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Human, Too Human

Author: Monica Dematte 2004

God has no unity, how could I?

F. Pessoa

If it is true that every work of art is a self-portrait, from the rich body of oil paintings by Zhang Enli we can gather just how complex and diverse his personality is. The artist himself gradually gains understanding of it through his artistic expression.

The self requires silence

Only the lack of internal silence can confuse us.

Alan W. Watts

Zhang Enli is a man of few words. The sincere courtesy with which he receives guests in his studio lacks the circumstantial savoire-faire and age-old formulas so often relied upon as crutches in small-talk situations. He prefers to maintain a certain distance and observe the guests' reactions to his work. The artist chooses to interact once he's concluded that there is a mutual comprehension, while he will not court or prolong visits that he retains too dismissive or superficial. His reserved manner could be interpreted as demure or morose, but the fact is that he is quite different from others in the art circle; he does not feel that 'contacts' and 'public relations' constitute an essential part of creativity.

A professional artist, who teaches at the university, Zhang Enli regularly devotes the majority of his day to painting. Every day he crosses half the city to reach his studio; there he sits down, smokes, reads, listens to some music, focuses and, almost without fail, paints. In the isolation of his world he devotes himself to reflection, to observing in silence (guan), apparently without seeking any particular result. This is 'a manner of observing in which there exists no duality between the observer and the observed; there is only seeing'. (A. Watts) The first consequence of the annulment of such a duality is that there are no boundaries between internal and external worlds. 'I deal with reality in order to express something that goes beyond reality', says the artist, suggesting that in order to examine his paintings one must forget the appearance of single objects and delve a bit further.

'What we see of things is things' writes Pessoa, but Zhang Enli does not confront us with things, rather with his personal re-elaboration of them. This allows the viewer to access a much more complex and stratified world in which pictorial, psychological, cultural and artistic aspects reign supreme.

The artist has chosen an indirect language that cannot be interpreted with traditional canons, nor can its origin be retraced to a unitary source; the reason for this is that Zhang himself recognizes that his personality is composed of diverse facets which are in continuous evolution. It would be limiting as well as useless to want to freeze it within fixed parameters, or try to lend precise meanings to each image while surprised by the artist's unremitting change of subject and evolution of style; it would be the equivalent of wanting to regiment the flux of life.

Zhang Enli the man and Zhang Enli the artist are not aligned and do not recognize themselves in any fad or movement. The artist's incessant and silent research require from the observer attention and time, elements that will eventually reveal all the fine hues of his paintings, works of art that would be inadequately described by the adjectives 'figurative' or 'expressionist'.

What remains of art
[Art] has been teaching us for thousands of years to look at any form of life with interest and pleasure.

F. Nietzsche

There is a small painting which dates back to the year 2002, which I would like to use as a key to enter swiftly in the artist's world. It is an open box, realized with such diluted oil paint that it looks like ink, in black, white and brown on a black background. The shape is very simple in its geometric outline, the perspective from above allows us to look inside, the light is direct and seems to be artificial. The texture of the brushstrokes is visible although not stressed, some drippings suggest speed of execution and the desire to avoid the boredom of the academic precision. It is an ordinary object, not beautiful nor formally complex or chromatically rich, and it moreover reveals the emptiness inside it. Its value resides in this seeming banality, and its very emptiness stimulates the imagination, although in an unforeseeable direction. Whereas if it was closed it would have made us wonder about the existence and the nature of the things hidden inside, in this way we are facing its disarming simplicity, and nonetheless the eye is attracted by its interior: it stops and it moves from bright to dark areas, acknowledging the existence and the meaning of that huge volume beyond and independently from its content. The artist invites us to get rid of stale ideological-visual habits and to start realizing that painting enjoys the privilege to use a language which is open, not rigid, and therefore apt to express the interiority which imbues it.

The empty box, as a pure form, does not support the notion that painting is pure form, rather it encourages us to experience form as content. The objects painted are not symbols or metaphors of something disjointed, instead they are alive and valuable for their pictorial existence, for the alternation of light and dark tones, of dense and watery brushstrokes, of straight and curve lines.

We could say, in a simplistic way, that Zhang Enli has painted the box, the ashtray, the chemist's bottle, which he has chosen to name 'containers' (rongqi), because he has found them in the studio. They are still life objects which the artist sees everyday; the fact of portraying them does not mean that he lacks imagination; rather, he shows the ability to recognise himself and the world everywhere. Zhang makes me think of the seventeenth century writer De Maistre, who, in his "Trip around my room", declares to have a soul "so open to any kind of idea, taste and feeling, that it can accept avidly anything offered to it". Such an open attitude does not apply, though, to the exploration of far away places, but to the discovery of his own room. It is a much more creative and uncommon exercise which allows him to notice every single object, shadow, with fresh eyes, and to realise their incredible beauty.

De Maistre writes: "The pleasure one enjoys travelling in one's own room is free from the disquieting jealousy of the other human beings, and is not subject to fortune. […] So when I travel in my room, I seldom follow a straight line; I go from the table to a painting in the corner; from there I move obliquely towards the door; but although at my departure the intention is to go directly there, if I meet the armchair on my way I lay on it without giving a second thought. The armchair is an excellent piece of furniture, and very useful for a meditative person."

While De Maistre ends his trip around his room within forty two days, Zhang Enli picks every nuance in the objects which populate his space, and translates them in the pictorial language either dedicating a work to each of them or composing them in huge canvasses whose imposing size reminds me of the altar paintings of the Christian tradition. I am alluding to the two huge canvasses painted at the end of 2002: in them the tones of grey are heightened, here and there, by red or yellow detail, which emerge even though the colours are dirty, they 'contaminate' each other because the painter does not change the brush.

I am wondering whether I should consider these works figurative or abstract. Although our eye can recognise a scissor, an empty cigarette box, a tube of acrylic paint, we realise that the objects have lost their individual meanings to acquire meanings which are very pictorial, they are part of a whole which is made of a same substance – the pictorial material – and has been composed by the same creator – the artist's hand and its extension, the brush. Moreover, we tend to deconstruct the surface in areas which no longer correspond to the objects, but rather to parts of the canvas which get their richness and unity from the knowledgeable brushstrokes' work. It is as if the limited symbolic value of the everyday objects could convince the common viewer, who is always ready to grab stale iconographies and to look for narration or ideologies, that the painting's surface is valid by itself. To quote Nietzsche's words, whose 'Human, too human' seems to be the most appropriate title of this exhibition, the public must learn to go beyond the interest towards the content, and only then "they will understand and enjoy the slightest nuances, the most delicate, new discoveries in treating such a motif, yet when they have known this motif for long time […] they no longer will feel any fascination, novelty, excitement for it."

The choice of subject in many recent works by Zhang Enli is so purposefully casual that it leads us to understand that they are no more than forms created by the brush and empty containers which should be filled with that 'something' which goes 'beyond reality' to which the painters refers: a mood, a feeling, a vision, which are, nonetheless, undefined and un-definable once and forever.


In Zhang Enli's early works human beings were nearly the sole protagonists, and from that series the artist gets the definition of 'expressionist', of which he now hardly manages to divest himself. He feels it is a narrowing denomination not because it is entirely wrong, rather because, as every label, it is reductive, generalising, simplistic. The powerful works of the early Nineties, and amongst them "One kilo of beef" and "City hunter" communicate a strong emotive tension, but are in no way naive from the pictorial point of view. In them, the human figure, which has no volume, has been almost engraved on the surface in acid and discordant colours on the coal-black background. The over-laying of the quick brushstrokes is the result of a technical and interior process which digs in the soul of the careful viewer. The energy emanated by the gazes and by the bodies' parts are underlined by the 'lines of strength' which are directed towards the outside. It is as if the artist could hardly contain the repressed impetus of the butcher, the smoker, the hooligan, or even his, and would suggest the possibility of an explosion. The figures are surrounded by an inflammable aura or boiling emotion.

In the following huge canvasses, on 'Dancing' and 'Eating' (including some on eroticism) the solitary dimension of the human figures has been substituted by crowded scenes where men and women indulge in repeated movements and exasperated gestures, extreme expressions which pitilessly satirize the most common habits. 'Eating eating drinking drinking' (chi chi he he) is one of the favourite activities of the ordinary Chinese, as a demonstration of social status even more than real enjoyment. The figures, reunited around enormous round tables (which are painted vertically at the centre of the painting as if seen from a bird eye and leave most of the painting's surface empty, with a daring composition), look even more lonely, concentrated as they are in filling their stomach with a beastly avidity.

Here the painting is flat, with outlines, someway even cartoon-like – Zhang is a great lover and collector of illustrated stories (lianhuanhua) – and the white of the canvas emerges nearly everywhere, untouched, enhancing the un-realistic dimension. The colour is very liquid, with drippings and brushstrokes which do not allow afterthoughts. Although Zhang uses oil and canvas, his way of painting is more and more similar to the traditional Chinese ink painting (shuimo hua), where every brushstroke becomes a visible, unchangeable and founding trait of the painting. The bodies are much larger than most Chinese, and the situations very theatrical. In a large canvas nine couples kiss each other with abandon, hands and bodies tightly bound together, invisible one to the other because they co-exist only in the fictitious reality of the painting. Here the artist refers to the world of the cinema, another of his great interests, particularly to the exasperated and transgressive sensuality of Fassbinder. Hidden truths, secrets buried within the domestic walls, non confessed dreams are here unveiled on the white of the surface, they are exposed to pitiless strong spot lights. Any hypocrisy is unmasked in the vorticous dance, in the endless kiss, in the hands which search the bodies.

On the right side of the painting appears the profile of the artist, like an intruding presence or a voyeur, who, lighting a cigarette, seems to keep a distance and to make himself at ease.

Zhang Enli often lends his physical traits – and especially the head with an incipient baldness – to the subjects of his paintings. Nor is he new to the voyeur role. There are a few very special canvasses which suggest the act of looking into a door hole. In one of them, which dates from 2002, in the centre of the black painting there is an area delimited by a circle, which we imagine to be a hole through which the artist (and the viewer with him) looks. Inside the hole a human figure appears laying on a bed, seen horizontally from the feet, with a daring perspective we rarely can see in reality. The soles of the feet, the hands crossed on the belly and the nostrils become curiously the most relevant parts of this human body, so ordinary yet so uncommon. In another painting with a black background, through the 'hole' we see the head of the artist himself, taken from behind and the side, as if he had taken a distance and was spying on himself in order to discover unknown viewpoints. The bald head expands and becomes, in its whiteness juxtaposed to the deep black of the canvas, almost a reflecting object.

The same effect is obtained by the shiny baldness in a 2003 canvas, where the body, which one imagines being laying on a horizontal surface, disappears in perspective and is substituted by the white upper part of the crown, to which the artist adds in few brushstrokes eyes, nose and ears. Here also the artist is exploring the body, which we might wrongly assume to know exhaustively, and instead reveals places and forms which have escaped our observation.

It is as if Zhang Enli, who is inheriting a millenary pictorial tradition, both native and foreign, wanted to demonstrate the possibility of finding more subjects, new perspectives, new nuances to submit to the sceptical eyes of those who have proclaimed the end of painting, and as a stimulus to those who are satisfied with repeating stale subjects.

Trees without a name
I do not care for rhymes.
There are seldom two trees looking the same, one beside the other.

F. Pessoa

There is a new subject in Zhang Enli's paintings, and rather rare in Chinese contemporary painting: trees. In order to render them the painter uses, unlike most of the other motifs, the support of photography, which he takes in his living environments: the courtyard of his block, the street around his neighbourhood. Partly for this reason, the composition is radically different from the other canvasses: the trees are incomplete, the trunks or the branches have been cut as in the viewfinder of the camera. They are reduced to 'parts for the whole', and the parts are not chosen, but they are apparently casual. The portrayed specimens, moreover, are not remarkable for any aesthetic or symbolic reason.

In The importance of living Lin Yutang writes: "The feeling for trees is easier to understand, and is, of course, universal. […] Out of the myriad variety of trees, Chinese critics and poets have come up to feel that there are a few which are particularly good for artistic enjoyment, due to their special lines and contours which are aesthetically beautiful from a calligrapher's point of view. The point is, that while all trees are beautiful, certain trees have a particular gesture or strength or gracefulness. These trees are therefore picked out from among the others and associated with definite sentiments."

Differing from the traditional literati, for whom every tree would allude to a specific feeling and to codified meanings, Zhang chooses unnamed city trees, not particularly imposing or exuberant, and, in the same way of the human figures, he portrays them from a very unique perspective for its non-pretentiousness. Trunks with incomplete branches, mutilated by the pitiless geometry of the viewfinder, or foliage deprived of the trunk, are rendered with a brand new analytical attention. Here the few fluid and essential traits which the artist has previously used to outline the human figures imbue the trunks with energy, while the nervous and semi-transparent brushstrokes of the still lives are used for the foliage. Sometimes the plants emerge on light and luminous skies, others they nearly disappear on leaden grey backgrounds.

It is again a conscious choice of a very common subject in the tradition of painting, to which Zhang looks with a demystifying gaze, as to deny on one side the heroic role of the artist and of its work, and on the other, to demonstrate that it is the artistic process itself which can make us aware of the richness and the interest which lie in every manifestation of life.

Human, too human

There is a painting which has impressed me deeply because it has made me aware of Zhang Enli's uncommon ability to find anti-classical viewpoints, an ability which can be applied even to an intimate and deeply painful subject as the portrait of his recently deceased mother. The artist was unfortunate in being unable to be at her side before her departure, and even not to have seen her before the cremation.

The canvas in black and white tones, horizontal, ideally replaces that absence. In one of the last visits to his studio I was suddenly struck by this woman, slightly swollen, with a half opened mouth and a yellowish skin, portrayed from the profile laying on what seems to be a bed, and already stiff in the rigidity of death. I would have rather expected a classical representation, maybe a frontal bust, the portrait of a person still alive, which would function as a memento and would immortalise forever the image of the dear departed.

The artist instead, presumably following a profound exploration of the loss and the acceptance of every aspect of human life – including prosaic details, pain and even the final exit – has transferred the fruit of his suffering, distilled and almost sublimated, onto the canvas. There he has achieved an extreme emotional tension which, even with its sober chromaticism and simple composition, reminds me of Caravaggio's "Death of the Virgin".

Zhang Enli follows, in his painting, a path which is similar to the very path of existence: human, too human. His profound and rare value lies, for me, in the way that he manages to transfer onto the canvas, brushstroke after brushstroke, the often pitiless and prosaic truth.

Monica Dematté
Bologna, March 2004

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