Zeng Fanzhi

Zeng Fanzhi, Untitled (Hospital Series), 1994, Oil on canvas, 179.1 x 199.4 cm

The listlessness of people waiting in an emergency waiting room contrasts discomfortingly with the gruesomeness of the chunks of human flesh appearing as fresh meat and liberal washes of red. This work is from one of Zeng Fanzhi’s earliest series, known as the “Hospital” series, markedly influenced by German Expressionism and its manifestation of society’s anxieties and decadence, as studied during his formative years at the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts in China. Zeng lived next to the hospital and would recall in his early paintings, scenes of doctors and fearful patients in emergency rooms, and the proximity between humans and flesh to underscore human frailty. The white-suited doctor in the foreground, appearing to be blind to the pain of a patient beside him, was characteristic of the critique of institutions and society present in Chinese contemporary art of the 80s and 90s.

Zeng Fanzhi, Night, 2005, Oil on canvas

From the early 2000s, Zeng began shifting away from rough and large strokes, as he played with a technique of spontaneous brushstrokes, sometimes painting with two hands, using two or four brushes in an attempt to release control. He took inspiration from Song dynasty art, particularly the ways landscape paintings emphasized humankind’s insignificance to the universe. The “Night” series comprises his paintings of landscapes, sometimes with or without figures. In Night (2005), a lone woman appears to be on a continuous journey, to an elusive destination. For Zeng, these landscapes are not real, but a consciousness of the world and a representation of a restless journey of discovery.

Zeng Fanzhi, Hyena, 2010, Oil on canvas, 250 x 350cm, image from Rockbund Art Museum

An exhibition of Zeng’s recent works is currently on show from 12 August to 12 October 2010, at 2010 Zeng Fanzhi at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai. His “Night” series have evolved to the “Jungles” series, of which Hyena is a part of, and his recent works introduce a keen awareness of nature and animals. The carcass in Hyena is reminiscent of the flesh in his “Hospital” series, connecting Zeng’s perspective of man and animals. Due to an injury, Zeng had to paint with his left hand, resulting in unruly strokes which contribute to a sense of the wild, destructive, yet arrestingly beautiful state of nature.

Foreground: Mammoth's Tusks, 2010, Wood, 340 x 160 x 130cm; Background: Covered Unidentified Object, 2010, Golden Silk Nanmu, 266 x 100 x 49cm, Image from Rockbund Art Museum

This exhibition also marks his venture into sculptural works. While significantly different through the abstract forms, the distinctive introspection in Zeng’s works remain. The sheer physicality of Mammoth’s Tusks weighted into space makes obvious the absence of a body and Covered Unidentified Object presents a creature beneath a cloak, on a coffin-like structure. In unison, the sculptures bring into the present what had been made extinct and forgotten. Using lacquering techniques, Mammoth’s Tusks were painted, polished when the paint dried, and this act was repeated numerous times, enabling a meditative process for Zeng.

Born in 1964 in Wuhan, China, Zeng participated in the Guangzhou Triennial (2009) and Venice Biennale (2009). A winner of the Martell Artist of the Year 2009, recent solo exhibitions were held at Singapore Art Museum, National Gallery for Foreign Art in Bulgaria and the Museum of Modern Art of Saint-Etienne Métropole.