Zeng Fanzhi’s The Mask Series No. 21, 1994 sold for £993,250 at the BRIC sale, 14-15 April 2011, London.
Mask Series No. 21 belongs to the earliest group of Mask paintings, and was shown in the original solo show Behind Masks at Hanart TZ Gallery in Hong Kong with which the series debuted. It was later shown in the exhibition China! at the Kunstmuseum Bonn in 1996, Zeng’s most important exhibition to that point. At the time, eminent critic Li Xianting declared the series a new stage in Zeng’s artistic development, calling it “a strong departure from the intense and explosive quality of his earlier work”, exhibiting “a new quality of detachment and rationalism”. (Li Xianting, ‘Life Masks: Symbol and Expression in the Recent Paintings of Zeng Fanzhi’, in Behind Masks: Zeng Fanzhi, exh. cat., Hanart TZ Gallery, Hong Kong, 1994, p. 14.)
This particular example, aside from exhibiting all the traits which make the early Mask paintings so important (the rigid poses, the Western dress, the flesh still reminiscent of the earlier Hospital triptychs) tweaks the common understanding in two main ways. First, in depicting an ambiguously female figure, it suggests the full range and vision of Zeng’s Mask project. From the very beginning, it suggests, the series was not about presenting a single self-portrait visage, but about depicting contemporary Chinese society in all its complexity. Second, it includes a seemingly superfluous toy in the yo-yo. Toys occur throughout the early Mask paintings, starting with the wooden dog in the bottom left corner of Mask Series No. 1. Asked about the significance of the yo-yo, Zeng replied simply that “it carries no special meaning; I just thought of a yo-yo while making the painting, and decided to incorporate it directly into the composition.” (Zeng Fanzhi, in an email interview, March 2011.)