I always get goosebumps when I see a beautiful work of art that touches both mind and heart. Untitled (2018) is one such example. The painting seems truly universal. We see a large canvas covered with a thicket of colors and lines that is part landscape and part abstraction. The painting recalls the very large-scale American paintings of the mid-20th century called Abstract Expressionism, so-called because they depict nothing but the artist’s state of mind, except that this monumental painting, measuring nearly nine feet by twelve feet – is by Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964) one of China’s leading contemporary artists.
Trained initially in traditional or classical Chinese art dominated by landscapes, Zeng grew up during the cultural revolution of the 1960s when the politics of Mao Tze Tung disrupted all manner of Chinese culture. Later on, in the 1990s, Zeng emerged as a political artist, producing brooding paintings of hospital scenes and urban Chinese men hiding their faces behind masks that speaks of the psychological trauma of modern urban Chinese. In recent years, he comments on returning to his roots, drawing on the abstract elements of traditional Chinese landscape paintings that the Western art world has largely overlooked.
To the untrained eye, Chinese landscape paintings, with their signature depictions of rivers and mountains, trees, and people, are merely representational. In truth, these paintings are never meant to be a visual copy of what a painter sees but rather it is about his understanding and connections with nature, with a capital N. A traditional landscape artist is immersed in his universe and has a dialogue with the world he lives in through the landscape he paints. Immersion is the operative world. You paint nature as it is living in your mind and heart, not what you see in front of you. In that sense, Chinese classical art has always been about a state of mind, and not a literal reproduction of the landscape. That is why in such paintings, foreground and background are often intentionally fused. Furthermore, there is no horizon to delineate distance. Sections of mountains, trees and rivers are stacked up on top of each other, often with plenty of negative space between sections of the painting to facilitate quiet contemplation. These are elements of abstraction that Zeng wanted to draw upon to create an east-meets-west style of abstract painting.
In Untitled (2018), elements of a landscape are discernible. A horizon is faintly visible near the top of the painting and in the foreground, one sees what appears to an untamed wild grassland infused with energy. But these elements are subsumed by a maelstrom of colors, light, and lines in the strike towards abstraction. As the following photo sequence shows, Zeng starts with big patches of primary colors, and through a process of adding layers upon layers of colors, some of those initial color patches become less visible, buried as it were by optical color mixing on a macro and micro scale. Add to this an explosion of lines, and we get the final effect of a picture where it is not longer clear where the abstraction begins and the landscape ends. It is this teasing quality of the painting that draws viewers to want to look at the work close-up and from a distance, to be captivated by a picture that seems to evoke a hidden state of calm amid the chaos. As Michael Govan, Director of LACMA puts it: “When you stand in front of it, becomes of its enormous scale, it feels like you could walk inside it … like a cloud that almost surrounds you.”
The Making of Untitled (2018)