Lot 1086
  • 1086

Zhang Enli

1,800,000 - 2,500,000 HKD
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  • Zhang Enli
  • Sky
  • oil on canvas
signed in Chinese and dated 2010


ShanghART Gallery, Hong Kong
Acquired by the present owner from the above


China, Shanghai, Minsheng Art Museum, Sky, 31 December, 2010 - 12 February, 2011


This work is generally in good condition. Please note that it was not examined under ultraviolet light.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

Sculpting a Sky from Foliage
Zhang Enli

Zhang Enli’s reputation in the international art world has been growing in recent years. This validation and attention for the artist’s work is of a different kind from that of the artists who have attracted the spotlight in their use of Chinese political symbols. Zhang Enli’s paintings possess a distinctively Chinese aura, a provocation and stimulation, stirring up the imagination of contemporary painting. Sky (Lot 1086) is the striking, three-metre work that was displayed at Zhang Enli’s solo exhibition in 2010 at Shanghai’s Minsheng Art Museum. This work, along with the others in his series of paintings featuring the large trees of Shanghai streets as their subjects, surrounded the perimeter of the exhibition space, and are among the artist’s rarest paintings.

There was a former period in the artist’s career in which he used tense, passionate, unrestrained brushstrokes in portraying the everyday activity of people, such as eating and drinking, or other forms of leisure. Later, he transitioned to studying the visual appearance of everyday objects. He began depicting a series of receptacles, like ashtrays, paper boxes, water pails, empty bottles, and other glassware – the items of the utterly commonplace. But through his virtuosic brushwork, the artist placed the profound poeticism of these everyday objects into sharp relief. Henceforth, the artist’s style became a wielding of control – between looseness and tension – in achieving a high level of internal balance, conveying the inner essence usually occulted in the surface appearance of these everyday objects, in the process of which, he communicated his unique experience of the world. This switch from portraying humans to objects seems to be a sublation of human life as a subject for painting, as well as a deeper inquiry into the prosaic. This marked a period of great transformation in the language of Zhang Enli’s art.

To speak only of effectiveness, Zhang Enli’s painting very successfully interprets what is “the richness in simplicity, the gorgeous in the unadorned, the ostentatious in the subdued, the tension in the relaxed, the extravagant in the plain, and the bountiful in the restrained.” The current fashion of the Chinese art world is to bestow a plethora of external meaning upon one’s artwork, yet Zhang Enli’s works, each brushstroke, resolutely rejects any advertisement of a direct declaration or manifesto. Instead, he invites the viewer to make a return to considering the original nature of painting, to take the path belonging to the everyday trivialities of the world, which he portrays with pure yet gorgeous colors and lines. The use of “gorgeous” here implies not the artist’s depiction of objects in a way that makes them superficially beautiful and gorgeous, but rather refers to his sincere glorification and exalting of the objects. In this way, the objects are rinsed clean of their superficial glitz, exuding the miraculous in the gorgeous, and the gorgeous in the miraculous. Once, in an interview, he confidently remarked, “I don’t like to portray beautiful things in a beautiful way.” This sentiment chimes with the words of Flaubert, who was known for “thrilling portrayals of the mundane.” In other words, through his individual and profound observation, the artist was able to extract and reconstruct prosaic everyday objects and elevate them into objects of visual magnificence.

Recently, the artist has engaged in even deeper, and more radical and original investigation into the spatial aspects of painting with regards to “installation-inspired painting.” Zhang Enli’s execution of installation-inspired painting allows us finally to witness the new possibilities that exist when installation and painting are combined. Not only does he insist on the function of portrayal, he also explores the depths of possibility in the union between installation and painting. In speaking of modern art, the bells of its moribund fate have been sounded again and again, yet this type of alarmism has patently overlooked artists like Zhang Enli, who are ceaselessly excavating new possibilities in painting. Moreover, in the process of exploring these possibilities, he has also fostered an academic interest in the relationship between installation and painting, and provided successful examples of it.

Although Zhang Enli’s Sky series (2010) lasted only a brief period, its unique implications make it worthy of discussion.

Trees are a symbol of human vitality. Like us, their form is a compromise between the impulses of their natural growth and the constraints of the external world. Zhang Enli’s portrayal of trees is focused upon the alternating, dynamic weaving of their branches and leaves. The relationship among the leaves is rendered combining the aesthetics of calligraphy and the brushwork of oil painting, giving way to a boundless and passionate display of their expansion and furling. The startling beauty of their portrayal can be attributed to the artist’s comprehensive extraction of essence, to the lines that combine the techniques of sketch and calligraphy, to the the clustering and spreading out of the elegant lines and color blocks of leaves, as well as from the artist’s observations and intense immersion in life.

Zhang Enli’s paintings invoke the swaying and floating water lilies of Monet’s paintings, the arc of the weeping willows. Monet employed many colors, each colorful stroke representing a willow leaf or a branch. In the same way, Zhang Enli, who received his early training in traditional Chinese painting, has also cultivated a high degree of sensitivity to lines. Each stroke and line directly renders and adds intensity to the essence of his subject matters (those two characteristics being commonly referred to in traditional Chinese art critique). Every point of contact with the canvas (often these points of contact are not differentiable from lines) is substantiated by an inner reserve and richness. His portrayals are imbued with the aura of Chinese calligraphy, yet are not compromised in their capacities of physical representation. It is exactly in his portrayals of trees that we experience his passion toward the practices of sketching and calligraphy, themselves. Under his every stroke, each leaf appears not as a solitary soul. Instead, they are in embrace, linked, are capitulating and offering generosity toward each other. In their light-footed darting and interweaving, the space of the sky is conjured. While painting the trees that are everywhere around us, what he has actually conveyed is the delicate language of life’s breath, as well as the spiritual experience of gazing up at the sky with our feet planted on the ground. In the dense interaction among the leaves, we arrive at the sky. In this way, Zhang Enli has subtly and quietly led us into the serene expansive of a spiritual world.

It is also worth noting that while the name of this series is Sky, the artist has chosen to use the concrete, dense branches and leaves to invoke the spirituality and richness of the sky, a profound and clever misdirection, a finger pointing to the east to signify the west.

Text by Liu Zeng