Artis­tic soul

Top-sell­ing artist Zeng Fanzhi, who’s best known for his Mask series, is hold­ing his largest solo ex­hi­bi­tion to date at the Ul­lens Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Art in Bei­jing to show­case the w ide range of his work. Xiao Xiangyi reports.

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Top-sell­ing artist Zeng Fanzi, best known for his Mask series, is hold­ing his largest ever solo ex­hi­bi­tion in Bei­jing.

Artist Zeng Fanzhi is tired of be­ing as­so­ci­ated only with his Mask series that com­mands eight­fig­ure prices at auc­tion. So he is hold­ing an ex­hi­bi­tion to try and dis­pel the no­tion that he is only a mask painter.

“I hate to be stereo­typed. It’s time for or­di­nary peo­ple to get ac­cess to my real work,” he says.

“They will find that the Mask series is a very tiny part ofmy creations.”

He’s one of the world’s topselling artists, whose The Last Sup­per, from the Mask series, sold for $230 mil­lion in 2013.

“I was happy at first, but then got stressed. An artist can­not be in ec­stasy or in ten­sion for too long. So I dealt the chaos, or else I would not be able to cre­ate any­thing,” says the 52-year-old.

He be­lieves an artist has to be free and ab­so­lutely hon­est in his creations.

“Many col­lec­tors wanted to book my paint­ings. Even my fa­ther hoped I would paint more in the (Mask) series. But be­ing booked is ridicu­lous and dis­as­trous for an artist.”

Crit­ics say Zeng’s early works like The Hos­pi­tal series and The Meat series present the artist’s lament about cru­elty and the fragility of life, but Zeng says he only picks up his brush when he is re­ally touched— and it is all in­stinc­tive.

Zeng com­pleted these two series when he was still a se­nior at the Hubei In­sti­tute of Fine Arts in Wuhan.

“It was sen­sa­tional to paint this bloody stuff. It wasn’t ac­cept­able as grad­u­a­tion work. At first, I handed in a draft sketch of Ti­betan scenery asmy tu­tor re­quired, but I fooled him by hand­ing in The Hos­pi­tal Trip­tych fi­nally.”

Born in Wuhan in 1964, Zeng has a typ­i­cal chival­rous and vagabond streak about him, much like the city he grew up in, which pro­vided the in­spi­ra­tion for his early creations.

“I lived closed to a meat­pro­cess­ing plant and a hos­pi­tal where I would go to the wash­room ev­ery day. Those fa­mil­iar scenes trig­gered my de­sire to paint.”

The on­go­ing ex­hi­bi­tion, which com­prises more than 60 works, is Zeng’s largest solo ex­hi­bi­tion to date. It has been run­ning at the Ul­lens Cen­ter for Con­tem­po­rary Art in Bei­jing since Sept 19.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is called Par­cours, af­ter a French word that means to stroll through.

The de­signer of the ex­hibit, Ja­panese ar­chi­tect Tadao Ando, says: “I came up with an idea where the au­di­ence can feel the in-depth world of the artist’s cre­ation if they see the art­work through a series of win­dows cut out of sev­eral par­al­lel walls.”

One of the pieces the au­di­ence sees through the win­dows is the artist’s self­por­trait.

In the paint­ing, Zeng is seen in a red Bud­dhist robe sit­ting on a stool, bare­foot, echo­ing the work of a pair of boots at the en­trance of the ex­hi­bi­tion.

“That’s not a cig­a­rette inmy hands — it’s a pen, with a line wind­ing in the air. This self­por­trait ac­cu­rately de­scribes my state of mind at that time, tran­quil and de­tached.

“I think I’m do­ing well in pro­tect­ing my ter­ri­tory.”

Any­one who has been to his stu­dio will un­der­stand why he is not dis­turbed by the chaos from out­side.

Zeng, who uses gar­den­ing as a form of med­i­ta­tion, of­ten paints while lis­ten­ing to his fa­vorite clas­si­cal mu­sic — Tchaikovsky or Smetana — in his stu­dio.

Be­sides oil paint­ings there’s also a dark and mys­te­ri­ous room in the ex­hi­bi­tion.

For the first time, Zeng is show­ing his Pa­per series — ex­per­i­men­tal work done since 2009, when he was ex­cited af­ter ac­quir­ing a piece of hand­made pa­per.

Zeng, who is fas­ci­nated by the tex­ture and grain of the pa­per, just adds very weak lines with min­eral wa­ter col­ors based on what he ob­serves in the tex­ture, and the land­scape that ex­ists on the pa­per.

“The pa­per does 30 per­cent of the paint­ing. I paint 30 per­cent. And the rest is done by each viewer,” he says.

Ba­si­cally, one does not need to un­der­stand the the­ory of art to ap­pre­ci­ate a paint­ing.

How­ever, if one un­der­stands both Western art and tra­di­tional Eastern art, es­pe­cially paint­ings from the Song Dy­nasty (960-1279), one can en­joy his works on pa­per even more.

“Even if you don’t know art his­tory, art can be re­ward­ing if you are pa­tient. You have to com­mu­ni­cate with the work, stare at it for a while and feel it. Just a quick glance will leave you dis­ap­pointed,” he says.

That’s why Zeng has en­sured that the ex­hi­bi­tion room is dark, and it takes as long as one minute for a viewer’s eyes to adapt to the en­vi­ron­ment.

Zeng also be­lieves that a calm mind is im­por­tant to en­joy­ing art. “Only when one is calm, one can no­tice sub­tlety.’’

Mean­while, Zeng has not given up on oil paint­ing and re­turns to it from time to time.

“I have to be ab­sent for a while, or else I’ll be­come too ob­sessed and blind,” he says.

Speak­ing of his re­grets, he says he once drew a por­trait of Lu­cian Freud, one of the great­est artists from the United King­dom, and was just about to send it to him when he learned that the artist had passed away.

As for his other works, there is the Chaos series.

Zeng held two brushes with his right hand and painted al­ter­nately — one sketches, and the other dis­turbs the paint­ing.

This, Zeng says, has cre­ated an un­ex­pect­edly in­ter­est­ing ef­fect.

“Or­der is meant to be bro­ken and es­tab­lished. So, when the new or­der be­comes a shackle, it has to be bro­ken again.”

I hate to be stereo­typed. It’s time for or­di­nary peo­ple to get ac­cess to my real work.” Zeng Fanzhi, artist


Above: Blue, oil on can­vas by Zeng Fanzhi. Be­low right: Lu­cianFreud, Artist series (2011).

A piece from Zeng’s Mask series.

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