signed in Chinese; dated and signed '2010 Zeng Fanzhi' (lower right)
Zeng Fanzhi Being, Christie's Hong Kong Ltd., Hong Kong, China, 2011 (illustrated, p. 33).
"In the East we emphasize on the spiritual dynamics, yin and yang, balance and certain poetic atmosphere. After reaching a mature level of technical ability, we will pursue even a higher level, achieving the kind of mind and spirit of ‘Tao’. Therefore, my later work has continued to study after this aspect consistently. However, adding the oriental elements is not only for the images on the surface, but also from the perspectives of contents and spiritual dimensions.” This is how Zeng Fanzhi explains Chaotic Strokes, his most unique recent series. He familiarized himself with a great quantity of traditional Chinese aesthetic material. In particular, long-term observation of Chinese gardens helped him realize the meaning of "vivid style," as well as how to manifest consciousness and emotion using smooth, simple strokes. Lines derived from cursive script are rich in musical rhythm, while the bold and unrestrained brushwork coupled with unique composition establish an entirely new landscape concept. This series is also rich in both design and chance. The free-flowing brushwork seems abstract but often displays a distinct theme. This kind of conflict is precisely what artists pursue, freeing the self within the subjective consciousness, and retaining a meticulous structure while allowing for free-flowing brushwork.
Transformation of Style: Chaotic Strokes Series
In the spring in 2001, Zeng Fanzhi accidentally hurt his right hand in his studio. During the recovery period, he could not paint with his right hand anymore. Irrepressible desire for painting drove him to grasp the paintbrush with his left hand and apply colour to the canvas. To his surprise, after the usual use of right hand, lines painted with the left hand possess a different kind of power and charm of colour. He said, “It was originally an irrelevant discovery. Yet I began to maximize it, to form my energy field, my orientation.” From then on, he further affirmed his will to transform, inaugurating his Chaotic Strokes series. In 2002, Zeng Fanzhi redefined the direction of his art and style, “I use two paintbrushes at the same time when making art. The brush between the index finger and the middle finger serves as the lead while the other brush brings about damage in the creative process. Thus, I produce strokes that seem chaotic yet are in fact in order in the painting.” Furthermore, Zeng Fanzhi drew even more inspiration from observing the intertwining and dynamism among the vines, which dynamized and vitalized his strokes even more.
Zeng's 2002 Chaotic Strokes series may be regarded as an exploration of the origins of artistic style. By 2010, he had created a theme and transformed the composition. He also integrated landscape and animals in order to stimulate discussion on the relationship between humans and nature. The essence was exploring the spiritual aspect, comprehensively surpassing previous methods of symbolic description. This is represented in The Deer (Lot 174). The deer seems to be gazing backward as he ascends the hill, while the foreground is occupied by a thick forest with vibrant, intertwining branches. The strong, distinct brushwork extends upward throughout the entire painting. Zeng is skilled at using lines of various thickness to depict branches, while foreshortening techniques and densely interwoven material provide a sense of space and depth of field.
The Four Auspicious Animals of Chinese culture are the unicorn, dragon, phoenix, and tortoise. The dragon and phoenix share qualities of the deer, showing its status as a lucky animal in ancient Chinese culture. The deer symbolized longevity, and according to Records of the Grand Historian, Biography of the Marquis of Huaiyin: "When the Qin lost their deer, the entire nation pursued it." Deer also represented political and imperial power. Zeng chose the deer theme for its cultural symbolism, and depicts the animal with the vivid, lively style of Bada Shanren, a painter of the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. Bada Shanren liked using symbolism to impart a moral or implied message, and often personified objects. His animals would roll their eyes in contempt, displaying cynicism and bitterness toward the world.
Whether it was the early Hospital series, Mask series, or Chaotic Strokes series, the theme of Zeng's art has always been exploration of the human being. Depictions of human portraits are full of spirituality, a technique learned from Lucian Freud. They emphasize the spiritual condition of a character full of essence. The Deer expands the previous portrayal of the thoughts and emotions. While the painting depicts animals, it precisely assaults the subject's spiritual depiction. In portrayal of the living organism, Zeng implies the Taoist philosophy of harmony between Heaven and humans, affirming the existential value of life and hinting at the individual's feelings.
The black branches of The Deer reflect red and yellow colours, which come from Expressionism. The ground is blue and green, providing a strong warm/cold contrast. Careful examination reveals important technical innovations, such as layering lines on undried paint, broken and connected, clearly displaying the progress and development of the artwork. It is as if the artist's individual action is clearly presented in the picture, displaying Zeng's breakthroughs in the development of contemporary art. The Deer presents a merger of eastern and western aesthetics, integrates concrete and abstract Expressionist style, conveys the subject's spirit and emotions, and establishes richer possibilities and modes of expression. As the lines and colours intersect, Zeng uses new and unique artistic vocabulary to innovate upon contemporary art development and expressive possibilities.