“A three-part show of this scale is a remarkable occurrence and not something we’ve done before,” said Fiona Römer, director at Hauser & Wirth’s Zurich gallery, who worked closely with Zeng on the shows. “We saw that Zeng Fanzhi’s new body of work could have diverse and broad appeal, so we took the opportunity to give it exposure with a range of international audiences at once.”
To shift the conversation away from Zeng the commodity, Hauser & Wirth has endeavored to emphasize the different threads of his practice, showing new abstract landscapes in Zurich, portraits in London, and amalgams of Chinese and Western representation in Hong Kong. Zeng says this approach “reflects my typical studio practice since I simultaneously create pieces of different styles—the figurative is informed by the abstract, and vice versa.”
Zeng’s practice is indeed diverse, and it continues to evolve. While the new works on show in Zurich are clearly descended from earlier landscape paintings—in which thick black brambles obscure images of muted blue and vivid pink scenes populated with animals, statues, or people—the new works black out the background and foreground the bramble shapes themselves, which become bright, gestural and wholly abstract, suggestive of nebulae, neural imaging, or colorful wires in a server room. A roughly 98-by-138-inch work in this series, Untitled (2018), is selling for $3 million.
The London exhibition, timed to coincide with Frieze, gives a fuller picture of Zeng’s development over the course of his career. Painted when he was still a student at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts in Wuhan, Smiling Beck-ning
(1989) draws stylistic influence from
. Its subject is painted in thick white and red, looking heavily made-up and Ronald McDonaldesque, with a half-smile that could just as easily be a grimace. It’s a work that presages Zeng’s most famous paintings, his “Mask” series (from the mid-1990s), which played a defining role in communicating the trauma and estrangement of post-Cultural Revolution China.