Behind the Mask
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 artist.
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 face. 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 contemporary 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 these 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 reflection. 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.