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Giving life to old water buckets, beds, toilets

on Zhang Enli in Shanghai Daily Author: Wang Jie 2008

Giving life to old water buckets, beds, toilets
By Wang Jie  |   2008-9-29  |     NEWSPAPER EDITION

OVERLOOKED everyday objects - an old water bucket, a bed, a toilet - are rendered in meticulous detail by Zhang Enli who takes still-life art and portraiture to a higher level, writes Wang Jie.

To artist Zhang Enli, an old water bucket is more than a bucket, and a bed is more than a bed. In his still-life portraits of everyday objects, these humble items become protagonists and storytellers.

After years of ardent pursuit of German expressionism, Zhang has unveiled his latest still-life paintings ?? series of portraits of mundane objects that surprise and move us.

Zhang's solo exhibition is running at ShanghART through October 26.

He paints series of cardboard boxes, pieces of furniture, lavatories, lighting fixtures and other ordinary daily objects.

The old water bucket, one of the "Bucket" series, is painted in detail in its actual size. It quietly dominates the canvas with a narrative power that inspires the imagination about the lives of the owners, usually the humble and poor.

In the case of the "Bed" series, the empty beds in shabby rooms belong to migrant workers.

Still-life painting can easily reveal an artist's personal taste and character. Sometimes the paintings simply mirror the artist's individual silhouette via these "voiceless" objects.

Zhang, who lives and works in Shanghai, was born in Jilin, Heilongjiang Province, in 1965. He graduated from the Arts and Design Institute of Wuxi Technical University.

He was one of the first artists who moved to M50 (50 Moganshan Road), a trendy warehouse-turned-art hub. Ding Yi, a big name in the local art community, moved there at the same time.

Little was heard from Zhang for a long time, despite the excitement in the Chinese contemporary art world and the popularity of M50. Perhaps the wild and chaotic brushstrokes of German expressionism were not compelling enough to distinguish Zhang from his peers.

For most of the time, he worked in his studio, painting and thinking.

"I often feel tension," says Zhang, a reserved man. "It is good for me, otherwise I would feel that I was rather important. A bit of nervousness, a little fear, anxiety over whether I will fail in a certain artwork - all these enable me to maintain a good emotional environment in my creation."

Unlike some other still-life painters, Zhang pays particular attention to the size of the object he is painting.

"I try my best to make the painting look similar to the real vision instead of influencing the viewers through size. For example, if an ashtray's size is enlarged to certain extent, then it becomes an illusion. I am not addicted to visual shock,'' he explains.

The water buckets resonate with Zhang's "Bed" series chosen for the ongoing Shanghai Biennale at the Shanghai Art Museum.

The empty beds in nearly empty rooms are slept in by migrant workers. The artist tries to convey concerns for the people ignored or sacrificed during rampant economic development. The sentiment, clearly from Zhang's heart, strikes the viewer's nerve.

Through his deep understanding of a particular group of people, disadvantaged migrants and his solid skills, Zhang's recent pieces are mature in concept and superb in technique.

"Now many people in the art community are only keen on the next 10 years. They might be perplexed or attracted by all kinds of social phenomena," he says.

"Sometimes, however, an artist does need to be isolated, forgetting about what is happening around him, because it doesn't have much to do with him. Instead of retaining those things that have appeared on TV or in newspapers, I am trying to find something different."

All these things are distractions, which he removes.

Perhaps it is no longer important whether it is the water bucket, the bed, or something else, because anything can be "real" in Zhang's paintings and bear "traces of real life."

Date: through October 26, 1-6pm

Address: Bldg 18, 50 Moganshan Rd

Tel: 6359-3923

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