“The spectacular things might attract you, yet the truths we are really looking for are always hiding behind those commons.” – Zhang Enli
Photography Show contains all the key constituents that make up Zhang Enli’s renowned oeuvre as one of the greatest Chinese artists in recent years: “scale, everyday objects, everyday places, empty space, and the way paint is touched on to the canvas” (Tony Godfrey, in Exh. Cat. Hong Kong, K11 Art Foundation, Space Painting by Zhang Enli, 2014, p. 98). Executed in 2008, the large painting belongs to a select series where Zhang painted the interiors of art museums, and was created shortly after Zhang’s pivotal site-specific installation at Objectif Exhibitions in Antwerp in 2007 – the very first of his unique three-dimensional ‘space paintings’, later versions of which appeared in prestigious sites such as the Guangju Biennale, the Curitiba Biennial, the Minsheng Art Museum, the Institute of Contemporary Art London and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, amongst others. Such experiments with the relationship between ‘space’ and ‘painting’ enriches and defines his oeuvre as one that subtly yet potently mediates ‘sentience’ – the ability to feel or perceive – and the ‘material’ – our spatial relationship to our environment.
Zhang was born in Jilin in 1965 and graduated from the Arts & Design Institute at Wuxi Technical University. Unlike fellow Chinese artists born in the 1960s, Zhang eschewed political ideology or satire. Instead, Zhang focused on everyday people, objects and spaces; as art critic Gu Zheng wrote: “At a time when it [was] fashionable in the Chinese art world to ascribe too much external meaning to works of art, [Zhang’s] paintings, and every single stroke within them, flatly refuse to give you a straightforward statement or declaration. He wants his audience to recall and reflect with him the essence of painting, and with his colours and his lines help the audience slowly explore the trivial matters of this world, which he depicts in such a simple yet sublime way”. Over time, Zhang’s artistic individuality was recognized internationally, beginning with his presence at Art Basel in 2006, followed by his first solo exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in 2007, and an exhibition at Kunsthalle Bern in 2008 – the same year the present lot was created. Today, Zhang’s works are collected by the likes of Tate Modern and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.
Zhang’s earlier works in the 1990s are rendered in an expressionistic, almost visceral style. Inspired by his initial impression of Shanghai, such paintings depict crowded bar scenes, dancing couples and smoking strangers, and are marked by a mostly red and black colour palette, thick heavy layers, and energetic brushwork reminiscent of German Expressionism. Beginning in 2000, however, Zhang began to experiment with a series of still-life paintings that were drastically different in both style and motif. In terms of subject, Zhang painted packing boxes, ashtrays, sinks, buckets, and other empty containers set against nondescript settings. In terms of style, Zhang used diluted pigments and thinly applied paint washes that almost resemble watercolour or Chinese ink. Rather than confronting viewers the turbulent complexity of a psychological portrait, these quiet yet evocative works, epitomized by his celebrated series of buckets, explore the trivial objects of this world, focusing on the essence of sense and experience through our relationship with the mundane and inanimate, uncovering the subtle beauty of the everyday.
From his ubiquitous empty buckets and containers, Zhang moved on to rooms, which likewise ‘contain’ space. Starting from 2007, the artist began to create monumental, environmental site-specific installations in which he painted entire rooms, ceilings, walls and floors. In such works, Zhang mapped the architectural space by tracing fictional elements of furniture through paint: lightly painted electrical outlets, shelves, and other mundane everyday objects. Speaking about such installations, Zhang says: “I am influenced by the ancient form of Chinese painting that paints directly on to walls, and also by certain parts of western culture. I focus on the relationship between material and wall; space itself is structured, but people zoom around it”. From bottles, jars and buckets – light vessels that, to the artist, contained the essence of daily life, Zhang expanded to larger vessels of light and life that allow artist and viewer to explore the space together. As Victor Wang writes: “The artist may not be physically present, but his hand is. Remnants of Zhang Enli’s presence in the process of making this work remain for the viewer to visually follow. An image-based mapping of his motions through the space, with each mark left by the artist acting as a secondary infrastructure” (Victor Wang, ‘Zhang Enli’s Space Painting’, in Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art Vol. 13 No. 1, 2014).
The same applies to Zhang’s two-dimensional “rooms” on canvas – using light washes of colour and fluid brushstrokes, his gentle motions and artistic gestures map out a ‘secondary infrastructure’ that is at once uncertain and mysteriously compelling. The works are often demarcated by a subtly or overtly gridded formation that constructs an elusive, slightly skewed or even flat perspective. Depicting empty spaces and nondescript objects, such paintings portray spaces and surfaces that are ‘lived in’, containing stains, discolorations, peeling paint, and the barest and most banal traces of time and human existence. As Christopher Moore writes, Zhang “eschews any sort of pretension whether in subject matter or method […] Everything can be see; even ‘accidents,’ painting’s little contingencies, are employed in the picture’s architectures” (Christopher Moore, ‘Zhang Enli: From Trees to Sky’, in Randian, 2010). In contrast to Zhang’s installations, which prompt physical explorations of space, such paintings invite purely visual explorations; Moore writes: “With Zhang Enli we are required to look intensely, to consider our unadorned and immediate surroundings as we consider ourselves in the mirror. Like all true artists, Zhang is not concerned with depicting a plausible representation but with making us look, making us see what is already there” (Ibid.).
Produced in 2008, when Zhang was positioned at the cusp of international recognition, the present lot represents the epitome of the artist’s career-long investigations of space and human perception – visual, sensorial and subtly conceptual. The theme of the depicted ‘exhibition’ adds a symbolic poignancy that separates the work from Zhang’s other settings: featuring haphazardly hung works on a largely bare, whitewashed wall, the scene is peaceful and poetic with a hint of whimsical eccentricity. Executed in a loose and unassuming manner, the work may initially recall the paintings of Belgian artist Luc Tuymans, who similarly employed muted colours and un-heroic imagery. But while Tuymans’ scenes are heavy and melancholic, alluding to specific loaded points in history, Zhang’s Photography Show is tender and intimate, at once familiar and forgotten, akin to that of an ethereal dreamscape. The artist himself once said: “This world is artificial but when you look at it, it will definitely touch your heart” (Ibid.).