Zeng Fanzhi: Paintings, Drawings, and Two Sculptures
Gagosian Gallery, 555 West 24th Street, New York City
November 6- December 23, 2015
By ROBERT C. MORGAN, DEC. 2015
As what we call “Modernism” began to emerge in China in the 1980s, the Chinese view on painting was confronted with a great diversity of highly critical questions related to how painters might address the future of China’s cultural, social, economic and political environment. Rather than take a conceptual or literal pint of view, painters in China seemed more intent on following a romanticist or neo-expressionist angle of vision. Even so, the more pragmatic question did not go away. For the avant-garde painters of the 1980s and 90s, the questions would include how to combine western-based subject matter in tandem with traditional forms of Eastern aesthetics, or how to play down the imposition of Soviet Socialist Realism taught to younger Chinese artists, and how to secretly impress a critique of the blatant distortion of historical Chinese and Confucian values in relation to forms of cultural critique coming from the West, initially from European collectors and curators.
Few Chinese painters have gone as deeply into painting from the position of questioning one’s selfhood amid the travail and confusion of China’s entrepreneurial present as the Beijing-based artist Zeng Fanzhi. Steeped in learning Western-style portraiture and indigenous landscape painting from the northern Sung period (10th and 11th centuries AD), along with nineteenth century French romantic painting and twentieth century German Expressionism, Zeng emerged as a painter of note with his Hospital Triptych No. 1 (1991), followed by his masked portraits (often self-portraits) that continue into the present. At the time I met the artist in Shanghai in 2002, Zeng was deeply involved in painting the landscapes, which have also continued into the present, as they become larger and seemingly more dramatic and adroitly expressionist than ever.
Two enormous landscapes are present in the recent Gagosian exhibition, titled This Land so Rich in Beauty No. 1 and No.2 (both 2010), which run horizontally over 34 feet on two facing walls. In terms of content, each painting reveals Zeng’s typically gnarled leafless trees and twisted shrubbery. It is uncertain as to whether the stark forest is on fire or whether we are viewing a stark orange reddish sunset in the background seen through the dead foliage. Another earlier gnarled landscape, Night (2005), features a female figure walking in a white evening gown that suggests the image of the American screen actress Marilyn Monroe.
As for recent subject matter, the painting Laocoon (2015) is taken from the famous sculpture of a father and two boys being strangled by a large snake. In a recent interview, Zeng comments that he felt it was unnecessary to paint the entire sculpture as it might seem too literal. Rather the artist felt that to capture the agony of the father’s face in an expressionist painting style on a large-scale surface would be enough to communicate his intention.
While themes of pain, suffering, and critique are clearly underlying metaphors throughout the painting career of Zeng Fanzhi, there is a separate room in this exhibition given to a lesser-known series of layered whitish drawings, Untitled (2009 – 2015), more on an easel scale in contrast to the more representative large-scale expressionist works seen throughout the majority of this exhibition. With these drawings, there is a cast silver sculpture that stands vertically poised in this subdued meditative atmosphere (with another located in the front window gallery.) Somehow the contrast of this room is striking as it adds a dimension of another more interior reality to Zeng’s work, perhaps more in keeping with values from a spiritual tradition that anchor his cultural presence as a Chinese artist looking out at the world from two hemispheres. WM
Robert C. Morgan is an internationally renowned art critic, curator, artist, writer, art historian, poet, and lecturer. He holds an MFA in Sculpture from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (1975), and a Ph.D. in contemporary art history from the School of Education, New York University (1978). Dr. Morgan lives in New York, where he lectures at the School of Visual Arts and is Adjunct Professor in the graduate fine arts department at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He is Professor Emeritus in Art History from the Rochester Institute of Technology.
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