I came to know Zeng Fanzhi in June 1990 when I made a short visit to Hubei Art College in Wuhan midway from Guangzhou to Beijing while I was an editor in Art. Mr Pi Daojian introduced to me works of Zeng that were banned and censored because of an anonymous letter to the exhibition organizer. It's a great pity that I then did not have the opportunity to touch the mysterious veil of his works. Later in Jiangsu Pictorial I saw "Hospital triptych (1992)", his graduation works, much surprised by the expressionistic style in it - wild strokes of Dufy and De Kooning's free use of strength; most importantly, he presented daily experience, memories in life and personal moods. All those lively pictures result from the artist's subjective exaggeration and transformation: bloody flesh colour, wild brushwork and terrified eyes of the images are all from careful observation and sublimation of daily life. The savage face of the doctor, panic and depression of the patient, embodying the im! broglio of life and death are also a release of the artist's depression and melancholy. I was greatly impressed with the disturbing dramatic atmosphere permeating the whole picture.
Zeng came to Beijing in March 1993. His knowledge and understanding about society and culture have since been growing. An artist expresses his mind with paintings, so does Zeng. His "Mask"series display a new painting style. Compared with "Hospital"series, "Mask"highlights the personal artistic language, and the symbolic and metaphorical characteristics are more intensive while expressionistic elements are reduced. The shift is apparently related to the need of notion and form. The artist began to focus on the general living state of the humankind, the distortion of human spirit, the dual personality of schizoids, and the estrangement and distance between people. He depicts the fraudulence of human beings with simple sketches and magnifies the mask-like expression with forceful end strokes. In "Mask", minds cannot be read through wide-open eyes.
Alienation seems inevitable. Not knowing where to put the convulsive hands, the characters look extremely upset and nervous. Or! the hands are put in pockets, appearing relaxed and leisured. All the images serve as an allegory of the general spiritual state of people in society. For a long time, Zeng has found in socializing that "Mask"has become a personal artistic style, and it has been briefly concluded that he is a "Mask Artist". In order to shake off the label of "Mask"and to explore a new painting language, Zeng took a bold step - to suspect the "meaning"of painting, and became more interested in "negating"painting, that is, denying the "form"of the concrete object as well as the deep meaning of images. The sublime of painting is interpreted by abstract language.
Change of the artistic interest not only reflects that the artist has surpassed himself in artistic language, but also explains the psychological state that all artists have generally "lost the political sense"with the nation's changing ideology. In 2003 Zeng attempted to create a series of new-style paintings, which marked a significant transition in his art development. Only when we consider the change together with the whole experience and personality of the artist, can we get a full understanding of its significance, because it is a determined farewell to the past. He plunged himself into a new painting style. It is a new type of freedom and a newly self-made rule.
In "Me (triptych)", one of his works in 2003, only part of a face was drawn, clear at the beginning but gradually blurred. Circling strokes whirl around on the whole canvas like springs, face cut, spreading a sense of "destruction". In the portrait "Me", the painter drew again in circles before the colour dried. The time of repainting determines the degree of abstract change, namely, the more times it is repainted, the dimmer the picture appears. Zeng changed "Me"into an indistinct figure like the one seen through a window dripping with rain, caring much about an abstract 'non-me' instead of a "Me"with a specific identity. In fact, he created a picture related to the general gaze from "him".
Obviously, the core of Zeng's paintings is the movement of strokes, which negates the narrative feature and the painting language as well. However, it has its own logic in painting rhythm - two brushes move simultaneously in the right hand (one brush held by the index finger, the middle finger and the thumb, the other between the middle and the ring finger). The brush held by the index finger, the middle finger and the thumb expresses the dominating main idea based on habit, logic and experience while the other moving just in the opposite direction leads to a free, illogic and accidental effect. Painting brushes in his hand are as agile as chopsticks, gliding to and fro. Therefore in his paintings rational sense and irrational emotions are interwoven, embodied in the fight between the concrete and abstract image. Zeng does not restrain himself to any rules or established logic but he keeps the integrity of the creating process and the result. In addition, he repelled the repetitiveness of painting and achieved fantastic effect caused by the prearrangement and the chance, that is, a new language between "intentional"and "unintentional", "artificial"and "natural". It is a new artistic methodology, on the basis of which he remains observant about the nature. Though abstract is the general style, it is premised all on reality. In "Guest-welcoming pine"he made a penetrating study of the pines in Huangshan Mountain. He views the pines at the peak as an organic part of the cosmos. The loftiness of the pines is covered by ever-moving strokes. The real aim of the artist is not to draw a thing to the life but to represent the phenomenon in a spontaneous logical relationship. The subjective arrangement produces a resonance between the colour and the form, echoing the perception of the artist. His "Suburbs"(2004) is a series of abstract landscape. The pictures apparently have something to do with his own living environment. The colour, the lines and structure of the whole picture is filled with anxiety and tension, seemingly pregnant with a life, a kind of lonely poetic feeling. The movement and change of the form is particularly intensified by the blue sky and shaky lines.
Faced with a variety of art trends and genres, Zeng is still able to think imperturbably. He insists on his independent judgement. His ultimate goal lies not in finding the expressionistic method with abstract but in surpassing himself by self-negation, that is, establishing a new artistic language. In "Untitled (2004)", the dancing "stroke symbol"proves to be a variation of Chinese cursive handwriting. The rhythm of lines merges into abstractness. Fine but simple structure is like a water painting, soft and elegant. The sense of music is brought by repetitive movement of the brush under the control of his consciousness, and the movement is right a reflection of his physical actions. He seizes all the time the feature of prearrangement and chance. He borrows abstractness from Chinese handwriting and refers to "zen", a state of unconsciousness but an accumulation of consciousness. Blending the consciousness into unconsciousness is a process of experiencing the ego. The clarity, simplicity and elegancy of his style are an exact manifestation of the abstractness of his art language - a combination of freedom, strength and rhythm. Features of Zeng's portraits are noticeable. While sketching he highlights the contrast between layers of colours and the sense of movement. The two brushes in his right hand inevitably lead to a conflict, that is, while the dominant brush moves as the mind goes the second keeps destroying the integrity. Distinctness and indistinctness, regularity and natural effect, gathering and dispersing are all conveyed in the portraits. Zeng pays much attention to the new language after "being negated", focusing on "what image"is the ultimate pursuit in painting, which, as a matter of course, inspires him to doubt the definitions of image in the past. Guided by post-modern methodology, heresorts to mass media such as fashion magazine and news weekly for character image, artificial colour and simple form (such as in Portrait One and Portrait Two). He made a full use of rich media pictures and reshape the picture with "postedit", "selection"and subjective strokes, that is, magnifying part of the picture so as to present a novel visual language. It not only foreshows the reality of our times but also depicts the reality as a seeming illusion.
For example, in "Marks, Engels, Lenin, Stalin", his four big portraits, the flying strokes not only help the pictures look more natural but also change the political bearing, that is, they are not a representation of the stately and deep ideology in history but merely a picturesque memory in the language of painting without the cover of "profundity". One can feel a kind of lax and freedom in Zeng's paintings but the freedom is related to the preconditions because it comes from a hearty need, to liberate the self in abstractness. He emphasizes the natural element in painting. To him, artists should try to avoid giving unclear interpretation or metaphor to natural beings. Each picture is a combination of dynamic brushing and stable colours. All the exterior forms are from the interior impulsion and the subjective mind of the artist but they also represents a kind of objective element that grows by the law of nature. He overthrows promptly "the concrete image"in order to bring abstract to the misplaced origin. Zeng's idea illudes the world in paintings. Even in the unrealistic world, there is plain vision, interweaving colour, shape and light. He stresses subjective consciousness and naturalness, and hinting at physical movement. He doesn't rely on single cultural image any longer but seek materials and inspiration from all information channels, daily life and the nature. In this sense, the freedom of his paintings comes from his meditation over the nature, his choice from all possibilities besides his partiality for mystery and reference to others. He borrows abstractness from letterforms, lines, and movement in Chinese handwriting that broadens his imagination at the same time. The artist rejects all established concepts, believing that only with sheer direct senses and intuition, can the artist reach the state of being spiritually melted with the picture. In Zeng's point of view, the idea and the art piece are inseparable. He gave up the rigid drawknife and shifted to pursuit of moving strokes. He keeps the rigorous structure but allows the brush moving about freely and truly. His works help us realize the existence of "force", an uncertain import, and suggest a new way to "look at"a picture. In a word, Zeng's works do not have a fixed meaning, which is right rooted in the abstractness floating between "intentional"and "unintentional".