Ikon presents the first UK solo exhibition by Chinese artist Zhang Enli, comprising a selection of approximately twenty paintings.
Born and brought up in Baicheng, a town in the north-east of China, Enli has now been living and working in Shanghai for almost twenty years. His first Shanghai paintings betrayed a feeling of alien-ness, depicting scenes in which humanity was characterised as somehow against its metropolitan circumstances. Now usually without figures, Enli’s paintings are still eloquent on the theme of the human condition.
There is a modesty in Zhang Enli’s work that belies its profundity. A number of paintings depict containers – a bath, a bucket, a box – isolated to suggest they have been singled out for meditative scrutiny. Their personal, domestic quality reinforces our tendency to identify with them, to see them somehow invested with life and analogous to ourselves. The state of a container is characterised by potential change; fullness can be emptied out, and then the process reversed. Caught between such states, these objects speak not only of utility, but also desire.
Frequently working on large canvases, Enli’s technique has evolved out of more painterly gestures into an application of thinner colours, sometimes to the extent that his oils resemble the wash of traditional Chinese ink painting. This suggests at once a kind of easy-going attitude, a mature confidence, and something more fugitive, as explained by the artist: “I deal with reality in order to express something that goes beyond reality”.
Self-reference within Zhang Enli’s paintings is subtle. Occasionally he reveals his process by leaving the drawn grid that enables him to transfer and magnify (photographic) imagery. Recent paintings of single trees, for example, involve a backdrop of squared-up sky, the geometry effectively foiling the natural forms of leaves and branches. The way he crops such images strongly suggest a snapshot as their source, and so we easily imagine the artist standing on the ground with a camera, confronting these other living things. A new series of trees in winter, with bare limbs stark against grey-blue skies, conveys a bracing chilliness that is timely.