EAST MET WEST, at a distance

It is the romantic and enticing notion of trespassing a boundary to meet something new what has driven most discoveries, from new lands to new ways of thinking, all compound to promise the untapped potential of the unknown. That innate drive was felt by Chinese artists throughout the 1980s, when absorbing the vast amount of western influences that flowed into their country, following the announcement of the open doors policy in 1978. In turn, that same urge would be reflected on the unforeseen and spectacular rise of Chinese contemporary art in the west in the early 2000s. The story has been told, west met east then east met west, at least apparently so.

Among those first artists that emerged from the Chinese art schools during the late 80s and early 90s, a few names became household in the west for the immediate years to come: Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Liu Xiadong, Liu Ye, Fang Li Yun, Zhang Huan, Zeng Fanzhi. Many of these artists have managed to remain in one way or another as part of the western art scene, either as spoken currency or represented by their traded and re-traded artworks. Few of those artists however, have gone as deep into the western art circles as Zeng Fanzhi, an artist whose name has become a high value token for the transactional layers of the art world.

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Meat, 1992. Oil on canvas. 150 x 180 cm

Zheng Fanzhi, born in Wuhan in 1964, shares similar beginnings with many of the artists listed earlier. Fine art schooled in China during the short ‘open door’ period, he received classical training but was equally influenced by many of the western artistic movements and philosophies that were absorbed by his counterparts: Expressionism (figurative and abstract), American Realism, Pop Art, Conceptual Art, all became part of the vocabulary that has continued to emerge through his work.

By the end of his academic training in 1991, it is said that Zeng Fanzhi had completed an average of 45 artworks and focused on oil painting, a decision that already set him within the group of artists who embraced foreign techniques, instead of those that chose to preserve traditional mediums and subjects. As observer and painter of his harsh surroundings, Zeng’s initial paintings inherently turned into keen social observations of the tribulations endured by many. It is during this initial chapter that his renowned Meat painting and his Hospital series were born.

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Hospital Series, 1994. Oil on canvas. 199.4 x 179.1 cm

Taken from his impressions at the near hospital where he used a washroom at the time, as well as at the butcher shop that neared his artist studio, Zeng Fanzhi depicted his subjects in a Goya meets Kokoschka manner. Highly pigmented reds, sharply contrasted whites and distorted physical features, made his oil works even more vexing and impressive, one of the reasons why they resonated so strongly with critics like Li Xianting. Based on the early recognition of his potential, Zeng found encouragement and moved his studio to the embassy area in Beijing. By 1993 he had secured his first solo show in Hong Kong.

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Fly, dated 2000. Oil on canvas. 179.4 x 200 cm

1994 marked the beginning of the Mask series period, one that would last until 2002 approximately, and thanks to which Zeng Fanzhi’s name gained wider recognition in the west. The series continuously portrayed sharply dressed men and women, wearing white masks with oriental expressionless stares and frequent wide smiles. Simple backgrounds and vivid colors emphasized the subjects, making of their luxurious western attires, pure breed dogs, and the occasional communist neckerchief, a poignant statement on the changes that were taking place in China during the 1990s. Indiscriminate enrichment, ostentation, isolation and the contradiction of different ideologies, all were manageable ‘under the mask’.

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The Last Supper, 2001. Oil on canvas. 395 x 220 cm

Towards the end of the 90s, Zeng Fanzhi was introduced to Lorenz Helbling, an influential Swiss dealer, who became the core link between Zeng and some of the most powerful art collectors in the west. It was thanks to Helbling that Zeng Fanzhi would sell The Last Supper to Guy Ullens in the early 2000s and whom would later help to arrange his meeting with François Pinault, the owner of Christies. It was then a matter of time before Zeng Fanzhi’s paintings started to emerge in auction rooms.

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Untitled, 2003. Oil on canvas. 163.7 x 250 cm

The subjects in Zeng Fanzhi’s canvases let the mask slide, giving way to the transitional Beneath the Mask period (2001–2003). Three years followed where the coverage of the faces was replaced by oil paint smears that brought Zeng Fanzhi’s artworks to resemble some of Francis Bacon painterly gestures, auspiciously bringing Zeng Fanzhi’s work closer to the hearts of the British art market, the second one most powerful in the world.

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Andy Warhol’s Photoshoot, 2004. Oil on canvas. 250 x 154 cm

The smears became lines, closing the door to the transitional period with the longing of the Sky series and an almost foreboding work, Andy Warhol’s Photoshoot, 2004. This painting came to preface Zeng Fanzhi’s portraits of commonplace politicians, actors, designers and western artists, in the same canny fashion that Warhol himself portrayed the stars of his time. 2005–2007 were years marked by the production of portraits of Lucien Freud, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon, Giorgio Armani, Xiao Feng, Chairman Mao, Karl Marx and the Pope. The lines, which initially emanated from the subjects, grew to become the subject matter itself.

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Francis Bacon, 2005. Oil on canvas. 200 x 200 cm | Bacon and Meat, 2008. Oil on canvas. 200 x 200 cm

The figurative became progressively abstract and This Land so Rich in Beauty was born. Perhaps a wink to Zeng’s own process as well as to Fu Baoshi’s painting, or even to the ambitious institutional journey that he mapped out for the subsequent years, this colossal landscape marked the start of epic quadriptychs that have masterfully helped to link his name to some of the most iconic institutions and artists of western art history: Albrecht Dürer reinterpretations at the Gagosian Gallery in 2012, reinterpretations of Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix at the Louvre in 2014, and most recently, Vincent van Gogh reinterpretations at the Van Gogh museum.

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Said to be painted with two hands ‘one that paints while the other one destroys’∗, these quadriptychs have certainly achieved a ‘higher degree of validation for Zeng Fanzhi’s work’∗, and yet, they have simultaneously shadowed the encounter they were meant to celebrate. Impressive in size and vibrant in technique, their power has been gradually diluted as they become clear exercises on the power of brand association. One would hope to find at some point again, the rawness of Zeng Fanzhi’s once acute observations instead of flat mirrors of other artists’ work.

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