is the legitimation of the painting hic et nunc.

Zeng Fanzhi seems to cultivate and radicalise the hic et nunc character of painting, and yet is it probably not his intention to deal with the entire question of creation in painting and identification strategies in great depth or from an ethical perspective. He lives in his work, he articulates in the midst of a chaotic, anarchic examination of positions and questions, and in spite of his vigorous, fresh, adventurous innocence, he imparts an existential sensibility, a courageous openness, a dramatic emotionality.

This emotionality accompanies his entire oeuvre, from the early, expressive hospital paintings to the dramatic "Meat" series, from the psychologically oriented portraits and the self-portraits in search of self to the socially critical "Mask" series, and in the last monumental, almost automatic, gestural paintings, which open up in various connotative directions, it takes on a quasi-mystic dimension. These paintings are dominated by a gigantic, fundamental, universal turbulence that never comes to rest, never bridles its extreme intensity, and yet never imposes upon us any kind of dramatic, pathetic or spectacular theatricality.

This means, for example, that the unceasing, vigorous, dynamic movement in his paintings is not necessarily or directly associated with clearly calculated aesthetic or ethical objectives, nor is it exclusively bound up with specifically planned effects or stylised effect mechanisms, and even less is it interlaced with formal patterns and logos, but instead manifests a capacity for unending transmutation, a constant state of fluidity and flexibility, its substance being the inexorable transformation of materials and their association with various aesthetic, psychological, allegoric, semantic systems, which at the same time are, themselves, emotionalised and relativised. It is not these semantic systems that interest Zeng Fanzhi, but rather the possibilities for enabling pictures to emerge, even though the various semantic systems play a part in intensifying the poetic diversity of the narrative.

Zeng Fanzhi's paintings offer a permanent, pathos-less, natural, unassuming, fundamental resistance – not loudly declared, but quietly asserted in the daily practice of his art – against simplistic, reductive, one-sided, easily found classifications, above all against formal rules of style and conventional forms of communication, against historically formed, traditional sign systems that are irrelevant outside of their own context and which characterise certain artistic elements and methodological processes. His ephemeral, fluid, flexible referentiality is the fabric of his work.

Even though a significant number of critical commentaries on Zeng Fanzhi's work place his relation to abstraction or expressionism in the foreground, that is, explain his work solely on the basis of Western categories, the imposing, massive outpouring of his paintings seems to communicate a different artistic quiddity that lies, perhaps, outside the conventional aesthetic categories and historical contexts of Western modernism: namely, the constant, irrepressible creation of ever-new constellations of images, which at the same time diffuse and reabsorb their referentiality, simultaneously expand and relativise the scope of the painting. Thus, this dramatic, coherent, massive oeuvre lives within an unending, unlimited, fluid, unconsolidated process of becoming, which, unfolding behind the picturesque exoticism of the painting on the canvas, is the actual, underlying, essential and relevant narrative.

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