Progression of Art
Hospital Triptych No.1
This larger than life triptych was Zeng's graduation piece, and it marked a huge shift in contemporary painting in China at the time - presenting menacing, fleshy, and nightmarish visions of realities of the people he saw in daily life, in stark contrast to the clean symbolic idealism of the state sanctioned Socialist Realism of the time.
The paintings are dominated by brown and grey tones and depict scenes from a hospital; patients waiting in a hallway; a naked figure facedown on an operating table surrounded by surgeons; and a full ward of clearly miserable and sickly patients convalescing. While the first painting might be read as fairly benevolent, the claustrophobic crowd of surgeons around the prostrate naked figure in the middle panel and the grinning doctor in front of suffering patients in the third panel suggest a class-based suffering in which vulnerable patients are powerless at the hands of sadistic doctors, who might also represent other kinds of powerful authorities.
Scenes witnessed by Zeng in a hospital in his hometown inspired those depicted in this work, as well as in other pieces from his Hospital series. He explains, "I used to walk to the Academy [of Fine Arts]. Life was very different then, we were poor, I mean really poor. I lived next to the hospital and we didn't even have a toilet so I used those of the hospital every day. What I saw left a strong imprint on me." At the same time, he was studying German Expressionism, including works by Max Beckman and the work of Willem de Kooning, focusing his work on the intense emotions that accompany social upheaval.
Zeng painted this piece for his final senior show at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts in 1992. It caught the attention of Li Xianting, China's leading art critic at the time. Li brought the work to Johnson Chang, owner of the Hong Kong gallery Hanart TZ, where he had a solo show five years later.
Oil on canvas - Ullens Center for Contemporary Art
This painting, along with others from the Meat series, bears many similarities to his Hospital series, with its muted grey-brown color palette and harsh, aggressive brushstrokes. This image shows a back room of a butcher shop, with two large knives hanging on the wall, and several meat hooks hanging from the ceiling, many holding animal carcasses. Several other carcasses lie on the floor, partially covered by a white sheet. There are two male human figures in the painting. One stands behind the pile of meat on the floor. He is wearing white boxer shorts, a white vest, and is holding another carcass. The second figure stands at the front of the image, topless, in white boxers, and bloodstained running shoes. He is holding a lit cigarette and looking out at the viewer. There is a great deal of blood in the image, smeared across the floor and walls, and on the human figures themselves.
Like the Hospital series, Zeng's Meat series was inspired from his day-to-day experiences. On his way to school, he passed several butcher shops, where he often saw workers lying on top of frozen meat in an attempt to cool down during the hot months. He recalls, "As a young man, these were vivid and indelible images that conjure powerful and mixed feelings. One of those was hunger because we were poor. But also horror as the blood of the meat stained the workers and handlers. I used a lot of red during this phase of my work, the color repulsed yet fascinated me at that time."
Again, we see that Zeng refuses outright to follow the rules of Socialist Realism in Chinese art, in which figures must be represented as "decent, grand, and deprived of any imperfection", rather painting meat workers, who both fascinated and repulsed the artist when he encountered them in the street. Through color, brushstroke and a sameness in rendering flesh (of both dead animal and meat worker) Zeng proposes an equivalence of bodies, reminding us that human beings are also constituted of flesh, or meat, and suggests the objectification of people as things in oppressive societies.
He also plays with religious iconography in his paintings, allowing potential religious associations to complicate the meaning of the work. In this image, for instance, the white sheet covering the meat on the floor elicits associations with the shroud that covered the body of Christ, while meat and bleeding bodies in the bible symbolize both sacrifice and salvation, leaving open questions of what is offered up in this composition of bloodied bodies, and to whom? This painting presented a radical challenge to Chinese art and painting at the time of its production, and remains affecting and unusual in an international context via its uneasy ambiguity.
Oil on canvas - San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
Mask Series No. 6
This painting depicts eight youths wearing t-shirts and red kerchiefs around their necks. All of the figures also wear white masks with huge, toothy smiles. The group poses amicably, with their arms around each other's shoulders, as if they are posing for a group photograph. The background is solid yellow.
This work, from Zeng's Mask series, came about shortly after he relocated to Beijing. Of this time he recalls, "It was a drastic change; everything was so monumental in scale. I felt a total sense of solitude, of isolation." These feelings spurred his Mask series. He explains, "China was changing very fast in the '90s, people wore suits and ties. But you could tell they were uncomfortable inside. There is a tradition of performing with masks, and I painted every character with a white mask on."
He felt that he, as well as the other modern Chinese urbanites, were obliged to hide behind figurative masks, hiding negative feelings of sadness, distress, and loneliness and instead pretending to be happy and thriving. Thus the masks represent an invisible barrier that exists amongst people. The white masks he paints bear a strong resemblance to masks used in Chinese opera, and also reference the 'mask' of Western dress and modernity, the mask of whiteness Zeng references in his recollection of the changing face of China in the 90s.
The exaggerated expression on the masks indicates that the facade they present to the outside world holds the figures hostage. The seamless way in which Zeng's masks fit on to the wearers' faces indicates that they go beyond the purely physical, instead being deeply entrenched in each person's psyche.
The figures in this particular painting are recognizable via their red kerchiefs as Young Pioneers, the youth movement of the Communist Party in China. Zeng had grown up during a time when every schoolchild aspired to receive the red kerchief, a sign of acceptance and achievement in the Little Red Guard. Years later, he still resented being denied this reward by a teacher at his elementary school that he describes as "strange" and "vindictively abusive", leaving him as one of only three children (in a class of fifty-four) without it. He was routinely mocked and bullied by his peers for not having a red kerchief. The figures' oversized hands make them both comical and disturbing, cartoonlike, but also able to cause physical harm.
Both a critique of the Westernization of China due to global business practices, and of oppressive Chinese regimes, this Mask painting is an important document of Western and Chinese relations in the 1990s.
This enormous painting broke auction records in 2008, and became the highest-grossing work by a contemporary Asian artist.
Oil on canvas - Private collection
In this, Zeng's second known self-portrait, the artist depicts himself against a golden-yellow background (monochromatic wall and floor). On the wall behind him is faded Chinese writing. Several smashed watermelons lay strewn around him. The artist stands at the center of the frame, wearing Western clothing (an unbuttoned trench coat, crumpled trousers, and a blue t-shirt) as well as the red neckerchief signifying communist China, which appears in many of his other works. His signature oversized hands are down by his side, and he gazes out calmly at the viewer.
This work not only embodies self-exploration for Zeng, but also an exploration of Chinese national identity. By combining the red kerchief, a symbol of his upbringing within communist collectivism, with western attire, Fanzhi is representing not only his own hybrid identity, but also the increasingly globalized identity of the People's Republic of China. The kerchief also alludes to childhood, as the Young Pioneers who wore those kerchiefs were between the ages of six and fourteen. When viewed in tandem with the faded Chinese calligraphy on the walls, much like that which would be found on the walls of any typical Chinese classroom, Chinese viewers of this work would be instantly transported back to their youth. This calligraphy also reminds Chinese viewers of the tradition of literati portraiture, where scholars would accompany their own self-portraits with poetic ruminations on their philosophies, written in an ornate, calligraphic style. The smashed watermelons in the painting serve as a proxy for raw flesh, at the same time as their red hue symbolizes Chinese communism and its ruins. The violence apparent in the torn, smashed watermelons contrasts sharply with the calm demeanor of the figure of the artist, creating the sense of tension between chaos and serenity, typical of nearly all of Zeng's artworks.
We also find Western Art historical references in this work, particularly to Max Beckmann's Selbstbildnis mit rotem Schal (Self Portrait with Red Scarf) of 1917. Both feature the artists with a red scarf around their necks (albeit with very different cultural significance), as well as distorted, over-sized hands. Zeng's referencing of Beckmann, an artist who used self-portraiture to question the validity of his occupation, is fitting, as Zeng struggled for many years as an artist rejecting Socialist Realism in newly capitalist China.
Oil on canvas - Private collection
In this huge abstracted self-portrait, the viewer is confronted with a close-up shot of the artist's face (from just below his lips to just above his eyebrows), rendered in swirling corkscrew-like brushstrokes.
With this painting, Zeng discomforts the viewer by rendering his face so large and close up, with the features moving in and out of visibility as the viewer moves towards and away from this towering canvas. The abstracted, ringlet-like "screen" through which the face is seen (not unlike the abstracted effect Chuck Close applies to his portrait paintings) serves a similar purpose to the masks in his previous work; he is indicating to the viewer that it is impossible to truly know someone, no matter how close you may be. Zeng states that "I paint portraits of myself quite a bit, and even as my techniques have become more sophisticated, these portraits are my process of discovery and searching for my own identity." However, through the use of the title "We", the works in this series go beyond self-portraiture, implicating others (perhaps his Chinese compatriots, or perhaps humankind more broadly) in the meaning of the work.
Oil on canvas - Saatchi Gallery
This Land Is So Rich in Beauty 2
This landscape painting is composed along a diagonal axis, from top left to bottom right. Above this line is a thick cluster of leafless trees and bushes, while below the line is snowy ground. Several erratic brushstrokes create a chaotic frenzy of lines superimposed above the natural setting.
In creating this, and his other landscape works, Zeng employs a technique wherein he uses two brushes simultaneously: one to depict the figurative landscape, while the other "leav[es] traces of his subconscious thought processes." In this way, he uses Abstract Expressionist and earlier Dada and Surrealist techniques to leave traces of the psychological tension within both his personal psyche, as well as within contemporary Chinese society and culture. Even without including human figures, Zeng manages to represent loneliness and vulnerability in the work. He explains, "As I paint, I create yet destroy. One of the brushes is creating while the others have nothing to do with me." He attributes his inspiration for these frenzied brushstrokes to Willem de Kooning, saying "I have been fascinated by de Kooning's lines since I was at college. His brushwork gave oil paints an irritating and maybe even agitating sense, as if something were being torn off and ripped. It embodies an impact that touches other senses, including that of sight and physicality."
The title of this work, and others in the same series, This Land So Rich in Beauty, comes from a poem by Chairman Mao Zedong. The tension created in the paintings, through the use of dual brushes and brushstroke style, is meant to offer a critique of Chinese propaganda, which exaggerates the beauty of the country and suppresses any expression of discontent. The same poem by Mao Zedong also describes "the beautiful landscape clad in white snow in the rising sun", a scene which Zeng has astutely reproduced here, but overlaid with a screen of disorder and agitation.
Oil on canvas - Saatchi Gallery
This painting features the building in Tiananmen Square, painted in bright red, yellow, and orange, with an abstracted rendering of the face of Chairman Mao painted overtop. Mao's eyes and forehead are clearly visible against the blue sky, while the rest of his face from the nose down is more obscured by its superimposition over the building.
The recognizable images in this painting (namely Mao's face and the building at Tiananmen Square) serve as symbols of China's troubled recent past. Specifically, the site is remembered as the location of the famous June 4th massacre, where student-led popular demonstrations, which received strong support from the general public, were met with a forcible military response from the government, who sent in assault rifles and tanks, resulting in thousands of civilian casualties. The artist's use of wild, erratic brushstrokes (much like those used in his earlier works) further emphasizes the psychological turmoil prevalent over the past few decades with the figure of Mao looming as "a lingering ghost presiding over popular consciousness." After graduating from university, Zeng was appointed for a short time by the government to work at an agency that produced nationalist propaganda, thus he is intimately familiar with the techniques used by the rulers, making him the ideal artist to critique it in his work as in this piece which overlays the highly recognizable and much reproduced (in both the East and West) image of Mao with one of the country's most violent atrocities.
Oil on canvas - Saatchi Gallery
Van Gogh III
Zeng was commissioned by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to recreate six of Vincent Van Gogh's self-portraits, with his own spin. For instance, the work re-created here is Van Gogh's Self-portrait With Linked Ear And Pipe, Arles (1889). Zeng opted to faithfully recreate the paintings, and then overlay them with his own signature style of erratic, frenzied brushstrokes, which symbolize anxiety, angst, and inner turmoil - a fitting tribute to an artist with a troubled psyche.
Zeng explains his reasons for focusing specifically on Van Gogh's self-portraiture, stating "To me, Van Gogh might have been reflecting on himself by constantly turning to self-portraits, making this genre an important area in his oeuvre. The self-portrait served as a window for him to express himself, and he referred to it constantly in his correspondences with other artists. I aim to study him via the same window." Self-portraiture has also been of high importance in Zeng's own oeuvre. He considers this to be an important process he needs to go through during every significant period of his life or career, through which he can engage in a process of "internal inspection". He explains, "After each experience of self-observation and reflection, my past is seemingly emptied and I am reborn."
Zeng has admired Van Gogh since he was a student, saying "I came across his works in the March 1980 issue of Meishu, the cover feature of which was dedicated to Van Gogh. In 1982, when I was 18, I bought some posters of his works, among which Hospital at Saint-Rémy, painted in 1889, was my favorite. I even placed it on the wall near my bed so that I could look at it every day. The dynamics of the twisting pines and the unique compositional structure were inspirational [...] his paintings still excite me a lot. I can sense the courage with which he insisted on his own way. However harshly he was criticized, I know he was a man of perseverance. He showed no hesitation in any stroke of his paintings." Zeng says of the experience of creating the new works, "I gradually gained a deeper understanding of him - not as literally as this might sound, but in the sense that I, as an artist, came to perceive the spontaneous emotion of another artist." He continues, "The more I paint, the stronger the impression I get that Van Gogh is like a character from a fairy tale. I cannot explain why. But as soon as I finish the works, he becomes a legend in my heart."
Axel Rueger, the director of the Van Gogh museum, notes "Many of the works by Vincent Van Gogh have become so iconic that you always feel that you know them, and we tend not really to look at them anymore. That an artist really dares to enter into that confrontation again, and look at Vincent's work afresh, and ... do his own thing with it. That is for us of course, really interesting and really inspiring," It is also somewhat poetic that an Asian artist is the one to reimagine these works, as over one hundred years ago, Van Gogh was strongly influenced by the Japanese art of his time".
Oil on canvas - Van Gogh Museum