Zeng Fanzhi persistently grapples with history and tradition in the face of broad and accelerated change. His aesthetic restlessness epitomizes the spirit of recent contemporary art practices in China, yet transcends any single cultural struggle. Since the late 1980s, Zeng has presented a succession of introspective and socially critical subjects, from the haunting Hospital paintings to the visceral Meat paintings that juxtapose human subjects with butchered flesh; from the enigmatic Mask paintings to candid and startling close-up portraits; from intimate, existential still-lifes to depictions of pivotal Western cultural figures. Charged with psychological tension, Zeng’s paintings reveal the place of the unconscious in the construction of human experience, reflecting on the external pressures of a rapidly changing culture and the constant negotiation of personal identity within such societal flux.
For the past decade, landscape has been a central focus. Traditional techniques overlap seamlessly with qualities of abstraction, evoking a lineage beginning with Song Dynasty depictions of idyllic, imaginary landscapes rendered in calligraphic strokes. Zeng’s vast, obscure lands are spontaneously lit with bright pinks and blues, scenes which both embrace and upend tradition, challenging conventional representation with spontaneous bursts of pure color. “They are not real landscapes,” he has remarked. “They are rather about an experience of miao wu [marvellous revelation]. Miao wu constitutes a restless journey of discovery.” Some paintings depict children who are barely visible behind intricate thickets, expanding on the themes of anonymity conveyed in the Mask paintings while also alluding to the incidental role of mankind within nature’s boundlessness and permanence. Gnarled branches crisscross over dark terrain, accented with swaths of white, teal, violet and rose. Characterized by brushwork that is both refined and heavily textured, the thick surfaces of Zeng’s canvases underscore the physicality of his process. In a surprising turn for one who dutifully appropriates a diverse range of traditional techniques, he sometimes works with two brushes in one hand, intentionally undermining his own ultraprecision.
Zeng’s afflictive sculpture similarly engages existential themes and art-historical precedents. Layered wooden works defined by Renaissance-esque naturalism depict covered animal carcasses, obscured by uncannily rendered fabrics with butchered limbs protruding. Life-sized Mammoth’s Tusks (2010) suspend from the ceiling, a powerful evocation of the extinct species’ former presence. Moving beyond the social allegories of his early career, Zeng skillfully conflates diverse influences in his creation of enveloping fantasies.
Zeng Fanzhi was born in Wuhan, China in 1964. Solo museum exhibitions include Singapore Art Museum(2007); Musée d'Art Moderne de Saint-Etienne de Metropole, France (2007); Fundacion Godia, Barcelona, Spain (2009); and Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai, China (2010). Group exhibitions include Prima Materia at Punta Della Dogana, Venice, Italy (2013) and Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY (2014). A major retrospective of his paintings and sculpture at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris (2013). Recent solo exhibition From 1830 till now No.4 at Musée du Louvre, Paris, France (2014).
Apart from art, Zeng applies himself continuously to works of charity and art education. Since 2006, he has made donations to disaster areas, funds for students, academic and public institutions, and has donated his work to charity auctions. He believes what comes from society should be used for society, and for this reason he will always participate in philanthropy.
Zeng lives and works in Beijing.
Right after the finalization of YOU on November 19th of 2015, 73 hours after the beginning, the artistic director and producer, Shi Li-Sanderson, had an interview in situ with the artist Zeng Fanzhi to share his experiences and thoughts on the new creation. The interview not only revealed his thoughts during the painting process, but also some aspects of his personality and his career as an artist.
During the process of painting, five guests came into the studio to have a conversation with the artist while watching his painting method. The participants to this conversational watching were Désiré Feuerle and his wife Sara Puig, Lutz Engelke, Paul Gladston, and Willem van Gogh. They shared their impressions with the artist while forming part of this unique experience.
Do you feel that the work you produced this time is more innovative in comparison to previous works?
Am I correct to say that the act of painting is an exceptionally lonely journey?
You speak of intuition, but in itself it is also very rational, am I right?
In the making of this large-scale work, there was the restriction of time and space. Was there any emotional struggle?
Do you think that it is possible you wake up one morning and decide not going to paint this way again?
Desire Feuerle, Lutz Engelke, Paul Gladston, Willem van Gogh