The Chinese aesthete: Zeng Fanzhi’s “Parcours” at UCCA, Beijing – artist profile

Beijing’s UCCA presents the largest and most comprehensive exhibition of Zeng Fanzhi’s work to date, and his first institutional solo in Beijing.

Closing on 19 November 2016, “Parcours” includes nearly 60 works spanning 30 years of Zeng Fanzhi’s artistic career.

Zeng Fanzhi with 'Laocoön'. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio

Zeng Fanzhi with ‘Laocoön’. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio.

“Zeng Fanzhi: Parcours” opened at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) in Beijing on 19 September 2016, and represents the ‘auction-favourite’ Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi’s work spanning nearly 30 years of his creative output through close to 60 works borrowed from collections around the world. The exhibition, curated by UCCA Director Philip Tinari and Guo Xi, traces his evolution as an artist, in style and themes, on canvas and in sculptural form.

The show, taking its title from one of the artist’s early pieces completed in 1990, features key works from each major series in Zeng Fanzhi’s career in the Great Hall. The show culminates in a room dedicated to his works on paper never before exhibited in China, while UCCA’s Nave hosts two of his most spectacular landscapes. The exhibition design was realised by Zeng’s longtime collaborators Tadao Ando Architect & Associates, to create an immersive experience. Tadao Ando has compared the layout and design to sections of an MRI scan, which allows visitors to walk through the show as if through layers of the artist’s mind.

"Zeng Fanzhi: Parcours", 19 September - 19 November 2016, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing. Image courtesy UCCA.

“Zeng Fanzhi: Parcours”, 19 September – 19 November 2016, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing. Image courtesy UCCA.

UCCA quotes the artist as commenting about his survey exhibition:

Fortunately, I encountered painting in my youth and chose to embark on this creative path that now stretches for nearly thirty years. Along the way, I have discovered a place I call my own, where art serves as a guide through the long corridor of history, allowing one to traipse freely through time and space. My heart is filled with gratitude for the wonderment of this experience, and I hope by presenting this exhibition, which incorporates canvases from all the major shifts in my practice, to share a fantastic visual journey with a global audience.

Zeng Fanzhi: hospitals, meat and masks

Beijing-based Zeng Fanzhi was born in Wuhan in 1964, and graduated from the oil painting department at Hubei Institute of Fine Arts. He emerged onto the world stage in the early 1990s, alongside the very notion of ‘contemporary Chinese art’, and became known for his work that reflected on the social and cultural climate of his country.

Zeng Fanzhi, 'Hospital Triptych No. 1' (detail), 1991, oil on canvas, 180 x 460 cm. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio

Zeng Fanzhi, ‘Hospital Triptych No. 1’ (detail), 1991, oil on canvas, 180 x 460 cm. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio.

His early paintings from the late 1980s, made as he was still a student, combine socialist realism with influences from Western classicism and modernism to depict Reform-era Chinese society, and in the exhibition are represented by works like Parcours (1990), depicting a phantom-like figure sitting, and Agony (1990), which fuses the seated figure with the chair.

The exhibition includes other important works that the artist created while still living in Wuhan in the early 1990s. The “Xiehe Hospital” series was realised in 1991 and 1992, and culminates with three triptychs that represent the emergence of Zeng’s mature style, before his experiments with the “Meat” series. UCCA curators write about the “Xiehe Hospital” series of paintings as carrying “in them hints of the pictorial motifs—masks, grins, draped forms—that would mark his next phase, as well as of the expressive brushwork that characterizes his more recent efforts”.

Zeng Fanzhi, 'Idealism (Mask Series 2003 No. 1)', 2003, oil on canvas, 180 x 150 cm. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio

Zeng Fanzhi, ‘Idealism (Mask Series 2003 No. 1)’, 2003, oil on canvas, 180 x 150 cm. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio.

Zeng started the “Meat” series at the beginning of 1992, in which he juxtaposed slabs of pork and meat with fleshy bodies of people rendered with exaggerated red and white brushstrokes. The artist plays with the similarities between bodies lying on white hospital sheets and meat in butcher shops. In Nativity (1992), the naked baby and figures form an allusion to the Christian nativity scene. The “Meat” works belie a strong influence from German and American expressionism, with Max Beckmann and the early canvases of Willem de Kooning playing an important role in Zeng’s early study of brushstrokes.

Zeng arrived on the Beijing art scene in 1993, and made a name for himself with his “Mask” series started in 1994, which capture the contradictions of that era through figures in states of alienation. The masks divide the inner self from the outward identity, and the masked figures express feelings of alienation, loneliness and anxiety, as well as individuals ill at ease in their own skin and surroundings, portrayed in stiff postures.

Portraiture developed throughout his career also includes ‘unmasked’ portraits, used to pay respect to friends as well as Western art history figures he esteems, such as Francis Bacon in Bacon and Meat (2008) or Lucian Freud.

Zeng Fanzhi, 'Lucian Freud', 2011, oil on canvas, 180 x 180 cm. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio

Zeng Fanzhi, ‘Lucian Freud’, 2011, oil on canvas, 180 x 180 cm. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio.

Zeng Fanzhi, 'Old Brother', 2004, oil on canvas, 70 x 50 cm. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio

Zeng Fanzhi, ‘Old Brother’, 2004, oil on canvas, 70 x 50 cm. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio.

Abstract Landscapes

Zeng subsequently explored the medium of painting by breaking with what he had been creating until then. Around 2002, he started playing with his paintings to search for something new and started producing monumental canvases with vibrant colours around 2004: the “Abstract Landscapes” series.

This Land So Rich in Beauty No. 1 (2010) and This Land So Rich in Beauty No. 2 (2010) are key examples of Zeng’s “Abstract Landscapes”. These are the two largest works of the series to date, and create a sharp visual contrast between the destruction after a fire and the lush landscape preceding it. The title of this series is taken from a line in Mao Zedong’s 1936 poem “Snow”, which was later used as the title of a large landscape painting by Guan Shanyue and Fu Baoshi. Hanging in the Great Hall of the People since 1959, the painting was made both in praise of their country’s greatness and as an expression of the artists’ hopes for the Chinese nation. UCCA writes about Zeng’s works in comparison to the historic work:

In using a title of great historical significance, Zeng is not only incorporating his personal views and artistic principles into the landscape, he is also alluding to the ideology behind the “grand narrative” that is promoted, knowingly or otherwise, by so much artistic creation in China.

"Zeng Fanzhi: Parcours", 19 September - 19 November 2016, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing. Image courtesy UCCA.

“Zeng Fanzhi: Parcours”, 19 September – 19 November 2016, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing. Image courtesy UCCA.

Continuing his fascination with landscapes, Zeng has in recent years combined the free-range brushstrokes found in the series with “homages” to Leonardo Da Vinci and Albrecht Dürer, creating a series of seven four-by-four-metre paintings extensively shown abroad. The display of these works at UCCA starts with an image of Laocoön, inspired by the ancient Roman sculpture Laocoön and His Sons whose public display marked the origins of the Vatican Museums during the Renaissance. There are two paintings based on works by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and four based on works by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), which somehow uncover the two artist’s inspiration taken from the sculpture of Laocoön.

Zeng Fanzhi, 'Laocoön'. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio

Zeng Fanzhi, ‘Laocoön’. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio.

"Zeng Fanzhi: Parcours", 19 September - 19 November 2016, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing. Image courtesy UCCA.

“Zeng Fanzhi: Parcours”, 19 September – 19 November 2016, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Beijing. Image courtesy UCCA.

Sculptural elements, still lifes and ink

On show at UCCA are also some sculptural pieces, such as In Search of Plum through Snowscape I (2014), which show the artist’s re-working of traditional Chinese painting in a three-dimensional form. Zeng’s painted still lifes are also a continuation of his other painted work, by extracting elements that are usually depicted alongside human figures in his paintings, such as Watermelon (2003), a fruit that can be found in his “Masks” series and other portraits.

The newest works in this exhibition consist of a group of paintings in ink on paper signalling an introspective shift in the artist’s practice. These works are between landscape and abstraction, and are the result of Zeng’s explorations into paper, traditional Chinese ink painting and landscapes.

Zeng created new and unique papers in collaborations with the STPI papermaking experts in Singapore. Combining this new material with his knowledge of a wide range of ancient Chinese painting practices, Zeng created a new visual language that synthesises and transforms landscapes into images that reconcile “painterly perspective and visible phenomena, melding the mental with the physical, the spiritual with the scientific, and the internal with the external”.

Zeng Fanzhi, 'Portrait', 2004, oil on canvas, 200 x 150 cm. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio

Zeng Fanzhi, ‘Portrait’, 2004, oil on canvas, 200 x 150 cm. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio.

With the wide-ranging oeuvre and artistic exploration that characterise his practice, Zeng today, as UCCA writes, “fulfills a role inhabited by artists throughout Chinese history: an aesthete among the worldly, offering uplift and solace through refinement”. Quoted in the press release, UCCA Director and exhibition curator Philip Tinari states:

UCCA is hugely excited to be presenting Zeng Fanzhi’s most comprehensive exhibition to date anywhere in the world. His singular painterly vision connects his personal experience of living in contemporary China to centuries of artistic creation across many cultures, as art becomes a vehicle for exploring history and articulating taste. This exhibition offers not only an overview of his considerable talent, but a meditation on the importance of aesthetic cultivation in a messy world.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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