"The year of 85 saw the beginning of the modern art fever that swept across the entire art scene in Mainland China. After all these surging years, now, all of a sudden, it seems to be a distant past. Among some very talented young artists I know, some had left for faraway countries, and though some of them have remained in their motherland desperately looking for the 'positioning' of Chinese contemporary art, most of them are feeling somewhat lost."
The paragraph above appeared in the Forward of Zeng Fanzhi's first solo exhibition – as critic Pi Daojian wrote about the art of Zeng Fanzhi, he signaled the background of this yet-to-be graduate of the Hubei Art Academy Oil Painting Department.
Zeng Fanzhi's exhibition was held in 1990. The same year in Wuhan, Shu Qun, a major artist from the 85 period, gave up his 'absolute principle' and began the random painting of numericl signs; Ren Jian felt his chaotic 'early oriental imagery' to be disorganized and started his 'sketching technique', in order to dispel the pervading unconsciousness; it was also the same year when Wang Guangyi arrived in Wuhan from Zhuhai, and for unknown reasons, came up with small 'inflammable' installations as results of his experimentation, and due to his innate emotional ties to classical art, began to paint over classical masterpieces, extending his previous symbolic language to these works; Wei Guangqing from the Wuhan Art Academy, as Zeng Fanzhi's teacher, in this year toyed with objects and named several small unsettling installation as the 'Yellow Papers'. All these experiments and records of psychological states took place in studios and in homes, without direct correlation to society. Without exhibitions, and without opportunities for expression, these contemporary artists, who only several years ago were in a spirit of dauntlessly fighting to the end, felt the reality of listlessness and unease.
Zeng Fanzhi was born in 1964; age-wise, he was a generation apart from the artists mentioned above. While still a student at the art academy, he felt towards them different levels of admiration and awe. Similar to the backgrounds of many artists, Zeng Fanzhi developed a love of painting at an early age, yet the art world before 1976 was dominated by realist styles – no matter how strong the artistic temperaments or how diverse the viewpoints, realist methods and sanctioned political subjects limited the artists' visual judgment to the areas of duplication and reproduction; Zeng Fanzhi did not escape this background. It was not until the 80s, when Western art entered China following the opening up of the country, that the 20-year-old Zeng felt naturally sensitive to the new art language and energy. In 1984 and 85, with his friends Zeng went to the exhibitions of Mengke, Zhao Wuji and Lao shengbo Raushenbergrespectively; he was shocked by the experience, since these expressionist and abstract works, as well as the installations, were a far cry from the artistic forms and thoughts promoted by the government. As he looked at the artists around him, he discovered that the number of them who were continuing the outmoded path of realism was rapidly decreasing. As Zeng Fanzhi prepared to begin his studies at the Hubei Art Academy, in November 1986 a group of Hubei artists organized the large-scale Hubei Youth Art Festival. This event took place simultaneously in nine different cities including Wuhan, Huangshi, Shashi, Xiangfan and Shiyan, with 2000 works exhibited at twenty-eight venues; the styles of the works – ranging from expressionist, surrealist to abstract – were astonishing. From activities including seminars and video viewings, the people of these cities witnessed the earliest celebrations of modernism. Naturally, thanks to the help and support from critics, Meishu Sichao ("Art Trends") was founded in Hubei in 1985 – with its clear modernist views, this magazine became one of the most influential publications to artists in the 80s. Towards the end of that year in December, the group " Tribe-Tibe", composed mainly of young teachers from the Wuhan Art Academy, organized their own exhibition "Tribe-ribe First Exhibition". The majority of the participating artists were from the Hubei Art Academy, and defending the philosophy and theory of this exhibition was the chief editor of Meisu Sichao Peng De. The following year, when Zeng Fanzhi entered the Hubei Art Academy as a student, he must have felt the lingering heat of the modernist spirit.
However, from the discerning angle of art history, there already appeared in 1990 and modernist phenomenon different from that of the 80s. The exhibitions organized at Gallery of the Central Art Academy starting from mid-May – 'Liu Xiaodong Oil Paintings Exhibition', 'World of Female Painters', 'Yu Hong Oil Paintings Exhibition' – had revealed a new current that put to an end to the essentialism of the 80s. Anyone could see from Liu Xiaodong's or Yu Hong's paintings the toning down of the expressionist sentiment. Before that, the last phase of modernism in Beijing was romantic (such as Xia Xiaowan's 'Spirit') and other-earthly (like the unlimited interpretation of 'Spirit'). By this time, at the political and cultural centre that was Beijing, people were starting to sense the helplessness in the air in face of the future political reality. Thus, to eliminate as much as possible the limitless meanings of their subjects became the work of the artists, and they instinctively headed towards the rebellion of 'aspirations' and 'goals'. Until July 1991, organized by the Beijing Youth Post, the exhibition 'New Generation Art Exhibition' opened in the China History Museum; in September, 'Zhao Bandi, Li Tianyuan Exhibition' opened in the Beijing Tiandi Building, where people saw the diffusion of the new art tendencies.
Zeng Fanzhi never lived in Beijing, and because of his unique surroundings his understanding of reality differs from that of Beijing artists. In the early 1990s in Wuhan, then still a grey, old industrial city, the scars of history gave the place a far from refreshing appearance, people walking on the streets would never, like the citizens on Beijing streets, passionately discuss the political news of the day. For an ordinary art academy student, what were the ways to experience life every day? What did he observe in his surroundings?
As a sensitive critic, Li Xianting had very early on paid attention to the special circumstances in this period of Zeng Fanzhi's background. Zeng told the critic, years afterwards, the circumstances in which he completed his graduation piece:
'At that time the place where I lived was very close to a hospital. Every day when I went to the hospital to use their toilets, I would see patients queuing, the scenes of people collapsing or being rushed to emergency. I suddenly felt that this was the emotion I had to portray, I need to paint a series with this feeling. I thought about a large-scale piece, and made use of all the techniques, skills and observation methods I had previously used in the solo exhibition. I was exceptionally excited during the painting process, and was very satisfied when the series was completed. The next day I wanted to take it to the academy to show the teachers before the paint was dry.'
This narrative allows us to easily understand why the works of this artist made in 1991still insisted on the expressionist style that had already appeared beforehand. Despite this, Zeng Fanzhi started to change his style and methods. His personality decided on the restraint of the unlimited expressionist style – on his canvases appeared characters with clearly defined faces, lying on a hospital beds and on frozen pieces of pork; at the same time, the kind of expression close to abstraction suddenly disappeared, and a new reality was presented in a totally comprehensible way. 'The Hospital Triptych' was a product of the artist's experience, but without depicting the functions of a hospital, the artist had instinctively extended the implications of the hospital that he saw and interpreted: the psychological and physical pains, the tortures of medical treatment and the frequency of deaths. Reality and memory force the artist to narrate the stories that he feels and understand, and not only the reality that is seen and touched. This attitude is the result of the excess of modernism, and demonstrates that, even when narrating an objective reality, the exaggeratedly detailed and emotionless reproduction method is unnecessary, because expression itself is narration, and is able to convey the artist's attitude and viewpoint. The same objects seen in daily life, such as a piece of pork, could be stimulating for the artist – he associates the red that would appear on the meat soon to be slaughtered with the essence of the flesh itself, and extends it to a level that relates to humanity. In this way, physical reality is again covered with a thick layer of psychological dust. When one scorching summer, the artist saw a man napping on a cold piece of pork, he was powerfully stimulated – he was concerned not with the way of cooling, but with the two different lives correlated in a unique relationship that cause a sense of disharmony, a feeling that can easily occur. We had seen red in his previous works and did not know then where the colour came from, but now, the artist discovered the origin of red:
I feel that the colour of human skin and the colour of meat are sometimes very similar, like when pressure is applied to a leg, or unwanted pieces chopped away from a piece of meat – when you place them together, and when I look at them, they remind me of people. I've painted meat many times, and deliberately painted the colour of those meat the same colour of human skin. I also used the feeling of meat pressed together to paint people. This is all because of the same reason, and also the reason why the colour in 'The Hospital Triptych' changed to become the colour of meat.'
Zeng Fanzhi also told us: 'I got used to this colour as I painted. Looking back after more than ten years, I realized I've been always using this colour.'
In 1992 when Zeng Fanzhi sent 'Hospital Triptych II' to Guangzhou to participate in the Guangzhou Biennale, the critic Zhu Bin wrote:
'The Xiehe Triptych portray a group of heartbroken and spiritless people with its new expressionist style and powerful painting vocabulary. Within the dull looks in the faces one can feel the kindness and sympathy through the brushstrokes. Language and main content are both appropriately announced – this is a sign of maturity in art.'
All the critics saw the vigorous painting ability in Zeng's paintings, and the vacant, numb expression in his subjects had a spiritual affinity with the 'New Generation' from the North. Just as the critics remarked after the Guangzhou Biennale: 'In this work, with its powerful expressionist tendencies, 'liberation' becomes a pretext, and the true meaning of emotional complexity lies in the detachment of the scene and the anxiety of the outsider.'
The obvious expressionist style of his brushstrokes was the genuine portrayal of Zeng Fanzhi's inner personality. During this period, as a fresh graduate entering society, Zeng was candid with his emotional problems and issues. He was concerned with reality, but at the same time it was clear to him that it was necessary to relate his response to reality with his personal emotions and judgment.
In March 1993 Zeng moved to Beijing. Just as with his sensitivity to stimulating issues, he decided to risk – he left the advertising company and started his art direction anew and alone in Beijing. He was confident that, only in this city where he could see more exhibitions and more artists, could he enrich his ever-changing 'state of mind'. 'In Wuhan, there was nothing to see except for books, I don't think it would help with my improvement,' the artist once told Karen (Smith).
In 1994, Zeng Fanzhi started to give 'masks' to the characters he portrayed in his paintings. In this fully expressionist period, the artist had in fact eliminated the real identities of the characters – even a 'doctor' was elevated to a suspiciously abstract concept. After arriving in Beijing, the characters that had lay on pork or hospital beds were now separated, and there were less people appearing in the paintings. Perhaps the artist's solitude unconsciously reminded him of his own living conditions, thus, these targets of objective observation often became himself, as if it were himself and not these people who was wearing a mask. With great changes in his surroundings, as he left a city with familiar people and friends for a vast world that was difficult to master, the artist would inevitably become lonely and estranged. In any case, the appearance of the 'mask' meant that Zeng's preference to control himself more calmly as he observed new surroundings, made judgment of new friends, and tackled new problems. Yet, if we pay close attention, the faces in the earlier works – with huge eyes and standardized faces – already possessed the characteristics of masks (even though we could identify the artist Shang Yang with a cigarette in hand in 'Hospital Triptych III'). There must have a day when Zeng Fanzhi found that the characters under his brush were overly conceptualized, to the extend of being 'masks' made with flesh. When reality warned him of the gravity of his problem, the artist simply decided to paint the 'masks' clearly. The artist used masks to barely cover the people's faces, and utilized different costumes to signify the different identities of the characters, since he believed that those who wear masks play different roles in society. However, all of them, no matter male or female, revealed hands with enormous bone structures, a feature that had appeared in earlier works to express the colours of pork and blood. At this time, the artist had eliminated the surroundings of the people in most of the works from the 'Mask' series – he turned our attention towards the solitary character, and to the character's clothes, demeanour, and emotions expressed through the mask – at times tears appeared on the masks, as well as on their huge and unsettling hands.
One might read a lot into the 'Mask' series, and through the masks create extensions of meanings and interpretation. Yet the important characteristics conveyed by these works are not only the symbolic and metaphoric possibilities of the mask. In truth, the artist had thoroughly controlled the previously irrepressible inner temperament, and without hesitation, confirmed that unbridled behaviour and uncontrolled narration were pointless. Thus, in practice, Zeng was foregoing the essence of the modernist viewpoint, and affirmed for a personal, unique angle of looking at others' means of existence – in such a way that he naturally eliminated unnecessary display of emotions. From 1993 onwards, 'Cynical Realism' and 'Political Pop' became the art tendencies of the day. From these two tendencies stemmed different variations: artists could select from rogue temperament, political symbolism, historical imagery or folk spirit, and like chefs, create different 'dishes' and styles of contemporary art. Zeng Fanzhi was more or less influenced by this, and also discovered the conceptual characteristics of 'restraint': all decisions should express the basic form of the imagery. Clearly, just as the what most critics are concerned with, the problems that society is faced with are perhaps indications of the meaning of 'masks', as the artist himself remarked after arriving in Beijing, 'at first there were few people I could really communicate with, and too many levels of emotions between people – there were just too many of them whom I need to interact with and meet. When I was in Wuhan I rarely went out to make new friends or socialize, the people I was with were friends who grew up with me. The need to learn to be with strangers in a new environment – this sentiment is touching for me, and I feel that I have painted what is inside, not necessarily other's inner feelings, but certainly my own.' As the artist himself alluded to the real question of social living, the 'mask' became a means of eluding a response.
When the 'mask' becomes a kind of conceptual symbol, the artist extends the content of this symbolism. As Zeng Fanzhi placed the masks on the different characters – on a trendy lady, or a man, or any other society stereotypes – what drew one's attention is that, Zeng regularly placed masks on Young Pioneers. One would suspiciously question: why would Young Pioneers be part of this mask-wearing group?
At one point in time Zeng Fanzhi recalled his memories of youth. He suddenly felt the need to reminisce the emotional damage that had been experienced while growing up. That was a complicated part of history, a symbol that could not be wiped off; the red scarf – symbol of revolution, honour and noble spirit – had not changed because of the passing of time or the conflicts of ideologies. The artist was filled with contradictory and complicated emotions towards this symbol: resentment yet also an unbelievable temptation. In his youth, Zeng never become a 'honorable Young Pioneer', but to history's glory – whether this glory was illusionary or not – the artist maintained a kind of strangely religious sentiment. This sensibility helped him complete 'The Last Supper'. This was a 'last supper' of the Young Pioneers, with the leader hosting the 'religious' meal. In this work, Zeng integrated a duel historical concept: Western civilization and social ideology. The horizontal calligraphy inscription added the touch of traditional materials, and the distant mountains were simple motifs related to nature and history. To interpret the artist's story behind this work is a difficult thing, because the artist, through diversion and juxtaposition, abandoned all possibilities of narration. In this painting, we can see the interesting interchanges between the seriousness of 'Cynical Realism' and the playful characteristics of 'Political Pop'. After that, Zeng maintained a consistent memory of history – he would regularly place youths of the past in different backgrounds, while the backgrounds changed with time, these youths would also retain the same countenances with their red scarves. Some of these portraits, wearing the scarves, expressed the artist's early emotions and contemplation of the question of power, and a kind of entranced attitude towards the symbolic 'Little Leader', 'Middle Leader' and 'Big Leader' of the Young Pioneers.
Despite the frequent appearances of the masks, the artist never stopped with experimentation. At times, he could return to look at works of Western artists, and made changes based on stimulating pieces. He attempted to reinterpret some of the masterpieces (such as 'The Death of Marat' 2001) – this method is also a form of historical expression in contemporary art. At the same time, the artist adjusted with his techniques the parts of his paintings that could be easily categorized. He would use a scrape to reapply on parts of completed sections; this was a further strengthening of the artists psychological restraint, he refused to flaunt the effect of loose ad uninhibited brushstrokes and instead, scraped away these traces in order to increase the complexity of the painting. As he himself said: 'I use the scrape to make a little difference from past styles, but also, I want to eliminate the things that are strongly expressive. Using the scrape is to scrape away the brushstrokes that had excited me, so that calm is maintained, and that those things are hidden inside.' Gradually, the masks were sometimes taken down from the faces. Perhaps, the artist had decided that the long period of using the mask had become tiring, and thus the attempts of new possibilities in his paintings.
To a great extent, this situation indicated the artist's dissatisfaction of a long-term 'trademark'; his mind-state had hinted to him about change. This was part of the process of emotional change, and as the artist needed a kind of conceptual indication that suited his then state of mind, he began his search. He started to dabble randomly, as part of his early expressionist habit, and even returned to the liberated condition of the past, so that his paintings suddenly seemed abstract. Until 2002, he still had not found a new liberated style, but instead discovered a kind of a indulgence in removing the form – manifested in the works 'Us' which created astonishment, since there was no indication that the artist, after removing the mask, would reinstall the form behind the mask. He decided to eliminate those forms, eliminate them – 'us', until the forms completely disappear. At first, the artist continued his affection for form, and refused to complete erase 'us' – he had found pleasure in those structured brushstrokes, and very possibly, he believed this method preserved his understanding of painting and image during his early expressionist period – that the soul could not be entirely separated from our flesh.
To a very great extent, whether the 'Mask' series and some of the related works are identified with society or the people in the society, originated from the high degree of awareness and concern that the artist had in regard to his surroundings, as well as from his inescapable social meetings and the wish to be part of the central group or trend. Yet, as the influence of his works increased and received considerable attention from society, the artist once again changed his reasons of anxiety. Until this time, Zeng Fanzhi was more influenced by Western art, as the medium of oil painting itself had confirmed the artist's acceptance of this opinion. However, when the artist reassessed his everyday surroundings, he did not feel that his art completely fit the requirements of his mind-state.
As the same time when he erased form with circular dots of the brush, Zeng Fanzhi also experimented with lines. We do not know why a 'sentimental' tone appeared in his brushstrokes. The artist reapplied with the free use of lines on the heads of his characters – completely different from his previously systematic and mechanical destructive method; at the same time he also used these lines to create landscapes. In some of the experimental works, there are perhaps no connection between the abstract lines, but in their movement and expansion, they in fact constructed what we call the 'landscape'. We could perhaps look at the time between 2003 and 2004 as the artist's crucial period of transformation. Zeng Fanzhi rapidly abandoned his regulated style of expression – Yue Minjun also made a similar attempt. Very possibly, he decided to give up the search for possibilities of transformation in the Western art that he was familiar with, and wanted to find a new style that befit his temperament from traditional Chinese landscape paintings. He made rational experiments on the canvases, and via the method of holding two brushes in the same hand, he freely painted lines on the canvases, clearly returning to his early arbitrary style. Yet, precisely because of the arbitrariness of these lines, the artist entirely abandoned the brutality and roughness of the Western expressionist style, and accepted the gentleness and reticence of the culture that he was in. In terms of composition, the artist still preserved his early attitude, obvious from the deconstructed forms by lines; in terms of style, the artist found sufficient ground for his early liberal style – he borrowed the ancient's emphasis on lines, but expressed through the medium of oil. The result was that, the artist did not weaken the descriptive function of his paintings, because just as the ancients, he narrated stories of the two extremes, of nature and the inner self.
In the experimental process, the subjects of the paintings include both people and landscape. Very quickly, the artist began to place people with landscapes, and instinctively believed that people were a part of nature, just as the ancients had taught us. The lessons of the ancients had not been heard for a long time – creating a noble feeling that was both demoded and superior. The artist used lines to amend his earlier impressions of the ideological and political leaders (Marx, Engel, Lenin, Stalin and Mao), and it was not before longer when he placed the character of a great leader amid a landscape ('Man with a Straw Hat' 2005). What was different from the early 90s was that, Zeng Fanzhi did not attach a disturbing sense of ridicule, but instead admitted the importance and value of time itself. However, he insisted on a personal judgment and contemporary viewpoint in the perception of time. Zeng Fanzhi's aspiration to be an important artist led him to include art icons like Warhol in his grassy landscapes – this American pushed his bike and walked on the narrow village lanes of China, and even on the path that Zeng himself had taken – it was this Chinese artist's wish to meet with the master in a relaxed and familiar environment.
With the implement of free lines on the readjustment and alteration of form, Zeng Fanzhi made a successful evolution in his art, and confidently entered a new artistic period.
One could see from the experimentation with lines in 2004, the new lines possessed an experimental quality, just as students of traditional calligraphy are required to attain in their use of the brush. Anyone would know that the understanding of oil painting materials and colours is different from that of ink, brush and paper, yet, how would we feel if we compare Zeng Fanzhi's repeatedly painted, scraped and re-applied landscapes with the landscapes of Huang Binhong?
About a thousand years ago, Fan Juan completed his Xishan Honglu Tu; people later thought it was nothing more than a realist painting. We know that Fan Kuan was described in historical works as 'while living in the mountains, he would sit for days on end, and found pleasure in looking around him, even on cold snowing nights, he would stare at the landscapes, in order to contemplate.' This kind of experience is obviously different from experiences of artists such as the English painter Constable, or Monet who used sketches as completed works. According to the tradition of Chinese scholars, Fan Kuan and the majority of Chinese artists adopted a mediated attitude towards nature and life: Xuanhe Huapu'recorded that Fan Huan set up his abode 'amid the rocks and forests in Tia Hua in Zhong Nan', in order to 'view the rare landscapes of misty clouds on hazy moonlit nights'. Yet who could experience what Fan Kuan observed from nature? The result of this 'tranquil meeting with the gods' was a profound spiritual quality expressed in those mountains and trees. This quality was weakened in the painters after him, for most of them suffered in a wronged and melancholic state of mind. In 2004, Zeng Fanzhi repeated moved and scraped the colours on his canvases – the 'Welcoming Pine' he constructed from overlapping lines was like the smallest existing atom receiving the gift of life after an encounter with god. The atmosphere in this work is different from that of the relaxed grassy landscapes – the artist seemed to understand the words of the ancients, and turned his own perspective from the roadside grasses that he walked past, to books and to traditional Chinese landscapes. Nevertheless, when this transformation became a stance, the paintings themselves went through essential changes: the use of angular lines in composition from a kind of abstract viewpoint, and the use of different colours of lines to repeatedly overlap each other, creating a unique image of nature, and a landscape that evolved from 'countryside' to pure 'nature'. We would always remember Huang Binhong using the brush to repeatedly rub, dot, and colour, and we all know that Huang Binhong wished to change the ailing body of Chinese traditional paintings. Today, what some oil painters wish to achieve might be similar, but perhaps what Zeng Fanzhi truly wants to attain is a harmony with the traditional quality. Zeng Fanzhi respects his own 'state of mind' – this 'state of mind' was slightly vague to begin with, but it was afterwards coated in think layers of reality, until his fingers were able to flex and control the brush with perfect ease, he began his emotional understand of the 'human sprit' – a term that was rejected by the post-modernist.
Zeng Fanzhi is one of the Chinese artists who are familiar with and understand Western contemporary art. He is able to grasp, from the works of Dubuffet, De Kooning and other new expressionist painters, the charm of the west; still, he finally decided to complete his transformation of style through resuming tradition Chinese methods. In the passing the time, Zeng Fanzhi never stoped summing up his personal response towards the social and psychological reality – this is not a negative but an ever-increasing and enriching process. Regardless of the different origins of influences to the soul, those elements that had appeared very early on would always aptly appear in his new works. For example, the 'abstract' works were started with passion, and later expressed in calm compositions; the 'expressionist' works began as a flaunting of emotions, and later reworked with graceful lines; the early 'Mask' works were intended to cover, but later discovered to be a metaphoric supposition, to reveal the reality of the 'mask' at the same time creates a kind of aesthetic solution; finally, the artist discovered, after the theory of reflection of the early years, that the culture he was familiar with was part of life itself.
Form the late 90s onwards, new paintings appeared in different forms and styles. Compared with the early works, the most obviously difference is that the new paintings are the product of post-modernist influences – in a more expanded conceptual domain, artists regain the freedom in painting, and are no longer troubled by the medium itself, be cause the validity of the medium could be found in the basis of post-modern approach. Artists reclaim their right to vitality, impact, pleasure, the essence of painting and even literary sophistication – the result being that they rebuild the esteemed position of painting. In this process of reconstruction, the story of Zeng Fanzhi's 'state of mind' acts as a connecting link, and its importance speaks for itself.
18 August 2006