by Robert E. Harrist Jr.
Zeng Fanzhi speaks of his creative process as a “subconscious response to inspiration.” The photographs taken in his studio documenting the creation of paintings in the current exhibition reflect different sources of inspiration, from within the artist’s mind and from other works of art, and also different ways of working. These glimpses of paintings coming into being add new dimensions to how one views and thinks about the completed works.

For Zeng’s vast Pure Land (2012), he begins with a single broad stroke of paint, applied with a brush a house painter might use, above eye level and somewhat to the right of the center of the multiple panels of canvas. No preliminary sketches or underdrawing guide the development of the painting. The first mark grows into a horizontal band that eventually becomes the horizon of the landscape, taking shape over a period of several days. Standing on a movable platform, Zeng and an assistant lay in lighter and darker strokes of blue paint for the murky sky; dark blue, gray, and black paint come next to define areas of the ground. As the landscape emerges, Zeng, back down on the floor, applies calligraphic strokes of green, red, black, and white paint with a smaller brush,moving not just his hand and arm but his entire body as he proceeds; he concentrates first on the left half of the big painting while much of the right half remains untouched, save the horizon line painted during the first stage of work. Unlike the insubstantial but indelible ink used in Chinese painting, which allows for no erasures or reworking once a stroke is in place, the oil paint Zeng uses is highly malleable: strokes applied directly over others cut through the wet paint, transforming the surface of the canvas into a field of low-relief grooves and ridges. As the thin lines representing vines or grasses grow ever denser, Zeng walks, bends, stoops, and crouches in a continuous kinetic engagement with the painting.

Landscape paintings by Zeng Fanzhi represent no known terrain; they depict no scenes in the real world. As the artist insists, they are solely products of his imagination. When he is at work, Zeng states, his everyday consciousness is pushed aside, and a subconscious impetus, which he confesses to being unable to describe in words, takes over. Although Zeng’s process is intuitive and spontaneous, the studio photographs show the landscape coming into being through rational stages, built up in brushstrokes of different sizes, generally moving from broad to fine. The landscape resembles no real place, but it does resemble other paintings by Zeng, reflecting his ongoing experimentation with recurring motifs. One painting gives birth to another with which it shares a clear stylistic kinship, even as each new canvas transforms and expands on ideas that came before.

Zeng’s monumental transformations of drawings by Albrecht Dürer, also documented in studio photographs, were produced through a different working process. Here, instead of following the inner vision that gives birth to his landscapes, Zeng begins with preexisting images. The creative act is more like that of a composer improvising on a familiar melody rather than starting with a tune of his own invention. For each of the three paintings inspired by Dürer, Zeng begins by recreating the drawings in monochrome, on panels of canvas more than twice his own height.

In the next step, shifting from replication to pure invention, Zeng’s unique process of creating a landscape takes over. In Head of an Old Man (2012), Zeng rapidly brushes on pink and white brushstrokes that will become part of the enveloping landscape, adding what seem to be playful ripples of these same colors to the old man’s beard. As areas of blue and gray fill the background and Zeng’s signature vines and branches begin to entangle the figure, the appropriated image becomes an integral part of a visual and imaginative domain that is wholly Zeng’s invention. The photographs document the same process in the creation of Hare (2012), for which, during an early stage of work, Zeng is shown holding a printed copy of Dürer’s famous drawing. In painting Praying Hands (2012), Zeng works somewhat differently: although the first step, as with the other paintings based on Dürer, is to copy the drawing in monochrome, Zeng alters the composition by adding three candles; he goes on to paint these in considerable detail, also showing light from their flames reflected on the hands, before moving on to paint the landscape background. Although the focal images in these paintings come from an external source, from the brush of a German Renaissance artist, they acquire new expressive force within a world of forms that came from nowhere outside the mind of Zeng Fanzhi and the processes of painting generated by his creative vision.□