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Zhang Enli: The Poetic Criticism of Meat

Author: Dao Zi 2000

A poem, go to meat shop to pick up blood everyday

Listening to the sea from a grain of salt


The contemporary artists in Shanghai generally have a kind of unusual will of art. In the structure of international art, which is more and more like Olympics, they are not only keen on hard searching of form & semantics, but also never lose the passion which they ought to have for creation itself; they respond to the encouragement of the new artic forms acutely, but meanwhile they are also independent & reserved spectators because of their good understanding of the preposterous logic of "NEW'. However, this doesn't mean that Shanghai artists are crafty eclecticism. On the contrary, just because of this original will of art, they keep their consciousness to recapture the differences from the others. Furthermore, it makes the concepts & life emotions being able to reach the same possible depth. This is the new impression that I got from the investigation while I was editing the large album of paintings, "The Spiritual View of Chinese Contemporary Oil Paintings" (The Art Publishing House of Guang Xi, 1999). Related theoretical explanations & testimony with the background of artic social studies have been mentioned in the special thesis in this album of paintings. I also got the same kind of impression from Zhang Enli, Shanghai oil painting artist, and to a great extent, it is from his no getting round "Meat Shop". 

Zhang Enli is not an art case that only appeared lately. As the imagery symbol of spiritual experiment, "Meat Shop" has established his steady & unusual personal style at the early 90's, and it extends slowly, heavily and imperceptibly to his situation of creation in nowadays. In a word, Zhang Enli brought the fear from being the bottom level of life & existence, the social behaviors & consciousness that belongs to "meat" in human nature, gloomily & fiercely into the vocabulary of expressionism. However, he doesn't recklessly dominate himself to spill over the river and become a flood tributary, but push himself forward with his individual will of art. Thereby, he expands the realistic environment of language, "The Field of Semantic Meaning of China" in the new tradition. 

"Two Jin of Beef" (1993), almost can be regarded as a prologue of his entire history of creation, which announced his goals & interests of creation. The figure in the painting, a butcher or meat vendor, is holding up two bloody fingers to confirm the requested weight with the buyer. The pink colored fresh meat on the table is sending out shining luster, setting each other off with the bloody-red on the butcher's arm, the murky grey, deathly pale background color and the coarse and crude clothes of the figures. Contrary to reason, the devils figure's arms spurting out blood like flames, together with the sharp knife for picking up the bones near the left hand of the butcher, prompt a kind of awkward, sick, wounded & disabled, insane situation and mood.

"MEAT" is an old metaphor and a kind of witness of time at the same time. 

When man's BODY is no longer regarded as the organic carrier and palace of spirit by the human, but lowered as FLESH, human will be indeed like what Foucault announced, "Man has died". Man in art history has already died in the human body's dissecting room rent by Da Vinci in The Renaissance Time. Man has five different kinds of bodies, spiritual body, social body, political body, athletics body and medical body. The last four kinds of bodies in war, mass movement, sports, commerce, Utopia of technique and even the systemization of drugs, are all reduced to the "MEAT" in the "Meat Shop" as Zhang Enli revealed. This is not general knowledge, but it is frightening general knowledge. It is a kind of general knowledge of testifying and asking in retort, therefore, it is the spiritual & morality abilities which determines if the artists can go in for art or not. "Human is the measure for everything" is openly & legally becoming "Human is the knife for picking up the bones of everything". "Human Centralism" became "Flesh Centralism". It is true that "Humanitarianism" has been revealed as "Human Blood Obscurantism" by Mr. Lu Xun at the very early time, isn't it?

Interesting thing is that Zhang Enli uses the symbolic mark of saint's portraits. He moves the halo from the saint's portraits to the top of the butcher's head, which forms strong result of taunt, but only the halo has faded, left a circle like poor handwriting or focal point of photography. 

After three years, "Man in Meat Market I" & "Man in Meat Market II" (1997) of the same theme appeared again, with the gesture of holding knife of left-hander, despise & enmity sidelong glance and the model of the figures as strong, coarse and crude as cement sculpture. Here, artist restrains strong subjective expression, reduces the bloody, cruel images like Francis Bacon's style, grudgingly uses color rhetoric, with colors of red & yellow as adjective, depicts the palpitating expression of the figures and possible purposes of the behaviors with vivid verbs. 

As we can see, artist uses "MEAT" as the key image, and follows the spirit of expressionism. With the two above, he builds up visual poetry with the matched experiment and form, and sends his deep, far and kind greetings and "diplomatic note" in the style of root searching to Munch, Soutine, Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon and Jorg Immendorf. 

Moving Zhang Enli's "meat shop" away from the easel, it ought to be the transformation of "The Theatre of Orgies and Mysteries" from "The Wiener Secession", Gina Pan's(?) imitate behavior of cutting body with razor, or blood drops oozing from the body of Frank B, the words appeared after scab formed. The younger art workers often understand actions of "Post Modern Heroism" as "being savage & valiant". In Beijing, the most popular word in "Avant-garde Art" circle is "Savage". But first of all, "Savage" ought to point at the secret & "post perception" part which belongs to the flesh of oneself, then it gets the right to say "The others are just hells". Otherwise, even if one rent the corpse of Hitler, hung up the coffin of Stalin, killed one thousands unicorns of the Lady Queen Mother, or ten thousands of pigeons of Noah, he could be only "man in the meat market", and hardly could transcend the secular behavior of buying/selling "Two Jin of Beef". Here, I am not intending to overly comment on so called "Avant-garde Art", although the "Post Perception" has "savagely" played the poetic critique theories of "New Perception" of Herbert Marcuse into a kind of Beijing style new Yuppie's stimulate game, "Post Flesh". In fact, these "Savage" variety mostly came from the plagiarize VCD of Hollywood's horror movies and the download from the garbage sexual websites. 

Although Zhang Enli's art of oil painting is full of gloomy & fierce image and key tone on concept and emotion, but it also contains depressed compassions at the same time. This kind of compassion is related to the tragedy and awkward situation of being an artist in the "strong man time". "Dancing Lady" series address inquires to this kind of obscure existence. Normally, dancing is the high-level art of body, and essentially, it is the expression of free wills. But what we learn from the painting is the "charm" of a short, rough and fat figure like a woman cook from a roasted duck shop. Either she stands upside down or stands like a crane, she always looks like a pile of revolving& bloody red fresh meat. It is a kind of double-fleshed skill of obsequiousness (art) together with entertainment (commerce). This is different from Willem de Kooning's "disease of being afraid of women" and Munch's "spaying oneself". Munch imagined love as male mantis engulfing his lover's body; thus he never married in his entire life. The "dancing lady" portrayed by Zhang Enli with care and effort here has its intention of ridiculing destiny. No matter how does art innovate its variety, no matter how "avant-garde" it is on concept, under the conspiracy of power & capital; it is always "just for fun".

In this connection, artist positively & enthusiastically eulogizes love ("Kiss", 1999). The picture of the red-colored main tone is filled with strong morality inner drive, expressing the dazzling, like being amid fire & thunder, and life and death love. The red is also for heightening the tragedy atmosphere. After Munch, there was rarely any artist who was able to give free rein to the emotional colors like this and use it aptly. Like in "Sadness" (1992), the frustrated, poor and weak guy's expressions of bending over a table, covering his head and weeping is taken place by a bloody red wall. Meantime, the scarlet wine in the glasses with special result of still-life picture also analogies the extreme pain of the main subject. The liquid state of wine has been abstracted into half solid and half sticky form of image. Although "Sadness" is the early work of the artist, but from that, we can understand thoroughly the root of the artist's values. Completely unlike the trifle and ridicule trend of "Post 98", he tried very hard to get the symbolic meaning of emotion when he was searching for the specific characteristic of forms. The even more precious thing is continuously questioning the morality meanings, which made all his tries refraining from the corrosive influence of nihilism and keep the virtuous loneliness of creation. 

Zhang Enli's still-life paintings have double interests of readability and written ability. The readability is from the scene of the table in home life, messy & disorder but full of human touch, like "Vessel (1995)", even appearing a kind of unrestrained emotion world and daily mood of single man. The written ability is just like the title with theme given by the artist. What are being showed here are some vessels, the opened book, spread out playing cards, bottles and jars, flower pot, tea cup, pen and ash tray, etc. These "vessels" show different characters because they are filled with different owner's stuff. Just like before material becomes artwork, its property is stubborn, only through the artist's hands, opening it with concept and naming it, the new meanings are possible to be called out of the state of deep sleeping. 

Dao Zi, 2000 

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