This fall Hauser & Wirth is presenting a new show of Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi called In the Studio. Known for working on several series at the same time, the gallery was inspired by his simultaneous working method and brings this technique to how they are presenting this show by exhibiting his work at the same time across three locations – London, Zurich, and Hong Kong. Each focuses on a different theme, and presents works that have never before been exhibited beside pieces from his earlier periods. Alone each show represents a particular reflection on a facet of his work, but together we see a portrait of an artist whose technical abilities and style morph to illustrate the capacities of the medium of painting in a contemporary world.

In London portraiture is the subject. Displaying works from the 1980s to today, the exhibition depicts an evolution of his figurative work. In the 90s Zeng became known for his Mask series, which illustrated urban dwelling, well-dressed figures with masks covering their faces. He was inspired by a move from the country to his current base of Beijing where he found the surroundings and people to be cold and fake, and used this series as a way to highlight the alienation of cityfolk and city life. Complementing these older pieces is a new series in which he returns to self-portraiture for the first time in a decade. In these works he depicts himself with a bowed head that can be interpreted as a reflection on meditation.

Moving eastward, the Zurich space focuses on abstract landscapes mostly from the past two years. Some are representational, illustrating fire, water and sky, others are more abstract. These paintings emit emotions through their colors and line. While some may see Abstract Expressionism in his work, the idea of using landscape as a metaphor for the emotions of the artist has a precedence in Chinese art.

Painting provides me with a gateway to stay in contact with the world. What I feel, see, hear, and think are all articulated through my paintings.

Zeng Fanzhi

Finally the exhibition bring us to Hong Kong, where Hauser & Worth presents new paintings and drawings that reflect on the East/West relationship. He particularly examines the works of Cézanne and Zhao Gan, the 10th century Chinese artist. As a student Zeng copied still lifes by Cézanne, going beyond what was required of the assignment of copying the painting and recreated the composition in real life, even seeking out a tablecloth similar to the one seen in the painting. He gave the work a new style and hue imbuing it with a sense of his own artistic philosophy and style. The paintings exhibited in Hong Kong show just how carefully Zeng reflects on artists that came before him, examining their technique and breathing new life into their work. Here he looks towards Zhao Gan’s Early Snow on the River (late 10th c.) and Paul Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire series, and also presents drawings and studies reflecting on traditional methods of draftsmanship.

Zeng is not an artist that can be easily placed in a box — he has a constant need for exploration and uses the medium as a method to show just how painting can be used in a myriad of ways to explore the human experience. The exhibition is on view from September 22 – November 10, 2018.

– Sarah McMillan