Zeng Fanzhi, 'Hare', 2012. Oil on canvas (on 2 panels). 157 1/2 x 157 1/2 inches. 400 x 400 cm. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
Beijing-based painter Zeng Fanzhi – the subject of a solo exhibition at London’s Gagosian Gallery – emerged to acclaim in the mid-1990s with unsettling figurative works, including his haunting series ‘Masks’, in which individuals were shown wearing white masks that twisted to absurdity or anxiety their expressions. In 2008, one of this series of paintings set an auction record
for contemporary Asian art at $9.7 million (usurped by a Zhang Xiaogang triptytch three years later).
Zeng’s more recent works have probed the psychological potential of landscape. Four examples on view at Gagosian, all Untitled (2012) and produced at a large scale, are covered in the foreground by complex meshes of black branches, outlined in yellow.
Zeng Fanzhi, 'Pure Land', 2012. Oil on canvas (on 4 panels). 137 4/5 x 393 3/5 inches. 350 x 1000 cm. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery.
These dancing lines come close to abstraction – echoing in the mind perhaps the dripped paintings of Jackson Pollock – but one is always still aware of their brooding background environments. These dark, sombre spaces are punctuated with explosions of bright colour; one resounds with red like the apocalyptical landscapes of English Romantic painter John Martin.
Zeng Fanzhi, 'Praying Hands', 2012. Oil on canvas (on 2 panels). 157 1/2 x 157 1/2 inches. 400 x 400 cm. © Zeng Fanzhi Studio. Courtesy Gagosian Gallery. Much more weird are three works that set famous images by Albrecht Dürer – Young Hare (c.1502), Praying Hands (c.1508) and Head of an Old Man (1521) – within these landscapes. Zeng paints copies of the hare, hands and head at a huge scale in thick and fleshy impasto paint, and in a sickly palette. If, in Zeng’s words, his landscapes are ‘about an experience of miao wu [marvellous revelation]… a restless journey of discovery’, then the painter wants it to involve revisiting and reinterpreting iconic images from the past.
- Zeng Fanzhi
is at Gagosian Gallery, Brittainia Street until 19 January 2013
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine