Installation view of ZENG FANZHI’s “Paintings, Drawings, and Two Sculptures” at Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2015. Artworks copyright Zeng Fanzhi Studio. Photo by Robert McKeever. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Paintings, Drawings, and Two Sculptures

Zeng Fanzhi

Gagosian Gallery
USA China

For the past decade, the name Zeng Fanzhi has been nearly synonymous with the high-pitched clamor of the contemporary Chinese art market. From record-setting auction sales to towering solo extravaganzas, Zeng’s trailblazing career has enraptured the art world, with each happening pedestaled as though they were blockbuster shows tailgated by a fancy brigade of jet-setting art-lovers and high-flying fashionistas. An artist at the height of his fame and fortune, Zeng is watched in the glare of limelight, where his iconic status is both celebrated and contested, with utter delight, from the sidelines.

One would expect, then, that for his first solo exhibition at the blue-chip powerhouse Gagosian Gallery in New York, China’s most commercially successful artist would venture to exert, with full-fledged force, the muscles of his continuous market prowess. Intriguingly, however, it is at this most glamorously vendible of all platforms that Zeng takes an unexpected turn. On many levels, “Zeng Fanzhi: Paintings, Drawings, and Two Sculptures” poses fundamental questions about artistic gesture, and its relationship with abstraction, spatiality and perception, more than serving as a showcase for objects to be bought. With works selected and curated by the artist himself, Zeng manages to stage one of his most enlightened self-renewals to date.

Much of Zeng’s work, since the 1990s, has seethed forth a constant: an uneasy self-consciousness about the appearance or veneer of reality, as well as a psychic discomfort with what is seen and what is presumed to be the status quo. We see this strain of anxiety in his early series of work—as evidenced in the imagery of butchered flesh against numbed, hollow eyes of hospital patients, and the translucent mask of an urbane man with oversized hands knuckled brashly in rejection of gentile body proportions. The divided soul is his signature, a dual identity on the edge, breeding a sense of fiery disquiet that marks the poignancy of Zeng’s art. By the mid-2000s, Zeng’s edgy suspensions collapse into a smear of formal interrogations. In his “Portrait” series, we see faces and outlines smudged into unfinished contours, countenances of Communist heroes slashed, with flesh gashed out as if whipped, depicting wounded memories (Great Man No.5, 2004). When appropriating tropes of Western iconography (such as in “Dürer”), Zeng continues to deter us from seeing his subject matters conventionally, distorting their compositional proportions and scale, virtually emptying the provenance and substance of their original import. His most recent burning wildwoods series, “This Land So Rich in Beauty,” further relishes in these exertions of angst. Before a vast desolate horizon, a frenzied combat of lines culminate into a blockage—a web-like abstraction that literally takes over the pictorial foreground.

ZENG FANZHI, Untitled, 2014, cast silver, 109 × 181.5 × 37.5 cm. Copyright Zeng Fanzhi Studio. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

For this exhibit, before the eyes of New York, Zeng has chosen to distill his extrasensory battles into a reductive inquiry. He confronts some of his most fundamental dichotomies head on: what is an artistic gesture, and how can a contemporary Chinese artist represent it so that it retains the highest psychosomatic appeal, while straddling the viewing traditions of both the East and West? What is representation, and how can it be re-configured today to overcome our visual saturation of screen images of familiar tropes and wholesale spectacles? The most moving of Zeng’s new reflections in New York is about light or, more precisely, the evocative power of light upon the act of seeing. Zeng tackles this theme so provocatively that by the time we emerge from the exhibit, our eyes will have undergone a cycle of sight, from full to void and back to full, and be transformed both physiologically and metaphysically. 

At the Gagosian exhibit, a sculpture placed in the entry room of the gallery initiates our first encounter with the artist’s grappling of such issues. Cast in silver, and sculpted angularly as though it is a line drawn taut, this foray into metal acts as a three-dimensional counterpoint to the dazzling brushstrokes found in the oil canvas next to it, entitled Bodhidharma, Still There (2015). Here, carnality and interiority are set up in a meditative dialogue. Gnarling diagonally towards the sky, an untitled sculpture from 2015 projects Zeng’s wild, calligraphic gesture into space, becoming animalistic in the process. In its changing contours, the sculpture courses about freely, shifting back and forth with unbridled energy, crossing multiple dimensions with the chiseled skin of oxidized silver. Is it a line or a body? A point or a surface? Without succumbing to definition by way of any fixed viewing point, Zeng’s new sculpture unveils the possibilities and limits of viewing. In many ways, this work can be seen as Zeng’s newfound resolution between spatiality and line, a long preoccupation seen in his oil canvases. The work also offers a reprieve from the seemingly conflicting legacies that Zeng bears. A matrix of interfaces is construed here—a dualistic artistic gesture that resonates intimately with the Western sculptural legacy of primitive abstraction, and equally so, in respect to the traditional Chinese calligraphic notion of multi-spatial energy within a line.   

ZENG FANZHIThis Land So Rich in Beauty No.1, 2010. oil on canvas, 250 × 1,050 cm. Copyright Zeng Fanzhi Studio. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Continuing this line of inquiry, a few experimental oil works titled “Four Seasons” lead us into the main room of the gallery. In a spectrum of bleak colored backdrops, a series of flattened, unresolved twig-like extensions are painted in one go. Part action painting, part cursive calligraphy, the four canvasses exude a vehement and archaic force. They act as a prelude to the climax of Zeng’s apocalyptic landscapes displayed in the gallery center on a majestic scale, ironically entitled, "This Land so Rich in Beauty,” dating from 2010 to 2015. The dazzling brushwork is a tour-de-force display of Zeng’s technical skill. They grant us a spectacular view of an artist whose bodily exertions have reached a symbiosis with the creative process. The immense concentration required to make such immediate decisions with the brush is self-evident on the painting surface. The outcome of this ingrained practice is such that the paintings have themselves become psychic fields of the artist, fully saturated with his sensory input, with endless sequences of openings and closures that continue to manage and regulate our visual experience of the works. Less like Pollock and more like de Kooning, Zeng is an action painter that does not remove the specter of figurative realities. His improvisations, though wild and frenetic, continue to bear a self-conscious restraint within the compositional training of classical romanticism. They continue to happen within a fixed perspective, settling securely within a foreground and a background. In this manner, his spontaneity remains controlled, in a studied kind of way. A tender equilibrium is reached between an unleashing of expressive outburst and an alignment of compositional precision. In more ways than one, Zeng’s works come to embody his mental and emotional states in all its naked pulses; but at the same time, they also reconfigure our perceived visual world through a shared metamorphosis.

ZENG FANZHILaocoon, 2015, oil on canvas, two panels: 400 × 400 cm. Copyright Zeng Fanzhi Studio. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.

Zeng appears to be aware of the crossover convergences underlying his global celebrity. He is both an iconoclast and a traditionalist. A merging of such characteristics explicitly takes form at the visible end walls of the exhibition space, before the nave of the gallery. There, as if a trinity upon an altar, we encounter three monumental appropriations of Western religious icons. From the left, a Nativity scene, with Joseph, Mary and the Baby Jesus, is caught in tangled knots within Zeng’s signature webs of scraggly lines. Towards the right wall, an enlarged, cut-off head of Laocoon is hanged, representing the legendary Trojan priest killed for prognosticating the ruse of the Trojan Horse. At the center, we find a certain headless, robed Greek statue, in the aftermath of what seems like an assault, entitled Yesterday. Are these portrayals of defacement, death and obliteration? A philosophical interrogation contemplating the limits of inherited visual representation? Or is this an attempted rehabilitation of faith through a trance-like state, or a dramatic projection of a counter-vision? The contradictions embedded within these works, tensed between the brute force of Zeng’s iconographical studies, and the neurotic meditations of his brushwork, breaks a threshold. It also signals a certain turn towards the metaphysical, beyond expressionism. Beguilingly, this tendency towards such existential epiphanies do echo throughout the Gagosian exhibition, albeit in a different cultural milieu. Here, we are reminded that Zeng had titled his very first painting, in the opening room of the show, Bodhidharma, Still There. Later, the eponymous legendary Indian monk, who attained transcendental vision in a cave, materializes in a portrait-in-landscape piece entitled Bodhidharma (2015). Zeng’s self-identification with the cultivating Zen master seems implicit. At the exhibition, as if an alter-ego to the artist, the Bodhidharma portrait is hung directly in front of a similar self-portrait-in-landscape by Zeng from 2013.

It is within a veiled, darkened chamber set up at the end of the exhibit that we are granted a passage towards that inward vision of the artist. In a minimal set up, with a sparse installation of paraphernalia reminiscent of a traditional Chinese scholar’s studio, Zeng shares with us, after six years of experimenting in private, a glimpse of that higher domain: five new ink-on-paper drawings that have never been publicly exhibited before. To reach this inner world, we take a pre-designed path from the main gallery, through an interim blacked-out space that nearly eclipses our vision. A narrow opening leads us towards the ink drawings in the mock studio, which are hung in the raw without frames, exposing thick edges of Japanese hand-made paper. At first, under the faint lighting, the drawings appear to our muffled eyes as if they are barely there. A sfumato-like atmospheric haze overtakes the rugged hand-made paper surface, effected by dark, interlaced wash tones. In time, as our pupils adjust to the minimal lighting in the room, forms and lines of antiquated trees and rocks, like those found in Northern Song dynasty landscape paintings, come forth, emerging almost sculpturally from the textural crevices of the paper into space and light. The encounter with these ink drawings is hypnotic, almost like a revelatory journey experienced viscerally through our eyes. From the image-saturated, visually battered world of the 21st century, these delicate fields of light and dark transport us to an archaic realm, where art was presumed to pre-exist before sight, and where a higher visual order of representation was ordained by the viewing act of the audience as much as the artists who created it.

It is notable that to create the drawings, Zeng had worked closely with a Japanese paper-maker, developing each paper collaboratively to produce a unique working surface. Before drawing on them, he studies each piece at length. “The forms come out to me,” he says, “I discover them and only draw what was already there.” These comments hark back to a founding precept of Chinese literati art: the image is not created but pre-exists in nature and is solely evoked to others by an inspired artist. This concept is also found in classical lore of Renaissance art, which Michelangelo professed upon seeing lovely apparitions within slabs of marble before he “released” the statues within through his chisel. Interestingly, to release his forms from the rugged terrains of the pulpy paper surface, Zeng also employed some traditional Chinese brushwork techniques called “axe,” “chisel” and “peck.” The uncanny convergence of ancient constants and renewed designs at the tip of his brush provokes our wonderment, restores our act of viewing and, altogether, reconstitutes the way art is seen and felt.

Zeng Fanzhi’s “Paintings, Drawings, and Two Sculptures” is on view until December 23, 2015, at Gagosian New York.