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Somethings Related to Art

Dialogue Between Xu Ke and Zhang Enli Author: Xu Ke 2008

XU Ke (XU): Your very first series of works I saw were "The Butcher", "Embracing" and "Eating". During the open studio activity in Li Jiang, your works changed a lot. Like the one you painted was a real-looking pine tree which extended from the ground to the wall and the series "Containers" which were about bottles and boxes. I wonder what made you change your early extroversive style into an introversive.
ZHANG Enli (ZHANG for short): The early style works were caused by external happenings; I was young at that age. But it is not about introversion within my late works— they are still the result of different external things. These current works are not about introversion. But, true, there might be more instincts than concepts in my early works.

XU: I saw a series about hairs in your studio then, boring but funny. What caused this change of your original style?
ZHANG: I started my transition early in 1999 and in 2000. People asked me what I was painting. I said I painted still lives. The paintings were generally divided into "still life", "landscape" and "portrait" before. Whenever we talked about landscape and still life paintings, beautiful things would come to mind. Yet the current situation is different: the essence of things might be the same, only subtle changes have occurred. Of course, the ways to deal with it will be different, even though I represent current things by using an ancient way of observation. The way I approach them now is different.

XU: I think that to paint still lives is similar to paint figurative, which needs strength of spirits.
ZHANG: I'm not sure.

XU: The trees, boxes and buckets that you created are objective descriptions, aren't they? After I spent a lot of time to observe the soapbox that you painted, an idea came to me—it's not merely a soapbox, or an object—it's a portrait. Did you mean to form them into something alive?
ZHANG: I didn't mean to form anything particularly. It's all about coincidence and imagination. They are not new or fashionable. It's just every-day objects. But one thing that I can confirm is that everything that I painted are common things, which are related to everyone more of less. Audiences will have their memories and associations as soon as they put a first glimpse on the paintings. I painted so many trees and buckets so I combined them together as a series to make them copious. Most people like extraordinary things, but they are not important. While some things look flat representing consensus and representing relative objectivities as well. Artist expresses those odd images privately. I don't mean to make my works looks odd. The normal state of things is all what I want to present. What I do is just to put them together and to compel the audiences to find the differences among them whose attention to patience and simplification are what we are lacking today. The spectacular things might attract you, yet the truths we are really looking for are always hiding behind those commons. The value can't be estimated by your own, it's not a kind of doubt to the reality either.
Mainly, I revealed realities which are often concealed by appearances which puzzle us a lot. Although the appearances are valuable in a period of time, as time goes by, this will be turned into unimportant. It is limited by time and moment and will be leading you into time and space. The "time" that we talked about should be extended as long as it could be.

XU: Your late works "Doors", "Tables" and "Beds" in 2008 fascinates me. Especially in "Tables" and "Beds", there is so much emptiness, but they lure audience to catch something behind them. Senses of time-flow and human-change would come to me. Especially for "Tables" and "Beds" whose senses of emptiness lure the audiences to catch something behind them, and you will understand "Time doesn't change anything, people do".
ZHANG: I never really think about specific topics within my works. As I said before, if only a shape is formed, imagination will be aroused. It's unavoidable. A man, who was praised for his good behavior on television, was asked why he did so, and the instant answer must be "By instinct". Back to painting, the matter is the same. The artist doesn't pre-set stories; the process is all about chance choices. This will be yours if you chose it. The "choice" process also happens on audiences, the first glimpse of a painting, a choice by instinct, of course, the choice depends on his or hers personal experience. Sometimes the paintings are comprehended but torn into bits and pieces, without stories and plots it's incomplete. It's a short moment I'm chasing for. The short moment I select would be replenished over and over by the audience. Anyway, you will never ignore the experience and skills you've been accumulating and developing for years.
As you mentioned the sense of time brought by space, I can share one of my experiences with you. If you want to tell something more, you should express it as limited as you can, or say nothing. For instance, there are many pieces of furniture in a room, but we may feel confused about its rich variety. I clean those things out to arrange them and find them. For another example, I've painted many "lamps", the more I painted the more I loved it. The lamp, illusional when it's just lightened, changes the original shape in your mind. It looks like an unfamiliar object— portraying on textures is very sensitive. Some more examples like glass, some wooden floor, I portray them to make them look real, but the "reality" isn't like in the traditional sense. Line by line, and additional light, that is what make it real.  The imagination is captured and the audience's visual journey can begin, and that is the sense of reality. The method we are being trained in the art academy is "to paint right" and "to make it look real", which has nothing to do with my sense of reality. There's a kind of sense I describe as an abstract reality, and the objects in the real world should be close to your own experience. Some still live paintings look extremely real, but in these images there's nothing left over to the imagination. But the combination of the two will lead you to experience the real.

XU: The sizes of many contemporary art works are large. But your works' sizes vary a lot and many are not quite large. Some works on light tubes, street lights and tiles, are amazing in their sizes, but stunning and different at the same time. Do you formulate the size of your works casually or strictly?
ZHANG: I pay particular attention to the size and scale of my works. For instance, if an ashtray's size is enlarged exaggeratedly even enlarged unlimitedly, then it becomes montage or even illusion. I do my best to make the picture look similar to the real vision instead of influencing the audiences by the works' sizes. Emphasizing on size-enlargement to emphasize the visual shock makes us astonished, Yet what I want is that my works should be read patiently.

XU: How do you make your works be read patiently by the audiences?
ZHANG: The Sizes. People are high or short, the proportion of body shapes, angles of painting. Some objects are small, so I paint them small. For instance, a late painting of mine is about a dog's tale, 30*25cm, and it has been enlarged for a small thing like a dog's tale, still, you feel it small as it should be.

XU: People are often confused by the concepts of contemporary art. The more they are eager to find out the meaning behind the picture, the more confusing it may become. Moreover, simple matter might be expressed in complicated ways in contemporary art, and the descriptions often leave the audience confused.
ZHANG: Every work has its original basis. It could be completely a kind of experiment. For instance, the bathroom I painted is a research in perspective. Lines and tiles are combined together.

XU: You rarely paint beautiful things, do you?
ZHANG: Actually, I paint ugly things beautiful.

XU: The current state of contemporary art is better than before: luxury studios are owned by many artists. However, there are not many changes in your works and neither in your studio.
ZHANG: I don't want to change it. My studio reflects my working style. Maybe someday, something around the corner will arouse my inspiration.

XU: Your works are powerful, so I wonder if somebody influenced you.
ZHANG: Edouard Manet, JIN Nong and Paolo Uccello. I found what I need from them, and I like Francis Bacon, Edvard Munch, Paul McCarthy. They can't be surpassed in hundred years. They impact me mentally. I regard them for their value and contribution. But I have my own way to go, I'm developing in my own pace. Ancestors' works are elected by later generations' consciousness and taste. For instance, people acknowledged Bacon's works created after he turned 35, but they often neglected Bacon's pieces that he created as a young artist. Recent works from McCarthy and Bourgeois are stunning still, and they have both matured and become focused, unlike their early period—but their style was formed at that time. Till now, their development cannot be ignored. My works changed around year 2000. During the early period—the Soviet style fine art training—I developed much. After that, I went across to the western style unexpectedly, but the process of developing and experimenting is necessary.

XU: Some friends of mine often talk about the price of art works. Those antiques, with papers or silks, are fragile. Less means valuable, and fragile means the same.
ZHANG: I feel art is a thing that is fragile. So people cherish remained art works. First of all, it's mentally fragile—art works come from fixed situation and emotion, preciously. It's a point of view by history—we cannot predict how valuable a painting might become, it will be judged by time and history.

XU: How do you evaluate your own works?
ZHANG: I don't evaluate them, and whatever people like to say is not of my concern.

XU: I heard that your own work is evaluated by two extreme different opinions that are quite opposite to each other, without a neutral denominator.
ZHANG: I am not praising myself, but neither am I diminishing my accomplishments.

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