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Degeneration Theory: It All Starts with the Spine Zhang Enli's Theater of Times and Psychology

Author: Han Bo 2020

Zhang Enli is the "New Shanghai"— It is not an exaggeration, just as Max Beckmann was once called the "New Berlin". Even more so, the former is far more genuine than the latter — Beckmann was forced to leave Frankfurt and moved to Berlin after Hitler usurped power. The "inner exile" lasted only a few years; as for Zhang Enli, who was born and raised in the prairie of Jilin, has never left Shanghai since he came to the city in September 1989. It is this metropolis that ostensibly does not look so "China" but yet in essence particularly full of “China”, urging him to witness the changes of the virtual concept of “times” and how much turmoil it caused and each individual that was trapped in the vortex are all condescend to undefinable entity by the rapid movement of social changes, just like the enriched uranium—as long as it is dense enough, it can be used as a weapon to explode and create a new world.

I must admit that until now Zhang Enli's paintings still fascinate me from time to time. This is unusual. It is because most of the works of his contemporaries have lost their vitality, even though some thick-skinned artists who repeat themselves in creating arts, can appropriate the doctrine of Zen, or tear a few pages from the books of French philosophy to justify his denial to change (vulnerability).  However, unfortunately, art that has lost its vitality and is only alive in terms of size and price, despite its struggle to survive as if in adolescence, its work has been reduced to inorganic piece. Its proper destination is to be willingly lying in the glass cabinet, taking up the spaces of the footnote in local art history- well, our decades of history equals to other’s hundreds of years. Zhang Enli is a bit different. He can always make something “novelty" out of the surface just like the golden cicada escapes from its shell, it continues to emerge, first showing a little sign, testing a bit, and then flashing its tender wings. Based on what is existing, plus some interpretation, he makes a copious transformation like the butterfly gets out of the cocoon- a new series with sly eyes twinkling. Of course, “novelty" is a diagnosis, the brain that asserts the brushes to be rags (tools that draw bigger and bigger) have not yet lost their ability to penetrate the shell of rationality, and can still dive into the bottomless unconsciousness. Pick up a few humorous and clumsy lines, and put them in the vertical horizon box—this move reminds me of the farmers who don’t understand Newton, dry the noodles in the mountains of Sichuan: The power of man halts here, the participation of gravity and time are indispensable.

In twenty years, I have only visited Zhang Enli's studio twice. Each time, I seem to break into a shooting film set—or it can be called the Chinese version of "Autobiography of the Times", which is equivalent to the European "La Belle Epoque" before the First World War. Anyway, the length is roughly the same.

The first encounter happened when it just turned over into the 20th century-the prophecy of Nostradamus turned out to be untrue. Not only the world remains undestroyed, the Homo sapiens wearing pants all over the world are urged to form a game of chess. Folks cannot talk nonsense, but their bodies can gain weight. Artists who still got their hormone took the opportunity to step out of the "underground" predicament. The "outlander" Zhang Enli, who has been nervously brushing the expressionist style of the "Butcher" series for ten years, gathers among the “local” who worship abstract (whether cold or hot) as they do for foreign languages ​​and foreign exchange. Ostensibly obtrusive, inwardly stern. Although his paintings are not sold expensive, Zhang still rents quite spacious studio by the Suzhou River, which once communicated the two civilizations of the Pacific Ocean and the inland countryside. It used to be the warehouse built by Du Yuesheng, decent and quiet with elevated wooden structure. It stands to reason if well preserved, it could become a historical landscape for future generations to brag about. But at that time, the real estate developer who appears to in a style like the Red Guard, hummed: "Every inch of land is my own." He wanted to completely smash and level the "old world". I remember Zhang Enli, who was in the middle of a lawsuit, and Ding Yi, who was living next door, and Lawrence of ShanghART Gallery were discussing how to move and where to move. None of them would have expected that, as long as they survived for a few more years, once SARS passed, the situation of the brethren would dare to make sun and moon shine in new style: the increase and growth rate of price of the works were comparable to the rocket launching satellites. Artists who have survived their youth will be redefined by the glossy cover of the coated paper magazines—our society, since we stand on tiptoes to watch Wall Street tricks, are determined not to waste any living Van Gogh.

The second time was in August 2020. The world suddenly changed its face. “The End of History” ended. Viruses of unknown origin replaced everything else and became the main vessel of international argument. Zhang Enli's studio after many twists, moved into a masonry fortress of “art estate” in Songjiang. Although there is no courtyard, there are high gates. On that day, he looked like a tour guide who did not raise the flag, or the Ariadne who did not pull the thread, up and down, leading the guests to view the 2,000 square meter maze. The newly captured Minotaur is no longer the rough and angry muscular men 20 years ago, but a bunch of extremely thin color patches with fuzzy edges, and many a leisurely loose line like fat on the abdomen. Toss over in between the abstract and the concrete, it is spread on the huge newly stretched canvas in addition with the surface of the “Space Painting” installation made up of a specially customized mothproof cardboard box. The latter can’t help but remind people of the basic material of Jack Ma’s castle in the air. At the time of the exhibition, it resembled the Italian archaeological scene on the stage of Mei Lanfang. We climbed onto the terrace (which opens to the crumpled nature, with a new wall on one side of East German Bauhaus factory style) and overlooks a long rice field sandwiched between the two neighborhoods: the white stork is slanted by the wind, with ups and downs, men, women, old people and children truly perform cultural memories in sweat with no need for the guidance of the second-hand Stanislavsky of the city drama troupe. They have displayed a traditional farming discipline of the rice-growing area in the south of the Yangtze River and are immersed in the “historical landscape” that was deliberately set aside, without losing interest in the precision of the imported Greenwich Mean Time.

Within a few tens of meters, the “Times“, with great interest, can tear apart the self that has lost its backbone, merely surviving. What should an artist do? Even if the empire of particularity tries to succeed in one stroke, endeavor to restore its former glory, breaking from universality, I still cannot forget the red meat blocks repeatedly depicted by Zhang Enli who was trapped in the early 1990s, the allegorization of his personal experience: In front of the butcher, on the cutting board, the bloody objects are too much like the past or dreams cruelly squeezed out of their own body, mixed with the absurdity of the collective, and at the same time, it is completely correct... For instance, the surly and violent daily atmosphere shrouded in the dramatic stage light (Brecht-style variant of Rembrandt’s light), in terms of its source of narrative, it is nothing more than the young people bargaining in the food market who newly came to the modern and magic city (the Oriental Pearl Tower and the inner ring are being elevated),  and also the deity of life in the gaps between the mundane day-to-day in the workers’ new village, just like the circus and nightclubs of the Weimar Republic to Beckmann or Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, we will understand that the latter’s depiction of the short and rough spectacle and joy are the mirror image of the farce of the tragedy of the First World War—the corpse is buried, and a tree of desire emerges—and we also have the abrupt end of the 1980s. The "Pub" series, which is part of the "Butcher" series, portraits the late 1990s. The people in the painting are trembling, but they continue to show off their muscles, unleash depression and dissatisfaction. Of course, there are also presumptuous and provocative female characters, almost similar to the “commodity-salesman" image pinned down in  Kirchner, George Grosz and Otto Dix’s "Berlin Babylon", arrogant and sexy, makes it difficult to tell whether they are the office lady Li Xiaohong or Amy Wang. They pack together in a small stage full of alienation and uncertainty, numbing themselves,  without taking values or virtues into account.

Since the new century, the character and temperament of Zhang Enli's anthropological research objects have changed abruptly. Not only he no longer releases his anger, but his anxiety is also gradually dissipated, as if a group of people who suddenly grasp the forte of "Chinese-style growth" rather than seeking to criticize. The infrastructure of the local consumer society has just established. Eating, drinking, and having fun become the top priority. For a nation whose "memory of hunger" still lingers, the sudden increase in body fat rate caused by overconsumption in food has not yet brought shame but has become a manifestation of wealth and pride. The people in Zhang Enli's paintings have grown fat with time, and the outlines are usually few strokes-the artist attributed this to the foreshadowing of learning "Chinese painting" since childhood: the lines are sensitive-the follow spot of western drama of the old century is fading away. Now that we have begun to sort out our own heritage and dig through our ancestor’s warehouses, the steam-filled light in the south of the Yangtze River naturally replaced the carved knife-like Mediterranean or northern European light. The secular tone of Chinese drama replaced the discussion of fate and tragedy, and the "Container" series replaced the “Butcher”. Since then, be it figure or still life, all are “containers”.

As a sub-series of "Container", the "Eating" series illustrates those humanoid animals that are gluttonous at the round table. They seem to be eliminating problems and softening everything via biological satisfaction... The protagonist of the "Intimacy" series is someone who has put down chopsticks and has had enough. As Zhang Chu sings, the kind of people blessed by God, they swallow too much, exercise too little, and although they are huge, they can hardly conceal their weak nature. Women with big breasts and wide hips are like the title of Mo Yan’s classics, or maybe it’s the author's ideal, the intimacy between fat people borderlines fighting, comes to a state of life and death, sheer blood. Here goes Freud: The body corresponds to the self. Anyway, that’s it. Tones of red, blue and gray. The gloomy love in the human world. That is really a world full of fat, like a poster with a yield of 30,000 catties per acre. Zhang Enli relied on his natural mocking spirit and continued to engage in the inspiring creation of the Imagist style: The protagonist in " Inspired by Delacroix " is also a fat man, reminding me of a middle school political teacher who specializes in memorizing standard answers; the fat man in "Treasure Digging" is bald. The red trousers and cadre uniforms, spade and iron pick and possibly rusty iron style, as if determined Yu Gong tries to move the mountain; "Bath" is even more of a group of fat men, restored what is common in the public bath room in the 1980s with the garden scene of the new millennium....During that time, he also painted the "Hair" series: a collection of portraits of ugly men with sinister motives. And "Smoker": another episode the actors in the "Hair" takes over. The eagerness and clarity of Zhang Enli's imagery-the complex of emotion and reason, instantly rushing forward, carrying the speed and the eagerness of transformation, he does not record those "events" like enriched uranium, but through the logical force of association advances the “events”: Inarticulate sections of rope ("line sensitive") casually put together as an "event".

Maybe you will say: the intermittent rope is the way; the way people tie the rope to record events. Our ancestor says: The Dao begets the one, the one begets two, two beget three, and three beget the myriad things. He also says: The Dao will not be far away from all beings. As a result, the positive Dao “leaps" without logic, and all the peculiarities that have become Hegel's rationale happily united on the surface of the dirty canvas. However, I think Zhang Enli’s basic idea-to let the work rather than the author speak-is obviously neither Taoist nor Confucian, let alone Buddhism. His sincere cultural relatives who obviously started to influence him when he was in college are Munch from Norway, Bacon from England, and German expressionists whose ingrained expressions are even close to "bad paintings." The "Container" series almost made him a comedy author, as if Aeschylus had become Aristophanes, "walking into the new era" and witnessing the scraps of "social sculpture". His ability to capture the essence of objects for the present is like the painters of the Dutch Golden Age in the seventeenth-century praising the sudden material wealth by stacking still life-that is the first consumer society that emerged from the surface of the earth bestowed by the hands of the nascent capitalist market- —The latter is not only a foreign treasure obtained from global exploration. Do not forget to quietly stuff the visual image of warning which represent “time is fleeting, everyone will never escape death” such as skull into the indulgence as gorgeous as silk and porcelain, so as to convey moral admonishing and awaken the consciousness of salvation. Historian Norman Bryson called it "chaotic still life paintings." We might as well call Zhang Enli’s painstaking or playful heart as "chaotic figure painting" or even "chaotic container painting", although in the face of a completely materialistic society, talking about salvation is as difficult and stupid as refusing to use Alipay or WeChat .

The "Containers" series of course also portrays real containers, inanimate containers-man-made things, those that are present for its limitations: cardboard boxes (the wealth container of Alibaba and the Forty Thieves), ashtrays ( Inside are pressed cigarette butts, dirty), cigarette butts (container of embers), tablecloth (container for concealment), lamp (container of light), pillar (container of power enclosed by tiles), corner (transitional container for interior decoration) , atelier (recycled container for personal emotions)...There are also bottles, boxes, pots, tables, hangers, and a pile of buckets. Paint whatever you have. Everything is a container. Naturally, the garden is also a container. It is a container replenished by the crowded city due to urban renewal. Some belong to the public and some belong to the private. He moved a public toilet into the seemingly private garden, patiently sketching the mood of trees and grass, but take the image of human beings out quite early. After the "chaotic figure painting", Zhang Enli reproduced a large amount of indoor space-the container for human beings is empty, tough, concave, and generous, and the surface is covered with tiles or mosaics (as a decorative art, it passed from Greece to Rome to the Islamic world and was sold back to Europe, and then relied on steam-driven "hard ships and guns", it was exported into the central empire where the tributary system failed, and became one of the signs of "modern life" in the port opening city). The "Bathroom" (2007) seems to be the starting point of another "new idea": Renaissance perspective, presenting a fictional filth of converging lines, but the focus is on a section of water pipe, the inexplicable water pipe, which clearly shows the appearance of the ambiguous curve that straddles the abstract and the concrete, like a piece of frosted glass blocking language and reality, suggesting the existence of the huge gap, and the distance between life and creation must be maintained, calling on Freud to intervene in the investigation .

Freud’s analysis of snakes obviously cannot fully express the curvilinear ocean that Zhang Enli’s pipelining of daydreams has sent one after another. Not only they no longer have the interest in piecing together human figures, they even make you doubt whether it is necessary to read them as what they are in the paintings: the rope, pipe, iron wire, electric wire and cotton thread produced by machinery, the net of "modern life". They are no longer willing to play the supporting role or secondary clues of the picture, but swagger to assume the role of the subject, performing the duties of binding, extorting, weaving, storage, transmitting, and recording. They are not only metaphors related to language itself, but also resemble a mirror image of the ghost of this era, and even the nervous system of the ghost. The latter's psychological dilemma is in two diametrically opposed states: On the one hand, it tries to bring to justice all free movements, whether it is football, basketball, electric current, history, or the elasticity as a leather tube; On the other hand, the restraint is outwardly strong and inwardly weak, and most of the time, it seems like a human body that is weakened, leaning against everywhere.

Yes. Human body. Don’t the boneless messy lines look like human beings with spine that is about to detach? Looking back at Zhang Enli's works over the past 30 years-subject matter permeates and varies-it does not seem difficult to pick out a hidden long line of narrative: the theory of vertebrate degeneration. The image of the characters used to be tense, now they are relaxed. The inanimate container—the square space with fit length reduced to the scribbled soft pipeline. Don’t they share something in common? Everything that was once firm is on the wane, as if there was no choice, the spine was missing, and the soft tissues cheered for freedom out of the rigid cage. Hurrah! The heyday of public speech is confiscated by TV that no one watches, and the walking dead is broken down into the conferred ceremony of tiny particles.

In recent years, Zhang Enli named the "new ideas" of lines and color patches the "Portraits" series-he continued to paint portraits of trees for more than ten years, and he accumulated more than 100 pieces. These portraits are not conventional. The portrait of the trees originates from the urge of childhood memory and is manifested as the figurative world of lying on the grassland, looking up at the sky and the canopy of the trees. However, this series is different. He specializes in firing improvisational and whimsical signals, as if he has finally become a genuine abstract artist (finally acting himself meticulously?)-Cy Twombly can tether his scribbling with Homer’s epic and Odysseus’s wanderings, why can’t Zhang Enli evoke the “Entrepreneur" and an "Alien" from the circles and color blocks?

I couldn’t help but want to laugh the moment I saw those titles. Aristophanes was really mean to ridicule Socrates: "A        Gourmet", " A Craftsman", "An Architect", " A Literature Lover", "  A Meat Eater", " A Well Dressed Woman", "A Single Man", "A Pop Singer", "A Teacher", "A Man Walking in the Storm", "A Surgeon", "A Director", "A Housewife", "A Curator" ", "A Cleaner", "A Warrior ", "A Farmer", " A Drifter "... They are like another continuation of the "Butcher" series, from expressionism to abstract expressionism, from the time prequel to the sequel of "becoming fat"-"Eating" is no longer worthy of interest, unless it is the cannibalism which Mr. Lu Xun talks about. If it weren’t for the COVID-19 virus to break the veil of the warmth of dreams, the background of "Portraits" could be described as a world of ease: all the uncertainties seem so certain, all the masks speak volumes, and all the parts that turn dark actually resemble the increasingly bright part-the vertical transcendence of "love what we love" is vulnerable, and the parallel power of "love ourselves" is deeply trapped in the web of being directed.

After all, Zhang Enli is not an abstractist who specializes in abolishing meaning. He will not jump out of the domain of humanism or get rid of the introverted but self-shining passion. I remember at the beginning of the new century he painted the "Titled Container", which is of Jean Michel Basquiat’s graffiti style. The words which rarely appear on his canvas read helpless and yet positive: summer night, sorrow, pub, single, man in the meat market, city hunter... The blunt font is clearly self-deprecating: the soul is ironizing the mind. The latter is planning to announce the dilemma is also a solution, and the degraded efforts are also progress. The former renders the vitality of chefs in the famine years, utilizing what they have at hand to be placed on the stove transcending time, blanch, stir and stew, whatever you name it. Everything is mixed together, unable to distinguish you from me.

Related Artists:
Related Exhibitions:
Zhang Enli: A Room That Can Move


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