Zeng Fanzhi Subverts Expectations by Moving Beyond His Traditions

Madeleine Boucher
Oct 23, 2014 2:36PM

When Zeng Fanzhi's show of landscape paintings opened at Gagosian’s London gallery in 2012, a number of critics found the lack of Chinese themes or subject matter to be both remarkable and refreshing: Finally, they said, a show by a Chinese artist that does not lean on Chinese tropes! The common expectation that Chinese artists make artwork about their cultural identity in part may predetermine an artist’s success with Western audiences, but is also natural given Zeng’s past work. Associated with the loose Cynical Realism movement in the 1990s, Zeng became known internationally for painting psychological portraits of masked figures adrift in the chaos of globalization. His flat, wide-eyed figures, sometimes juxtaposed with slabs of butchered meat, not only made him one of the leading figures of contemporary Chinese art but also became icons for the collective experience of his generation in China.

His recent series of imagined landscapes, rendered in a dense tangle of impasto brushwork on a massive scale, represent a significant departure from this earlier work. Some works place the viewer inside a panoramic view of wild brambles, simultaneously forbidding and vibrant, while others contain images appropriated from Albrecht Dürer. As the artist describes it, the imagined places convey an “experience of miao wu [marvellous revelation],” a state of awareness of the mysterious and spiritual.

In his ongoing landscape series, which he began in 2007, Zeng explores concepts that resonate across cultures—themes such as sublime beauty, psychological spaces, and the artist’s personal relationship to the art of the past. His landscapes have prompted comparisons to German artists Anselm Kiefer and Gerhard Richter, for their complex quotations of historical artworks and style. Unlike the more common practice of reinterpreting art historical imagery to question the art historical canon, his decision to rework Dürer’s iconic images—the old man, praying hands, and the hare are all from 16th-century ink drawings—seems more like a homage to his artistic sources. Zeng seems to emphasize the connection between his descriptive brushwork and Dürer’s masterful drawings by transplanting them into his landscapes of bare branches. The fact that this feels like the work of a confident international artist rather than that of a highly successful Chinese artist indicates perhaps that popular opinion—that Chinese artists always focus their work on themes of cultural identity—is misaligned with reality, rather than vice versa.

Madeleine Boucher