While explaining his painting process during a studio visit with art writer Christopher Moore, Zhang Enli simply concluded, “Reality is artificial.”1 As one of the leading painters in China today, Zhang’s portraits of inanimate objects and space have clearly garnered immense followings both within China and abroad. Unlike other artists from his generation who are in one way or another tied to the history of China, the Shanghai-based artist has created an exceptional framework that strategically moves away from political commentary, and instead concerns himself solely with the perception and experience of reality. This personal reflection has not only contributed to the eclectic styles within his artistic practice, but most importantly, firmly grounds the artist’s pioneering position within Chinese contemporary art today.
Born in Jilin in 1965 and having studied at the Arts & Design Institute of Wuxi Technical University, Zhang’s early works are often inspired by his initial impression of Shanghai. Featured in his first solo exhibition “Dancing” at the Shanghart Gallery in Shanghai in 2000,Dancing No. 2 (Lot 803) from the Dancing series represents Zhang’s early probe into portraying human psychology. Created in 2000, it is one of the very last works to be rendered in the expressionistic style, shortly before Zhang moved towards object-based paintings in the same year. Marked by a red and black colour palette, wild brushwork, and heavy layers, the painting depicts a crowded bar scene where dancing couples intertwined with smoking strangers. The uncanny resemblance between the canapes on the serving plate and the skin colour at once reveals the emotional void within every city dweller, explicitly channeling a rare sense of energy no longer seen in his later paintings.
Since 2000, Zhang began to experiment on a series of still-life paintings, where the motif of void would translate into his later immensely successful “Container” series, in which packing boxes, sinks, buckets, and other empty containers are painted against nondescript settings. Among them, Cigarette Box (Lot 801) from 2002 certainly reveals a powerful link between Dancing No. 2 and his later works. Depicting an empty cigarette box, the piece concentrates on the magnified form of the trampled box with carefree brushstrokes and minimal composition. The mixing of the paint has also taken on a different approach; diluted oil pigment is thinly applied as to resemble watercolour and Chinese ink. Using a similar colour palette as Dancing No. 2, rather than confronting viewers with the complexity of a psychological portrait, the artist has grown to observe and even evoke one’s relationship with the mere existence of mundane objects. Zhang’s fascination with distilled portraits of inanimate objects has spanned across different spectrums over the course of ten years. Produced in 2009 and exhibited in his first solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in London in 2010, Circle (Lot 804) certainly highlights the epitome of Zhang’s artistic practice at the end of 2000. Depicting an almost perfectly round hula hoop, the work once again departs from Cigarette Box; thinned washes of paint no longer embody only the object, but play out to the shadow beneath, questioning precisely the perception of form and reality between the canvas surface and the illustrated background.
While many of Zhang’s works pay attention to the form and portrayal of forgotten objects, a series of his paintings is curiously devoted to the human head. Indeed, the Head series proves to be one of the strongest links merging the fi ne line between human and object. As Zhang explained, “Because I am always thinking about one question: the relationship between human being and object. I feel that I disrupted the existing accurate relationship between human being and object through this back head series.” 2 Head (Lot 802) from 2006 is an important work that illustrates an aesthetic progress of the motif, shifting from the back to the top of a man’s head. The framing of the piece especially evokes an uncanny parallel between the head and a scientific specimen, showcasing a unique attempt by the artist in objectifying the human anatomy.
The four lots on offer brilliantly showcase the four distinctive phases within Zhang’s oeuvre since 2000, and at the same time successfully affirm the artist’s endless exploration of the relationship between human and object, revealing the obscure perception of form within. As what he once said, “This world is artificial but when you look at it, it will definitely touch your heart.”3
1 Chris Moore, “Zhang Enli: Through Trees to Sky”, Zhang Enli, Minsheng Art Museum, 2011
2 “Conversation about Art between Zhou Yuwen and Zhang Enli”, Zhang Enli, 2008
3 Refer to 1
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