In his first solo show in New York, Chinese painter Zeng Fanzhi (b. 1964) showed over two dozen works dating from 2007 to the present, a period punctuated by the historic sale of his Mask Series No. 6 (1996) at Christie’s Hong Kong in spring 2008. That yellow-ground, nearly 12-foot-wide diptych, a portrait of eight youths in shorts, red bandannas and white masks, garnered $9.7 million—the top price ever paid for a contemporary Chinese artwork.

The New York show included 18 portraits of male subjects, clad variously in dress clothes, ranging from bustlike facial studies to full-length views, almost all featuring monochromatic backgrounds. Moving away from his early tendency toward caricature, Zeng presents a cast of relatively stoic characters, his signature preoccupation with the mask (nowhere in evidence in this show) having shifted to deadpan facial expressions and poses borrowed from the realm of fashion.

Portrait 08-12-6 (2008)—a sympathetic rendering of a gawky hipster in red blazer, yellow T-shirt, baggy trousers and sneakers—is a profoundly humane character study, even though the subject remains a virtual cipher, impervious to full psychological penetration. The young man’s florid, if inscrutable, visage suggests inward reflection. His body, with its oversize hands and head, offers a stark antithesis to his hip attire. Zeng smears oil paint vertically upward from the character’s trendy haircut and, in other places, allows paint to drip down the canvas, the boundary-breaking streaks a metaphor for the individual’s merely momentary self-constitution. Two self-portraits (both 2008)—one a three-quarter head study, the other a half-length view of the artist at work on a painting—are sterling examples of unmannered analysis and psychological self-reckoning.

The survey also contained several brooding landscapes, most evincing Zeng’s recent evolution from images with a single figure standing in densely intertwined thickets toward scenes bearing virtually no evidence of human trespass or habitation. In Untitled 08-4-9 (2008), depicting a close-up tangle of growth, the brushstrokes waver between signs for nature and purely physical markings on the canvas support. The slathers of oil paint bespeak a state of claustrophobia relieved only by a crepuscular sky that fills the topmost portion of the canvas, decanting the work’s fearsome emotions into the void. There is little to be found anywhere today that can match Zeng’s deft, impassioned renewal of the tragic sublime in landscape painting.  

Photo: Zeng Fanzhi: Portrait 08-12-6, 2008, oil on canvas, 591⁄2 by 413⁄8 inches; at Acquavella.