From Masks to Scapes

To people familiar with Chinese contemporary painting, Zeng Fanzhi's
success is closely related to his mature expressionist style and his
attention to the themes of death. In these works, the language of the
canvas is direct and the sense of momentum and unique attention of a young
life toward death, sickness and pain won him a fine reputation.

Just like people's memories, this generation of painters'acceptance of expressionism
is the only feasible choice other than realism or abstract painting. For
Chinese artists, realism is a doubtful medium and abstract painting
appears overly "metaphysical". Great changes occurred in Zeng Fanzhi's
works after his shift to Beijing. If it can be said that his early works
were influenced by the avant- garde art movement of the 80s, both in
stylistic language and spiritual orientation, then the experience of
living Beijing with its myriad of intercrossing and converging styles not
only gave the artist new experiences but also created new requirements. How to distance works from the old expressionism and how to
reach the richest potentiality of the human element by entering the
most superficial aspects of life became an inescapable problem for the

Following a brief transition period, the mask became the most
significant symbol in Zeng Fanzhi's works. The brightly adorned and pose-striking
characters evoke the description of the author Zhong Ming regarding
Beijing "The conflicts in the construction of this city, the popularity
of impersonation, the intrepid and arbitrary actions, abundance of
political illusions, complicated human relationships, polite yet shrewd
distinguished personages, the gradually degraded feminine beauty midst
sandstorms and temperate monsoons, busy and tired faces, successful tax
evaders, ambiguous bourgeoisie, elegant and stately conservatism,
dabbling in the clumsy motives and deportment of the upper-class, frequent
banquets, ceremonies, glory and dreams, frivolity and impetuousness,
stagnation and gravity". Worthy of note is that Zeng Fanzhi seems to
have deliberately repressed those methods of expressionism that he can easily
master - he has made only limited use of them in the hands and fac!
e. At the same time, lines began to have the same molding effect of
brush strokes. The works became simple and complicated backgrounds and details
vanished to be replaced with smooth backdrops and strange bright spots.
The spots came into a logical collusion with the bright lines on the
bodies of the main characters. The smoothness of the backgrounds
compressed with the depth of the canvas and the scattering of light rays
intensified the surreal sense created by the images.

What Zeng Fanzhi has experienced is the unprecedented urbanization of
Chinese society. During this process, people's lives, interactions and
ways of existence have undergone extraordinary changes. Zeng Fanzhi has
deeply yet concisely captured it all in his Mask series. With the
evolution of this series the works begin to become brighter and an
assortment of landscapes appear in the background. The two diametrically
opposed emotions of humor and anxiety are interwoven in his works and
these are exactly the two extremes of experience that our urbanized
lives have divulged to us. The appearance of the Mask series is a significant
turning point in the artistic career of Zeng Fanzhi. It shows that the
artist no longer strives to express those things he might be supposed to
express, but rather that he expresses the things he takes pleasure in
expressing. In so doing he has formed a distinct contrast against the
bemoaning and plaintiff "stylization" and "commercialization" of cont!
emporary Chinese art. This contrast is increasingly in evidence in his
new works.

In these new works, another subtle transformation occurred. The
directness of Zeng Fanzhi's early works was reemphasized. Aside from the brush
strokes and lines, the artist began to use the penetration between oil
colors as the major structural and organizational technique on the
canvas. While destroying the integrality of the image, they also provide it with
an unprecedented sense of dimensionality. These works do not evoke our
moral judgement through the image of a main character or the details of
some specific time, but rather evoke our natural instincts, intuition
and even physiological instinctive "reactions" though the sense of
incompletion and collision of the works. The artist is not compressing
the gravitational center of artistic creation into a symbolic creation but
rather has embodied them among the transformation and collision of
techniques. This has carried the viewer's judgment from a moral and
ethical level to a visual and physiological one. In a sense, in th!
ese works, Zeng Fanzhi has begun to leave the "figurativeness"of
tradition and place the significance borne of the works into human visual and
physiological instincts. In achieving this, the works take on an
unprecedented energy. The sense of collision in the works transcends the
images, and the symbols and themes also transcend judgement of the
medium and culture. The visual tension in the works is transformed into a
psychological tension.

The greatest heritage that social realism has bestowed on contemporary
Chinese painting is the theory of social reflection and symbolist
tradition. Theorists have categorized and explained the works of Zeng
Fanzhi, who only began to come to the fore in the early 90s and who has
since played a significant role in contemporary Chinese painting in the
genre of social reflection. According to this logic, Zeng Fanzhi's early
works centered on themes of sickness and killing were a special
expressionist representation of social realism at the beginning of the
90s and the later mask-themed works are the artist's portraiture of
interpersonal relationships in the process of modernization, expressing
that " you must have some sense of existence in today's environment".
Social reflection is a simple and easily explained method and framework.
It has successfully established a monodirectional line between artists,
art and society. According to the requirements of this kind of framework
and line, good artistic creation must have some kind of clear
corresponding relationship with social realism and this relationship must also be
presented in some form of individualized " image" created by the artist.
This line of thought gradually evolved to become the criteria for art
criticism and the starting point for artistic creation. Hidden behind
any kind of simplistic and easily explained method is usually an equivalent
amount of danger. Social reflection interprets contemporary Chinese
painting as an intuitive manifestation of society. Within this
framework, only artists who produce individualized images are of value and only art
that "reflects"social realism in an angry and brash manner has any
significance. For Chinese art which has been governed by the traditions
of realism for nearly a century, social reflection is usually the most
convenient of methods. Actually, the problems facing easel painting go
far beyond the framework and domain covered by social reflecti!
on. For easel painting and artists, these new problems include: How to
establish the artist's own personal position in the so-called
contemporary avant-garde art "movement" and not have the artist becoming a single
screw in the framework of the movement? How to retain some sense of
irreplaceable dignity toward the age-old "craft" of painting conceptual
art or the process of the conceptualization of art? How to retain some
essential tension and the sustainable development of thriving artistic
styles against the pressure of commercialization? Just like any works of
art, the significance and value in Zeng Fanzhi's works will provoke
different evaluations from different people. However, what is certain is
that the clear line of development in his works, the efforts made to
break through, and the achievements in successful styles provide highly
valuable references for our understanding of contemporary Chinese painting and
present a resonant answer to the questions posed above.

Another heritage of realism: Symbolism has transformed contemporary
Chinese painting into an illustrator of social life and has seen artists
continually seek socialized themes, representative images and personal
symbols, providing a hotbed for the commercialization of art. As a
matter of fact, this tradition not only has no substantive difference from the
creative methodologies of socialist realism but is also a blind alley of"
imagery" that contemporary art is being forced towards. For contemporary
painting, the day that it can depart the queer circle of" symbolism" and " imagery" is the time that it will find a footing for itself among the
plethora of new artistic media. Zeng Fanzhi, who has grown up among
contemporary Chinese painting, with his own personal experience and
creation of contemporary painting, presents us with exactly this manner
of path. Possibly, in Zeng Fanzhi's mind, the various images created by
painting cannot themselves rival those images generated by!
contemporary mainstream life and culture and it is precisely for this
reason that in his Mask series, he has simply abandoned this kind of
meaningless creation and directly selected characters and settings from
fashion magazines. Now for Zeng Fanzhi, the important thing is not to
let art go and find a balance with the images created by the times, it is to
find a realm for painting in the unreachable recesses of these images.
Through the conflicting fragments in his works, he makes us irremediably
aware of the realms we ourselves are never willing to encounter and he
has unlocked a new universe for the time-honored craft of painting.

Text by Pi Li