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Canto in Tenebris

Author: Li Xu 2005

Gloomy, cold, fierce, cruel, aggrieved, dirty and numb......gentle, elegant, weak, peaceful, leisurely, nostalgic and sensitive….the contrasting and contradictory abstract noir worlds of Zhang Enli bring people together in shocking convergence, as if beneath a dazzling light, everything casts long black shadows into both sides of the universe; the absurd and real juxtaposed in the space of a moment. The world we live in is indeed full of contradiction; Zhang Enli, with his own stubborn intensity, merely seeks to make use of hyperbole to emphasize these contradictions.

For those who try to categorize different artists, Zhang Enli just doesn't fit. His "rough and imperious" style is markedly different from the "meticulous observation" of "Shanghai art". The way he brings everyday life to his canvas is something most Shanghai artists don't dare entertain. In fact, in light of Shanghai's somewhat brief history of modern art, the most revolutionary work is often the least "Shanghai". Prosaic concepts of categorizing art are no longer applicable. With his uncommon stance, Zhang Enli has broken free from the fringe and pointed toward a pure and condensed spiritual space, far from the clamor of material expression.

Zhang Enli expresses a sincere concern for the common people and everyday life. The lower middle-class makes up the greatest part of society and these people are most often the themes for his work. He observes and expresses the countless nameless people, their troubles, joys and sorrows, confusions, helplessness and awkwardness, their tenacity, wisdom, humor and shrewdness. A simple and unaffected ideology has allowed his works to clearly reflect his compassion for mankind. From the relatively early "Sadness", a gloomy and sorrowful atmosphere permeated his works; later works such as "Butcher", "Two Jin of Beef", "Strong Labor", "Men in the Meat Market", "The Bar", "Dining Together" and "Smokers" further expressed the real sentiments of the common people and their stubborn strength of character. The bulging muscles, cold and expressionless faces, rough and powerful bodies, and wet and scarlet blood all combine to shock the eyes. This highly contagious coexistence of material objects and the human body are a vivid testimony to the state of life, and a silent protest on behalf of the anonymous. A city caricature style of composition combined with the suffocating pressure to survive creates a vivid and lively flavor.

At almost the same time, another group of themes emerged from beneath the brush of Zhang Enli; among them "Dance", "The Dancer" and "Maiden". The appearance of these feminine portrayals brought a touch of warmth to the earlier oppressive cold of his canvas. The black shadows behind the bright and moving forms and the appearance and disappearance of daydreams and midday nightmares among the light and shadows come together to form a counter-balancing force. Their bodies are curved and robust and their features simple, detached yet light-spirited. In an unspecified time and space, the acrobatic postures of the gracefully dancing feminine figures reveal an indescribable lightness and optimism in complete contrast to the anxiety, tension, emptiness and uncertainty of the strong male subjects. They are fulfilled, happy and have transcended the realties of life.

Apart from portraiture, another important area of Zhang Enli's work is his still life "Containers". Common everyday objects have become the perfect vehicles for his intellectual games and means of displaying his dark humor. Cups, books, fruit, fountain pens, ashtrays, desk lamps, pliers, screwdrivers, toilet paper, playing cards, thermos flasks, and remote controlled toys all take on an extraordinary luster under Zhan Enli’s brush. He often personifies the objects making "it" into "he" or "she". They have the expressions of human beings and also their temper and failings.

Zhang Enli has resolutely stuck to expressionism. Over the years, the ever-changing trends of artistic circles, constant movements of the market, and an emphasis on the conceptual and neglect of the visual element have become ever more intense. However, Zhang Enli has maintained his own style and had the confidence to stand free from the crowd, obstinately going his own way. To this day, his personal feel remains unchanged from that of ten years ago. His sturdy and flowing brushstrokes accumulate upon the canvas. His rough forms are abundant with feeling and even the gauche and unadorned bear a briskness of being, the gravity of his subjects seem in no way to affect the pleasure he feels for his medium. The dimensions of his figure paintings are generally large, often from ceiling to floor, and he has a predilection for paying homage to the anonymous everyday people by this means of portrayal.

In contrast to "The Scream" of Edvard Munch, Zhang Enli's works might rather be described as a long and flowing chant in the darkness, a chant for all the anonymous people in a moonless and starless night, with quiet all around and darkness hanging low.

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