Relative to other artists born in the 1960’s, Zhang Enli has arrived at success somewhat late in his career. With an artistic outlook that transcends prevailing ideologies and aesthetic structures, he stands alone against the mainstream. In his quiet paintings there are no humans, no meaning, no symbolism, and no manifestos. In the “vacant” worlds they portray, “things” are liberated, revealing to us a remarkable new dimension of experience and exploration, as well as the breadth and profundity of painting and art itself. “Zhang Enli’s works make us aware of a long-repressed core of painting: how do we discover the hidden secrets of the world through painting? This is also why ordinary objects in Zhang Enli’s works can create such dramatic tension in us. The artist’s own ambition is no less than to reorder the world in and through painting.”1
Under the influence of German Expressionism, Zhang Enli painted everyday human behaviours with an emotionally charged style in the 1990’s. Around 2000, he began to create paintings of everyday things, beginning with the Container series that would make him famous. Here Zhang observes boxes, ashtrays, buckets, empty bottles, even toilets—things that are overlooked or abandoned and cast aside—with such penetrating sincerity that they are elevated to the state of art. These two phases of his career are superficially different, but they are united by the fundamental goal of treating “painting itself as a life activity.”2 Zhang Enli said in an interview, “For me everything is a face, because things are also images. These images are very artificial. Whatever I paint exists and has been used in everyday life. What I do is to excavate the things in your memory, which actually always exist… There are traces of you in the room that you’ve moved out of: traces on the wall, trash on the ground.”3 Created in 2009, Hat (Lot 3) is one such container of traces. The entire painting depicts only a simple cap. The nearly monochromatic palette befits the humble and lonely object, which retains the shape and folds from having been worn, although the body it once touched has long departed. This “container” becomes an extension of the body and an objectification of a past relationship. A “materialist,” Zhang Enli engages the world in a dialogue through his paintings of things and establishes a philosophy of objects: “Humans look at the world,” he says, “but the world doesn’t look back.” As one critic puts it, “We have seen this philosophy dimly in Van Gogh: a chair is a chair and not a throne; an ashtray is an ashtray and not a symbol of masculinity. At the least this is a return to things in their original forms and a refusal to load them with extra significance. In the long history of hierarchical society, we have already projected our own human inequalities onto things. A cap is a cap on some heads, but a crown on others. A mountain is a mountain, and water is water, but sometimes these become ‘landscape’ or even ‘nation.’ Liberating things from all these metaphors and symbols is the same as liberating humanity from social hierarchy. This is a basic direction and intellectual resource for modern art, thought, and even revolutions. In short, the freedom of things is a perpetual question in modern and contemporary art. It gives us a starting point for understanding Zhang Enli’s art.”4
Zhang Enli’s depictions of quotidian things are as sincere and heartfelt as possible. Although an unfinished, sketch-like appearance has become his stylistic trademark, we notice upon closer inspection that this superficial carefreeness is actually the result of intentional and conscientious distillation and arrangement. Zhang’s compositions often retain penciled under-drawings and grids, and each of his fluent lines and light colour washes are executed with precise control. He treats the “unbearable lightness” of things with careful solemnity. Such is true for Scrolls (Lot 4) from 2001, rendered impressionistically, with much negative space and translucent colour washes. A pile of paper scrolls on a table becomes crystalline, resplendent ambers and fugitive nuclei of cells. The artist endows the “poise” of the paper scrolls with lively tension and formal beauty. “In an interview, Zhang Enli confidently claimed that ‘I make plain things beautiful.’ This is analogous to Flaubert’s claim that he brilliantly described unremarkable things.”5 In Zhang Enli’s works, profound emotions inhere in solemn appearances, and the things that we abandon and forget become vividly alive and sentient.
1 Gu Zheng, Two Essays on Zhang Enli’s Paintings, 2011
2 Refer to 1
3 Zhou Yuwen, “Yuyen and Zhang Enli on ‘Painting,’” 2008
4 Ma Boshang, Zhang Enli: The Earthshattering Power of Ordinary Things, 2014
5 Refer to 4
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