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Two Chapters on Painting by ZHANG Enli

Author: GU Zheng Translator: Sachiel Yuu 2011

Chapter I  "I paint unbeautiful things beautifully"

The painting by ZHANG Enli in terms of the motifs he adopts is loosely subject to two phrases based on my observation over a long period of time. Possibly the first phrase falls into the category that portrays human behaviour and the second everyday objects. Certainly, such classification is exposed to potential danger as the two phrases are in fact interlaced with each other instead of staying disconnected or unrelated. No strong indication can be identified between the end of the first phrase and the start of the second. And occasionally certain desires in one phrase are likely to move in parallel with their counterparts in the other. Most importantly, however, the depiction of both human behaviour and everyday objects belongs ultimately to one single purpose for the artist, i.e., painting itself as life activity. A close scrutinization on works by ZHANG Enli reveals that his art, whatever the themes and contents may be, never attempts to exclude, or in other words, embodies all the time laborious exploration and relentless pursuit of painting as life activity. What they represent are efforts and mission that run through several phrases in ZHANG's artistic career.

After the portrayal of human activities (like eating, drinking, singing and dancing and so on) in an intense, thrilling and lively brushwork, ZHANG Enli refocuses himself on the study into visual interpretation of everyday objects. He pictures lots of containers, including ash tray, paper box, water can, empty bottle, glass vessel and some sorts like that, objects extremely ordinary for us in daily experience. Such transfer from human to object stands as both sublation of human life as artistic subject and an in-depth discussion on significance of everyday life. And his experiment and meditation recently on works which I'd rather call installation painting introduce its spatiality into a voyage of exploration which is more extensive, unique and radical.

Regarding the artist's skill, painting thinly is his specialty. Rendered by a thin layer of colour, an object or a group are given specific texture, volume and weight, always among indefinable transformation between lines and surfaces, and appear sometimes immersed into the dimension of canvas and dissolving into fabric to leave an ambiguous look. The boundaries shared by objects and space penetrate into each other. And the traces produced by diluted paint dropping by gravity unexpectedly constitute the texture of brushwork and amazingly enrich the image itself from time to time. As to pictorial effect alone, the works by the artist perfectly demonstrate the definition of "richness in simplicity, magnificence in austerity, explicitness in implicity, tension in relaxation, sumptuosity in concision and profusion in moderation". Under the tendency in contemporary China that overweighs artworks with excessive external meanings, ZHANG rejects decisively with every stroke in his painting the possibility to be translated as bald manifesto or statement. Instead, he is intended to guide his viewers into reflection on the very nature of painting and into the search of triviality exhibited so moderately and sumptuously in his kingdom. The sumptuosity thus described here does not refer to a sumptuous appearance but enhanced beauty honestly endued to his objects. That unveils their true characters and endows them with splendid astonishment and astonishment in splendour. In an interview, the artist said with full confidence that "I paint unbeautiful things beautifully", which coincidentally echoes to the quotation from French writer Gustave Flaubert who "marvellously depicted insignificant things". Everyday objects, that is to say, are visually sublimated by ZHANG Enli through refinement and reorganization achieved via his detailed observation.

His painting resembles student exercise and it is even believed to be the artist's style. Due to the thin coat of paint he usually applies, the marks of sketch and grips often remain clearly recognizable on canvases. Sometimes they display themselves frankly and even take precedence over main subjects. Notwithstanding, it is precisely by these lines which intertwine themselves with lines and colours of the objects, as well as overlap they therefore enclose, that we come to realize the fact that the correlation between the artist and his production is somehow never relaxed. In a manner which seems so careful and yet casual, ZHANG Enli presents to us his visual negotiation with the domain in two dimensions. Yes, indeed, people may read arbitrarily caution, hesitation and even tension experienced by the artist during his creation and also find out minor misalignment between the final strokes and the drafts under them. Such experiment which exhibits modification and correction made by the artist and thus evinces the changes in his thought, visual confirmation and verification, nevertheless, possibly unfolds more accurately the attitude taken by a real artist to world and depiction. What is depiction? Depiction is discreetness and scrupulosity even with a hairbreadth for approach to the essence of things. And it is deliberation and reflection as ZHANG wields his paintbrushes. Someone judges these paintings are finished swiftly according to the similarity seemingly shared by his artpieces and student exercise. However, they have never seriously thought about how long and how much the artist has prepared and accumulated for a simple stroke on canvas.

Pictoriality, as I understand, is principally associated with the skill with which an artist treats visual elements in two dimensions. Certainly, such treatment is as well related to colours, reverberation between visual elements and the material applied (including planarity of painting). Oil paintings are traditionally completed with thick paint that appears everywhere as brushes move. But it is the other way around in Zhang Enli's pieces which even expose drafts as if they are deliberately left unfinished. In such completion characterized by "counter-completion", nonetheless, we experience his confidence and perseverance. Meanwhile, the function performed by grids and drafts can never be underestimated. In ZHANG's case, instead of affecting beauty and display of reality, they often become contents and visual factors, and organically entwine and integrate into leading colours and lines, which altogether not only enriches the texture but also strengthens the conversation between those completed and those not. In this way, it builds up an illusion of being detected by his viewers, which invites them to find out frankness owned by the artist.

As an artist pondering over the world by everyday objects in common life, ZHANG Enli puts same attention and enthusiasm on a water can, a closet or human behaviour. For him, all the displays are both representation and expression, over which he is never negligent. An artist's talent lies on the unparalleled language system he/she possesses in the scope of representation, rather than merely movement and collage of symbols. In the era which encourages and rewards conveyance by symbolical assemblage, it takes tremendous courage to talk directly to the world with the "objects" created by hand and brush. "Materialist" ZHANG Enli obviously accepts such challenge. He identifies poetic nuance from everyday life by observation rather than exceeds by getting divorced with it. Our everyday life under his brushes is often imbued with warmth and poetry and therefore is elevated and granted eternal life by examination and description.

It is fair to say that tree is perhaps the theme most favoured by the artist in recent years. The image of tree, which seeks actively for development by continuous compromise with external restriction in growing environment, emblematizes human vitality. Its rendition by ZHANG principally concentrates on his flexible organization of leaves either exhibited or concealed by each other. The relationship between leaves and branches is given an effusive and passionate expression in the beauty of calligraphy and flowing oil paint brushwork. The visual amazement originates from his highly recapitulated and exacted objects; from his lines functioning in both painting and writing; from the organic coalescence and extension between elegant lines and colours; and from his observation and devotion to daily life as well. For me, his depiction is reminiscent of willows swaying lightly above pond and water lilies pictured by Claude Monet who applied paint directly and produced leaves and branches instantly with each stroke. In analogy, ZHANG Enli who studied traditional Chinese paining in his early years has long built up sensitiveness to lines. Every single stroke (and line) accomplishes directly outlines and colours of certain objects in their real essence (although the words "outlining" and "colouring" are utilized in a greater frequency in analysis of traditional Chinese painting). Buttressed by internal amassment and profuseness, each line is equipped with writing quality in Chinese calligraphy, which never undermines its ability of comprehension and representation. It is exactly in such portrayal that we come to taste the artist's ardour to painting and writing. No leaves in his work are isolated. They embrace, associate, give room to and accept each other, offering the imagination of sky by their gentle evasion and traverse. The artist paints trees standing ubiquitously in our life but successfully captures the breath of life, the whisper of nature and the spiritual prospect as people look up into the sky. As ZHANG draws trees and intimate link between leaves, he is also assimilated into painting, a field which is peaceful and tranquil.

ZHANG Enli rises to prominence on global stage in recent years. The reason for him to be acknowledged and paid attention to evidently differs from that for artists who highlight Chinese political symbols in their art on purpose. With extraordinary Chinese qualities, his works bring new stimulation and imagination into contemporary painting.

Chapter II Striving for artistic initiative: From easel to installation painting

Though the only three installation paintings ZHANG Enli hitherto finishes are not deemed by the artist the centre of his creation, I am convinced by the significance of this rarely employed mode in his career. It breaks up the cliché of installation popularly quitting painting for merely stacks of objects and is believed to be installation painting that borrows mainly graphic skills and language.

With emphasis on painting, the artist's works study visually in expanse of manmade installation the concept of "that-has-been (?a a été)" coined by Roland Barthes. By depiction which is both relaxed and tense, ZHANG points out for us that the absence of objects deserves attention too. And only by eyes on such absence and its visual rendition, do we become increasingly aware of the value of "that-has-been". Yes, nothing was previously and is in front of us. And only evidence of life that has been there remains. In spite of that, we are unable to acquire true understanding of certain reality appearing as blurred as the reflection of moon on water. In the kingdom created by ZHANG Enli, nothingness is the real melody.

Stepping into his "painting", we place ourselves in dual emptiness of both time and space confronting with ineffable loneliness. This is visualized effect of "that-has-been" invented by the French writer. The sense of presence emitted by various objects removed from space (like studios or bedrooms) and solitude caused by their absence are all uttered through marks which have once existed in bygone days. The artist makes vestiges talk about history and story of the room and its owner. People floating and passing during the course of time, and scars, pains and wounds time suffers all gather together. They confide to each other as exhibit themselves. Time and space meet here to play a symphony. Stemming from and giving clue to the owner's life, these traces serve to provide fundamental elements required in reasoning live and to testify to both "that-has-been" and "that-(is)-not". By rendering vestiges left on walls, ceiling and floor, the mental and visual activity unfolded between somethingness and nothingness prompts considerably our thoughts on the subject of existence.The advent of installation in history of modern art enables not only breakthrough and overthrow to the limits of painting but also question to the system growing even more rigid. Indeed, this type of art, for those who fail to obtain "success" in secular sense by painting in an authentic manner, also opens up new opportunity of coming to the top or, in other words, possibility for speculation. Installation art today consequently provides ultimate shelter for pseudo-leftists, inept painters and fake sociology amateurs. Those inspired by ulterior motives and those with deplorable taste and skills all rejoice secretly over "installation art" possibly as their first choice when they purpose to enter contemporary art by a piece of "contemporary work" poorly constructed by terms misappropriated from metaphysics and perplexing structure as rough as toy bricks. Works turned into amusement park are now found everywhere. It is not so much good fortune as calamity for installation art since such works neither overturn nor establish. They are simply a pile of construction waste desperately needing countless words for packaging.

It is worth noting that artists and critics never adhere to painting principles as soon as installation work is fashionized and "contemporized". Painters abandon and even feel ashamed of their art whereas critics lest be considered behind the times loudly applaud installation to be "contemporary" and dismiss painting as obsolete. Once functioning to subvert art, installation now also encourages some art speculators for merely sensational effect in ignorance of skill and technique. The spiritual activity displayed delicately by these handworks is replaced and expelled by pompous manifestos and baffling rubbishes. And art is eventually abducted practically by "installation" in the name of "contemporariness". Such pandemonium, however, has never weakened the perseverance in painting shown by ZHANG Enli. Yes, nowadays, it does take courage to reiterate one's identity as a painter, particularly in face of the challenge posed by the marriage between painting and installation.

Is there any possibility for happy unite between these two? Installation painting by ZHANG Enli offers successful examples in this matter. Contemporary art, as far as I'm concerned, is not supposed to be pretext for denial of painting. And "contemporariness" should never be designated to solely video and installation as if they were the only types that deserved such label and others remained non-contemporary and even conservative. Today, contemporary art market is often dominated by installation and video while painting is regarded as equivalent to an antique, outdated and even reactionary form. The presumption about the death of painting has been vigorously discussed in modern and contemporary art. This uproar, nevertheless, obviously does not disturb those like ZHANG constantly obsessed with painting. In addition, he develops academic interest in installation-painting relationship during the progress of his exploration.

As people manage to set foot into his artwork, what is produced by ZHANG Enli bears some properties of installation. Taking a look around, however, the viewers encounter, perceive and appreciate the artist's painting instead of furniture and other objects for all time. Visual experience that stays comparatively static from two-dimensional image is converted into visual (as well as body) experience from movement in three dimensions. It indicates physical reaccess to the realm of painting.

His artpieces make alteration to interrelationship between human and painting, as well as the mode in which the latter exists——from hanging on the wall into an inclusive scope that covers its viewers, a crucial breakthrough is accomplished as they assimilate people into them. A good work is spiritually captivating and here it is physically as well. Such attraction also serves as absorption of people into artwork which triggers their participation. Once entering into this realm, spectators are confronted with possibility of founding new relation with time and space. It happens to one particular work that the passage in time and the traverse in space occur simultaneously only on the premise for us being surrounded by it. Rendered visually by the artist, meanwhile, the "presence" of viewers and the "absence" of objects possess a new relationship at the spatial-temporal intersection. Conventionally, we are circumscribed by subject-object relation set with painting. In these by ZHANG, nevertheless, the simple correlation is often subject to doubt or potential to be interpreted into a new one. Artwork as space embraces both creator and lookers so that installation as agency redefines painting and its subject-object relation. It breaks the stalemate between body and work and permits the transformation from confrontational relationship shared by human and painting into the state where they coexist dualistically and intertwistingly.

Installation painting mentioned above breaks through the definition and limitation of bidimensional painting in traditional sense, extending into tridimensional sphere and blossoming against its background. Such combination transcends the contradiction between plane and solid which has all along plagued painting and resolves the opposition between abstraction and representationality. Seen from distance, the location of human in space assists in judgment of the work to be representational whenas a close glimpse bespeaks the piece to be abstract or semiabstract woven by nuanced lines and colours. During this process, the conversion between abstraction and representationality is thus actualized and the border between them disappears due to the objects and expressional approaches he selects. Walking in the room, we infer and feel the contours and existence of specific objects from vestiges whose abstraction is also tasted from a small distance. ZHANG Enli masters sophisticatedly their transmutation and transition and provides us with new possibility of comprehending the connection between abstraction and representationality.

This is artwork doomed to devastation sooner or later. Even such destiny awaits it the time when it is created and produced. Installation painting by ZHANG is implanted with self-destroying device. It is started after exhibition and agrees perfectly with anti-art advocated by Dadaism. However great art seems to be, it sometimes remains vulnerable to irresistible force. Evidently, we are able to identify the motivation hidden even deeper in artist's enthusiasm and dispassion which finally return to nullity. Hotly pursued by art market, ZHANG Enli nonetheless counteracts with his very own creation the possible hazard to be overwhelmed by it. Undoubtedly, he is making his best endeavour for a better command of art expression.

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