All That Meets the Eye: Zeng Fanzhi's Art, 1990-2002
With the opening of his solo exhibition at the Shanghai Art Museum in March 2003, Zeng Fanzhi is only the third contemporary Chinese artist to enjoy the privilege of a retrospective show in the Shanghai Art Museum.
Zeng Fanzhi's art is far from being the safe, inoffensive decoration that one might associate with suitability for serving the people - in the Chinese sense of suitability and serving the masses circa 1950 onwards. It certainly does serve art in the sense posited by French Cubist Braque almost a century earlier; "to disturb and provoke". Zeng Fanzhi's art makes viewers think. Even if it is only to muse upon the meaning of the masks that were a characteristic motif in his paintings for almost seven years from 1994 to 2000. It was this motif that prompted audiences to remark upon the incongruity between each figure's fabulous "designer" clothing and blood-red hands, eternally stained as those of Lady Macbeth. Or the disparate crowds in chaotic and unhygienic hospital settings. Or the frenzied paint marks on his landscape-abstract works. Or the tangible distance he has imposed between the figures and audience in his latter compositions, in particular the large-scale portraits begun in 2002.
The hospital works and the recent monumental portraits represent distinct periods or phases in Zeng Fanzhi's oeuvre. One, a brief overture, the second what could be a more protracted period of exploration. As yet it is hard to tell if it owns the potential to be as protracted as the period from 1994 to 2000, during which Zeng Fanzhi obsessively produced paintings of figures uniformly disguised by the addition of a facial mask. He has said that he follows his intuition in regard of subject matter and motifs, playing with an idea until he can wrest no more from it emotionally or stylistically and a new one takes its place. In preparing this article, during long discussions with the artist, Zeng Fanzhi also said he did not wish to be fixed in his own contemporary art history as a painter of masks. As his present direction shifts and new works evolve, it is likely that in ten or twenty years time, he will not. But from the present moment, given that his career only really began in 1991, the seven-year obsession with the mask has dominated not only his creative output but also the "face" with which the contemporary audience associates his name. Since 2001, Zeng Fanzhi has begun to push his art along a new channel that combines or at least brings together all the individual elements and painterly traits that have occupied his thoughts and characterised his canvases since 1991. You will see this most immediately in the new portraits where the figurative takes on a sense of abstract form and conceptual implication as the painted mark further expands its range and timbre.
Yet, in surveying a decade of Zeng Fanzhi's art, you will swiftly discover that an element of the abstract was always present. It frequently took the form of a nod to expressionism's thrust and flow in the way that the lines and painted marks defined the subjects depicted. It was present, too, in the prevailing aura of the works. But close up to the canvas you are confronted with clear evidence that these works were never produced in a frenzied moment of emotional outpouring, or an instant of clarity that had to gush forth unimpinged before the mood evaporated. The lines and tones are calculated, even the staccato of broken, faltering motions of the brush, which are all laid in with a deliberate precision. Indeed, a precision that means if it does not come out right in the first pass, then the artist has to begin again. The translucence of paint he prefers does not permit any reworking of the surface. It is a precision, too, that eschews all emotion - at least the emotion that the surface appearance of the finish painting would suggest. All this contrives to suggest that Zeng Fanzhi is a master of concealment, a conclusion drawn most firmly in the presence of exhibit A, "the mask".
Yet, one night, at the home of a friend lingering over dinner and gazing at the Zeng Fanzhi painting hanging above her dining table I realised looking at the mask how closely it follows the contours of the face. It was an unusual composition within Zeng Fanzhi's Mask Series for the position of the figure (clearly one from a group produced around 1998 that was distinctly melancholy and despondent) lying face down, head turned to on side and resting on one hand, the other trailing in what might be sand and for once entirely hidden from view. Here the whited out - blanked out - features invoked the misery of the lonely Pierrot. The emotion was clearly there for all to see for the actual mask concealed nothing. I took this sensation back to a review of other paintings which all vouched for the fact that the mask merely frames the face and puts the emotion into straightforward black and white.
The mask has conveniently become a symbol for Zeng Fanzhi's oeuvre, for the nature of surface as juxtaposed, or contrasted, with that which lies behind. It is a metaphor far broader and deeper than the physical barrier Zeng Fanzhi interposes between viewer and figure with the spiralling net of bars that imprison the visage in the more recent portrait works. For seven years, the mask was an emblem of concealment that indicated there was much going on behind it that stalked, that haunted the artist, more as an irascible odour than the lingering fragrance in Proust. In conversation, Zeng Fanzhi reveals that, like Proust, he is consumed by memory, by the habitual act of prompted remembering, of not being able to forget, no matter how or what. Memories follow him throughout his waking hours, and one suspects the slumbering ones too. He can recall all the features and names of the children he grew up with on his street, of those in his class through school and those he associated with as a troubled teenager. He remembers the adults, too, because they were his inspiration as much as they were the enemy. The worst ones nearly destroyed him but the best restored to him a sense of hope and proved his salvation. Zeng Fanzhi remembers because the period was a tough one, the toughest of his then short life, but one that stuck in his memory far more profoundly and painfully than for any of his contemporaries, which is why whilst he can never erase the memory of them, they often do not register him.
People remember because they are traumatised, because they carry feelings of guilt, feelings of responsibility, of weakness, or helplessness that they often seek to overcome as adults. What haunts them is a fear that if they had perhaps managed to find some strength of will or take alternative action, a situation could have been prevented, or altered enough to have altered history. Yet, they apparently did nothing. These are sentiments with which Zeng Fanzhi concurs but without offering overly specific reference to a single defining incident that triggered his own sorry childhood. Perhaps we do not need to know. It is enough that he offers up his life's ravages in his paintings. This began at an early stage, even before he graduated from the oil painting department of Hubei Academy of Fine Arts in 1991, when he found himself drawn to late medieval altarpieces and early Renaissance Mannerists, in which the strong silent sadness and brutality of the piĘĘta, or Christ crucified, made sense to one who had been penalised for his own goodness or, superficially, the purity of his looks. I asked him how these images appeared to him at the time, finding it hard to imagine what they might represent to a person educated outside of a culture rooted in Christianity. I recalled the sentiments expressed by a North Korean footballer who had travelled to Europe when North Korea qualified for the World Cup in 1966, of seeing a crucifix on the wall in a Catholic retreat and how the horror of the violence and tortuous pain it describes kept him from sleeping - at least not without nightmares. I am not a practising Christian but art history studies exposed me to a large number of religious works, as paintings and sculptures. Such repeated irreligious exposure induced a certain numbness to the action taking place; see too many and the formulaic aspects begin to interfere with the response. Zeng Fanzhi never experienced fear in the manner the North Korean described. "We had seen much worse than that," he said. "With our own eyes, and within our own immediate local environment. The image of Christ crucified was mild compared to that."
For Zeng Fanzhi - and many other Chinese who embraced western religions - the image resonated with their sense of the human spirit, in particular that related or derived from notions of martyrdom that everyone understood in China where history regaled the people with tales of heroes who died for the cause of progress, a sentiment that was equally close to the heart of the nation's patriotic youth. It further became a conduit for remembering in a non-direct way that invoked a spiritual explanation for human animalism and which could be used to soften his own experience of being singled-out for humiliation, for his being verbally and at times physically cast out from the community of his peers and of the street where he lived.
The source of Zeng Fanzhi's trauma was external and not internal, and related directly to his own individual being. It stemmed from his not being accorded a red neckerchief as a child, which had a huge, and lasting impact on his character. Even to today. What might seem like a trifling lack to a non-Chinese reader should not be dismissed or underestimated. If we accept Freud's most enduring and credited observation of the impact upon a person of those experiences garnered in their formative years, then given the China context - China under Mao and at the height of the Cultural Revolution - the significance of owning this badge of membership in a society governed by uniform conformity was immeasurable. Moreover, where China depended upon everyone joining the required "club" - the Party, the Red Guards or the Young Pioneers - to do their best for the nation's advance, the refusal to award this proof of one's contribution was serious to an earnest young child; as serious as being condemned as a leper. Zeng Fanzhi at seven, nine or even eleven years old was hardly a radical. That he could have not wanted to own the young pioneer's status, or the notion that he could have wished to remain outside of his peer group, or that he harboured a conscientious objection to his world was inconceivable and could not have been further from his mind. His family's status was no worse than anyone else's. It was not even on the list of five "blacks". So to be denied a neckerchief was absurd, unfathomable, beyond the bounds of belief. In the mood of the era, it was the ultimate fashion accessory that every student just had to have. It was a source of pride and joy, a badge of commitment and belonging. Even if the children did not entirely understand the significance of unity, they clearly felt the impulse to be recognised as part of their peer group, to be included in the activities and tasks of all their "little friends". To be excluded as a child is traumatic in any society. In china within the aura of the Cultural Revolution, it was devastating. The person who denied him this neckerchief was his junior school class teacher.
He describes the teacher as being "strange. She never liked me and was vindictively abusive."
Out of the fifty-four children in the class, from the first to the fifth year (age seven to twelve), only three did not receive a red neckerchief. Zeng Fanzhi was one. "The other two were really naughty but I wasn't at all. It didn't matter what I did, the teacher always thought I was bad."
Zeng Fanzhi tried to rationalize, or at least find a rational for the actions of his teacher, both at the time and subsequently. His mother took it upon herself to visit the teacher at home to try and uncover the cause of her son's maltreatment. She discovered that the teacher had two children one of whom was handicapped. Naturally, at the times and under such circumstances, the teacher and her family were probably subject to enormous suffering - handicapped people were considered at half or a quarter of the worth of able bodied people because in the socialist system each individual "earned" an output from the state in line with their input to it. Zeng Fanzhi's family situation was relatively good. He was always as well dressed as his mother could manage and was considered a very pretty child, evidenced in childhood family photographs, and perhaps even enhanced by the slight air of reticence and distrust in his eyes - a bit like a wounded animal. "My mother believed the affliction of the teacher's child was what led her to hate me." On that point he may only surmise. There well may be more that never comes to light.
The children had to earn the scarf in the first few years of school but by the time they graduated, all were presented with one. Still Zeng Fanzhi was denied. No one could intervene and the other children took this as a cue for bullying and teasing the "ugly duckling" in their midst. It became a huge issue - monumental for an impressionable young mind.
"I felt there was a problem with me. The teacher constantly told me I was very yanxian (meaning arrogant but worse than arrogant in Chinese). She reminded me of it everyday. I hated school. It left me emotionally scarred, though it is hard to say by precisely what emotion. Just something I couldn't put my finger on but that haunted me."
Zeng Fanzhi describes himself as a shy child who didn't speak much and certainly never answered back. Years later, he often thought of seeking the teacher out to satisfy his own curiosity and to achieve a degree of closure but it proved impossible to find her. The damage was done and by the time Zeng Fanzhi got to middle school he hated school enough to simply give up.
The mood of the early mask paintings from 1994 to 1997 was quite disturbing, shocking, with a blatant mocking attitude towards the viewer. It was mean and sneering. Was that how he felt people saw him through those difficult years?
"I think that's how it began, certainly what it evolved out of. But I have never stopped in one place with painting; once the initial mood was exorcised, I began to turn to other elements, other sensibilities."
By the end of the run for the Mask Series, the metaphor had begun to take on rather superficial overtones as Zeng Fanzhi exhausted the motif and allowed himself to become distracted in the details of tailoring, style and achieving a military style shine on the figures' shoes. As he came to the end of his striving to eradicate an emotion and trod water waiting for the next inspiration to reveal itself, it felt as if the artist was well on the way to purging his soul.
The earliest works - the hospital and the meat series - made some of his most blatant references to a tortured personal emotion, a sense frustration, angst perhaps that he had previously not been inclined to explore or even acknowledged. Whilst his own inner turmoil was the springboard for his style, the content was related to the local immediate environment in which he was living in Wuhan, and in particular the people in the street around him to explore life's callous brutality and the human propensity for spite and violence. "I used this approach in painting to examine them and their lives / actions. I had feelings similar to theirs because we all existed under the same circumstances. I grew up with them: we lived on top of each other for almost twenty years. There were some very particular characters there - people with physical or emotional maladies. At the end of the street was a butcher's shop, which I passed every day of my life."
This street was characteristic of old streets in the centre of Wuhan, whose residents had been there for generations. Zeng Fanzhi's grandparents moved there because originally it had been a centre for the printing industry and the grandfather's family owned a book printing press. Later, his parents would also work in a print factory but by this time it was a State company formed of the original private enterprises.
Zeng Fanzhi was early exposed to the implications for all these once private entrepreneurs as socio-political change occurred and people came under the hand of the political campaigns. Most of his classmates from school lived in this street. There was no privacy. In the summer everyone ate outside on the street so each household knew exactly what other households were eating. Whenever someone got married, the entire street attended. "We knew the entire contents of every household. If one family got a radio 100 metres away everyone knew."
All the homes were small two storey houses. None had a bathroom or running water. All were communal as were private hygiene habits. It did not matter then because all lives were lived at the same level. "We didn't have money or think about money like we do today. Nobody had anything much."
Zeng Fanzhi's interest in art also related to the street in which he grew up. Several people who lived there painted. One in particular was a neighbour, who was more than ten years older than him. By rights, he should have been down in the countryside getting re-educated or learning from the peasants but fortunately for him, there were four siblings in the family and the regulations allowed for one child to stay home. He was also in poor health but he liked painting. Zeng Fanzhi was not quite ten years old. He had yet to determine that he wanted to study art but he already instinctively found painting interesting. He often sat as a model for his neighbour to draw so he could watch and learn. The neighbour would also make woodblock prints, of figures like Lu Xun and Karl Marx, in the preferred Kathe Kollwitz style. This was Zeng Fanzhi's earliest influence.
After middle school, with a fear and loathing of school that made him prefer to be unemployed, Zeng Fanzhi was given temporary work in a printing factory, spending every evening studying at the Youth Cultural Palace. This was a real beginning and encouraged him to study for university entrance examinations.
Zeng Fanzhi had to take the art academy entrance exams several times before he was accepted. Finally in 1988, when he won a place at Hubei Academy of Fine arts in Wuhan, his parents invited the entire street to celebrate because it was considered such a big event.
During his first and second years he struggled at the academy. It felt as if he was going backwards for whilst his painting skills improved, his painted compositions did not. "Before I got to the school I would explore all possible ways in which to produce the effect I desired but in school the new techniques were inhibiting. I didn't have an interest in trying to achieve proscribed effects and results." The school tasks were assigned for every two weeks - the goal being to use this entire block of time to produce a figure painting direct from the model. Zeng Fanzhi felt he could pin down the form and expression spontaneously in two days. Naturally, the teaching staff did not agree with this, which proved a huge source of frustration. By the third year, he had given up trying to conform and simply painted what he wished to paint on his own time. "The biggest received experience was in using line, colour and form to express my response to a topic, form or emotion. I learned to utilise my emotion to produce a deep reflection upon a subject rather than making a painting that merely illustrated something."
By this time, Wang Guangyi's theory of ridding art of sentimental emotion - qingli renwen reqing - a response to the imposed national and proscribed emotion required for Maoist Revolutionary Realism, was at the height of its influence. All art training was then heavily driven by the tenets of Socialist Realism. But for young ardent artists, it felt formulaic, containing no space for the expression of true emotion - either of the subject or the artist. Zeng Fanzhi did not dare to negate Socialist Realism but he did begin looking at German Expressionism with which he found a commonality.
"I was interested in expressing the attitudes or moods of people, an individual person, and to do so in a direct response, aimed at conveying the person's expression, emotion, thinking, and my own sense of that person, captured and completed in a matter of hours rather than labouring for the time proscribed by the school." It was for this reason he began to focus on the eyes, to the point of exaggerating them out of all natural proportion. Eyes became a conduit for communicating with the audience, as had long been the case in art but in a curiously new fashion in Zeng Fanzhi's paintings, where a cross was made the focal point of the pupils.
Zeng Fanzhi embarked on his career as an independent artist in 1991, even before he had graduated from Hubei Academy. Critic / curator Li Xianting was the first person to offer a critical appraisal of his work, both verbally and in published articles, which Zeng Fanzhi could hardly believe possible at the time. By a lucky coincidence, Li Xianting happened to be in Wuhan at the time of Zeng Fanzhi's graduation and saw the artist's first serious series of paintings. Zeng Fanzhi was delighted that someone was interested in his work and provided the critic with photographs, which to his amazement were then reproduced in a magazine alongside of other artists he considered to be so famous. Li Xianting came again later with Johnson Chang, director of the Hong Kong-Taiwan-based Hanart ZT Gallery, and chose works that ended up in the China's New Art, Post-89 exhibition, which they were co-curating. Zeng Fanzhi began to have hope for the future. "I knew my works were different, but wasn't terribly confident about what I was doing. To have someone confirm that I was at least heading in the right direction was very important."
Critic / curator Pi Daojian was also a great encouragement providing much of the early support that a young artist needed. But for Zeng Fanzhi, it became clear that it was equally important to be accepted for exhibition or have collectors acquiring the works as the ultimate confirmation of success. This sentiment was vindicated with the 1992 Guangzhou Biennial: Oil Painting for the Nineties, in which he participated and also won an award.
The works that launched Zeng Fanzhi's career predated all the furor about art involving "meat", "flesh" or the darker side of the human imagination that surrounded the turn of the Millennium by a whole decade. He did it in a way that built on a tradition begun by Rembrandt, brought forward by Chiam Soutine and Frank Auerbach in their studies of sides of beef, suspended mid-air to dry, strung up prior to dissection. Zeng Fanzhi also began with "meat": lumps of unidentified flesh being hungrily devoured by rabid tigers, the image of the artist as butcher in early self-portraits, and an approach to depicting the human body that suggested it was of no more value than a husbanded animal. He depicted that butcher's shop at the end of his street that he passed every day of his life, and then transposed the essence of the shop onto the interior of a hospital which was thus transformed into an arena of metaphoric motifs, as the vast majority of the scenes he staged across diptychs and triptychs were at this time. The hospital was a neat symbol though because the institution itself is often the last repository of the flesh of the body as the spirit leaves the earthly realm for less tainted pastures. As a metaphor it aligned itself with rumours of sickness amongst the people, of viruses pervading society, with the physical environment of daily life made a sickroom for the ails of mankind.
Here, too, Zeng Fanzhi also drew upon influences from his street which were a number of the many children who had some kind of illness - mental at times, physical deformity or quirk at others. He ascribed this peculiar fact as being partly to do with the family situations and partly due to the times. Most of the families had far more children than they could care for. Therefore, a cold, a fever or simple malady contracted when small and not properly treated could result in a life long affliction. Perhaps in the artist's mind, the hospital metaphor helped him ponder questions of what were the sins and transgressions that punished the physical body - the sins of the fathers visited upon their off-spring as depicted in many of those Medieval altarpieces - and how those might be defined or clarified in the absence of religion. Who / what meted out retribution in whose name and for to teach which lesson on the path to life's ultimate graduation day? For a while it seemed that the sense of disease that haunted Zeng Fanzhi was incurable and could not be escaped until he had himself escaped the environment which spawned the fear; in early 1993, just after Chinese New Year, he moved from his birthplace in Wuhan to the capital, Beijing.
By 1994, as Zeng Fanzhi established a new life in Beijing, the paintings of "meat" and of physical mortality and brutality stopped. These subjects seemed so directly related to Wuhan that in Beijing he felt unable to progress further with them. After producing several compositions that were less than satisfactory, he began to think of change. Being used to reflecting his surroundings directly, in Beijing he was drawn to the new vistas unfolding all around him.
Zeng Fanzhi had always dreamed of moving to Beijing. After graduation, he was assigned job in an advertising company in Wuhan. After a year he decided to quit having determined his move to Beijing. The attraction of the capital was the large community of artists there; much larger than Wuhan would ever command and within which he could find solidarity, friendship and a dialogue. He had visited many times in the 1980s, and had seen the Robert Rauschenberg exhibition in 1985, exhibitions of Edvard Munch, and French art. Beijing seemed to have a rich cultural life. By comparison "there was nothing to see in Wuhan but books and I did not feel that was helpful to my progress."
The move brought with it the "mask", which perforce shielded the artist in his unfamiliar new surroundings and allowed him to identify the kind of "face" one was expected to show in "polite" society before stepping out onto the stage... The use of the mask as symbolic icon did not evolve out of one specific incident or influence related to Beijing, beyond Zeng Fanzhi's sense of being an outsider in a new place, which naturally incited its own sensations and ideas. In such a major urban metropolis, it took a while to find a focus in the wild range of initial and overwhelming impressions.
Throughout the series, the masks Zeng Fanzhi awarded his figures did not cover the flesh entirely for the mask belonged to the facial features - lower lip to brow, cheek to cheek. This whiteness acted as a distraction to the mood that governed its motion and form of its body. This was further disguised by the chic clothes these bodies adopted but there was no disguising the red neckerchief, that absence of which in his youth, he mourned here and more than compensated for too through the succeeding seven years, taking every opportunity to award himself one. These were rendered in a dazzling hot red, the brightest, purest hue within the palette of a composition, and made more striking next to the cold red of the visible flesh, namely the hands. These ruddy complexions soon became more visible as the "mask" came off again to reveal the features below. Here, the faces were characterised by an implosive red hue that approached the prosaic purple of rage, of the features as life is strangled from the body, of a person suffocated and starved of oxygen. Yet, strangely there was still no clear emotion present to account for each individual's countenance.
As the length of years accumulated around the evolution of the Mask Series, in pockets of his production, one could discern a softer approach. The colours were warmer, more alluring and less harsh. Curiously, even where they are the exact opposite - cool, distant, searing - the graphic clarity of the paintings continued to draw audiences to them. One felt impelled to ask: Is Zeng Fanzhi a tease who delights in nothing more than drawing the viewer in to push them away again? Does the insecurity or outsider mentality he carries from his formative years lead him to need to feel he is in control? Is it there a passivity in human nature that in these works locks into viewers' desire to be controlled? Does our deference to a stronger personality or being mean that we willingly submit to being laughed at as a number of the figures in the early stages of Zeng Fanzhi's Mask Series do seem to do? Perhaps many of us identify with the vacancy of his later expressions drawn from our own experience of modern life? And many more understand the melancholy mood of the young girl with her lover in various moods of unity, frailty, compassion and underlying frustration. In truth, there is something cruel about the way Zeng Fanzhi plays his art and us, his audience. Let's take the massage we are supposed to receive.
Through ten years of painting, Zeng Fanzhi has offered his audience nothing but exclusion. The viewer is perennially excluded because physically we are on the far side of the mask and outside the immediate action being beyond the picture plane. Equally, the figures he paints are excluded from the world we inhabit because they are trapped inside the mask, within the picture plane and ultimately engulfed by their own fear or paranoia. It is visible within the eyes - so cleverly contradicted by the blankness yet unequivocally marked out by their bull's eye centres. In searching through that "window" for the soul, we find only the abyss of people who have sacrificed emotional life for public conformity.
These emotions are not as immediately associated with the external face presented by the artist who is as stylish, as sophisticated as any seasoned business person or well-heeled traveller. Yet he obviously paints himself. In the real world, he reveals no chink in his armour because he has worked hard to fit in, to blend in with the crowd whilst distinguishing himself with originality as an artist, for his aesthetic style and critical acclaim from the art world. Confidence has come with age, maturity, artistic success, financial stability and fatherhood. Becoming a father was a life-altering experience. "It made me feel so vulnerable." Up to that point so concerned, consumed by the effects of his own childhood, now made to face the issues of childhood from the other side of the looking glass in being the adult, the parent, the grown-up on whom the child has to depend. "It made me worry about so many things in life." Like history repeating itself?
The removal of the more illustrative, literal mask came off to allow Zeng Fanzhi to explore wilder avenues. Yet before long he was returning to the mask theme to invoke the more sinister layers of human consciousness. With the mask, clothing was employed to distract the viewer away from its non-concealing covering. When the face became naked, the clothes were removed to give us a naked torso, as if to reaffirm the naked vulnerability of the figure's emotional side / state, the soul as well as the physical body which is somehow rendered indestructible and defiant when offered up naked as a Christ figure.
Yet barely had the visage of the painted figure or the audience viewing them had a chance to react to the maskless freedom of expression than in 2002 a new mask appeared: spiraling squirls of a brush's passage across the canvas in vertical or horizontal rails. Once again these obscure the actual surface of a visage, its skin, the meat, and thereby, its physical form, which underneath is distorted and opened out like the face removed from the body - scalped - and spread flat as a mask. Form roams free and it is not until you look closely at the face behind the geometry of the coiled brush marks that you discover the face to be far from normal. A face as a silicon or latex cast of real features, painted to appear real yet but a rubber imitation of life. The colour of its adornment is once again returned to that of the "meat".
It seems that every time Zeng Fanzhi feels it is safe to "come out" from behind his metaphor, to stop hiding, concealing, or disguising the truer emotions that might give a person's internal complaints and complexities away, that he discovers it is not yet time. Or he looses faith in trying, or confidence in standing naked and retreats behind a masking screen. The most recent mask of coiled lines bear the impression of bars, railings that are the most obvious physical barrier yet to dividing the subject from the audience.
The emotions Zeng Fanzhi harbours stem from not fitting in, from being forced to stand apart from the world and of an individual existing in a lonely, isolated personal environment, even if this moment and place have passed. If this were a western artist in the West one might describe his life, personality and the art it results in as textbook Freud. But Freud's analysis never took into account such circumstances in the East, in China - Freud was also safely in England before the Second World War began and before the Holocaust was unleashed - so overwhelming, so prevalent and all-pervading as to be a form of mass psychosis where psychosis was the "norm" and, as more conventional social mores were inverted, the individual lost all sense of what was "normal". Here, in this regard, Zeng Fanzhi's school days experience are entirely responsible for both the adult and the artists he became: the latter one invaluable "good" to come out of a "bad" experience. In 2000 when the mask came off, Zeng Fanzhi turned to portraiture to create a series featuring painted portrait pictures hanging in painted frames on painted walls. We, the audience, were taken one step removed again from the space occupied by the person portrayed; instead found ourselves looking at a picture of a picture. It was a literal, overly illustrative device for making us further removed from his subject, but it took Zeng Fanzhi in an interesting new direction, which probably would not have happened were it not for a series of experimental, abstract works produced around the same time. Here he explored the range of marks he could achieve with a knife, a rag, and his hand. In fact any implement except a brush. All were employed to achieve abstract compositions that implied landscapes, although no concrete forms could be discerned in any of the works. He explained that after producing a series or groups of figurative works, he felt a need to work out the residue of emotion by painting something completely different, thus the abstract experiments were as a detox or cleansing process necessary for the next step. "I have always experimented with abstract approaches but have not always felt inclined to show them to people. For me, this was a way of relaxing after producing the other more emotionally taut works."
That brings him and us up to date with the newest portrait works begun in June 2002. It describes a passage from disturbing to provoking, to echo the words of Braque, and all that can now be achieved with the mask being finally laid to rest. Except it probably has not, not entirely, for as with individual personal experience, no one can erase history