The Chinese Artist Whose Expressionist Style Captures The Fatigue Of The Contemporary Experience – Zeng Fanzhi
Zeng Fanzhi’s paintings are immediately recognisable by his signature expressionistic style. Using bright bold colours, Zeng’s paintings persist as a discomforting composite of irony and optimism, fusing the veneration of revolutionary heroicism with the uncertainty of a rapidly developing future. With subjects ranging from portraits and rural landscapes to politically charged motifs, Zeng infuses the everyday veneer of shared experience with an ambience of transgression, reflective of both the fast-changing terrain of contemporary Chinese culture and the negotiation of personal identity within this societal flux.
During the 1990s, Zeng Fanzhi achieved recognition with his Hospital and Meat paintings, both delivered in the artist’s distinguished fleshy red tones. Influenced by German Expressionism, Zeng commonly renders figures with large heads and exaggerated features in flowing bold brushstrokes. His earliest work exemplifies his correlative approach between painting and psychology. His depiction of a hospital waiting room is portrayed with overwhelming banality and trauma: muted tones replicate the staleness of public space, the milling crowds in the background appear hazy and remote, while rusty washes pour over the canvas replicating blood, sorrowful and repugnant.
At the beginning of his artistic career in the late 80s, Zeng Fanzhi painted apocalyptic, expressionist images, therefore manipulating modernist compositional effects to intensify his sinister version of reality. His representational work reveals the place of the unconscious and aberrant in the construction of experience. The over-sized, clenched hands of his subjects are almost more remarkable than their stereotyped faces and wide-open eyes.
Zeng Fanzhi’s notorious Mask series conducted in the mid-90s characterises a turn in his aesthetics. All the figures in the series wear white masks fused tightly with their facial features. The masks nevertheless possess a peculiar, haunting power. His figures look anxious or fearful as if they are victims of their own roles. Through the mask motif, Zeng expresses the feeling of suspended reality.
Zeng’s later paintings signify a shift in his focus from a formal concern with the representation of existential unsettlement to an interest in how we imagine ourselves interacting with nature. Still, in his moody landscape paintings, there is a notion of permanent escape – an attempt to inhabit the uninhabitable. These images are expressively abstract. Rendered in cool shades of pink, black and blue, they instantiate the tension of failed community and human loneliness.
Within Zeng’s large-scale works there is a notion of fragility and vulnerability; like an attempt to create a terrain of uncertainty that inhabits both characters and landscapes depicted. The impressive scale of the paintings lends them a certain suggestive and revered appearance. When viewed, the paintings constantly seem to move and evolve, seemingly creating a new distinct impression on each viewer. The images reflect a social reality that is made up of multiple signifying systems of which the landscape is just one.
Zeng Fanzhi’s art simulates the fatigue of the contemporary experience: the rush to acquire and consume to the point of alienation and detachment. Working in idiosyncratic ways, he reminds us how effective art can be when it collapses these various experiences. He traces the eruption of the earthly into the optical sedition of visual art. His paintings are much more than sarcastically recycled imagery. Zeng Fanzhi delivers an art that feels new, not in its premise but in its refined vim and vigour.