Zeng Fanzhi’s painting of a Chinese man in a trenchcoat with his dalmatian stood out during the New York Armory Show of 2009 (at Piers 92 and 94). It was “for secondary sale.” The painting was being offered up by Director, Bong Lee at the Gana Art Gallery booth. I traced his work to Acquavella Contemporary Art, Inc., who is also the exclusive international agent for the renowned British painter, Lucien Freud. They turned out to be presenting the first solo exhibition of Zeng Fanzhi’s work. Michael Findlay, one of the Directors of Acquavella explained to Xu Ning, Culture & People Director of Harper’s Bazaar, Beijing, and I, that Acquavella offered Fanzhi his first solo exhibition in New York based upon the activity of his work at auction. In May, 2008 his diptych, “Mask Series 1996 No. 6” sold for $9.7 million at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
Zeng Fanzhi uses paint to promote an international revolution for China. He has created a precedent in terms of sales at auction during an international economic crisis. Fanzhi’s paintings are extroverted portraits of adorable Chinese men with a cartoonish stylization. They are amusingly funny, fresh and unconventional. He has a flawlessly sure illustrator’s hand. His use of fine arts materials is impeccable; stretched linen canvas and oil, large and mighty, sable brushwork. In Portrait 08-12-3 the paint bleeds like the Neo-expressionist paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Fanzhi‘s Lion, (2008, 110 ¼ x 212 5/8“) suggests a relationship to Rousseau‘s The Repast of the Lion (1907).
The Chinese painters who first exhibited their work at the Nicholas Roerich Museum during the mid-80’s painted in a language that was well understood by painters throughtout the world. It was educated, sensitive and abstract. For example, Zang Wei’s paintings reverberated with subconscious echoes of man-chests and ties. Elizabeth Neel’s paintings at Deitch Projects are also reminiscent of this lost genre. The creative syntax they used was also practiced amongst the great painters of the New York School and subsequently, proudly, in paintings (post-1950) done in socialist countries. There, artists were subsidized and encouraged to paint with purity, without the chaos imposed upon them by our less stringent Western super powers. Here, in New York, where society is loosely bound, purity tends to be edged out by temperamental adornments.
Animistic painting dates back to the pictorial languages of ancient Egypt, Peru, Mexico, and China. It contains human archetypes of the unconscious mind. The ideas manifest by it bridge the gap from antiquity to the present. In contemporary art, we have dropped abstraction in favor of conscious, glossy magazine-ready visual imagery. Mirrors of oneselves as the “non-person” compete for our attention. To date, Zeng Fanzhi appears to have won this high art challenge.
Zeng Fanzhi was born in Wuhan in 1964 and was raised during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. He graduated from Hubei Academy of Fine Arts in 1991. Since 1993, Fanzhi has lived in Beijing. He has exhibited at the Shanghai Art Museum, the National Art Museum (Beijing), Musee d’Art Moderne De Saint-Etienne Metropole, Saint-Etienne, France, the Kunst Museum, Bonn, the Kunstmuseum Bern, Santa Monica Art Centre (Barcelona) and Art Centre (Hong Kong).