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Things and Spaces

Author: Philippe Pirotte 2007

Within the context of today's international attention and curiosity for Chinese contemporary art, and the hype currently surrounding it, Shanghai-based painter Zhang Enli occupies a very particular position. Developed alongside all of the greater painterly movements from the Chinese mainland that try to overcome the Socialist Realist hegemony, his work has no relation to 'Political Pop'1, 'Gaudy Art' or 'Kitsch Art' 2, or 'Cynical Realism'3. Coming from the provincial town of Jilin in the north of China, Shanghai was for him 'still a strange environment, in which he felt like an intruder, and which was both tempting and menacing. Its environment was too far from the intimate feeling inspired by his "small town lifestyle" with its unpretentious plainness.' 4 Although Zhang Enli has long since adapted to life in the metropolis and can even be said to savour it, his work remains profoundly marked by this experience.

Zhang Enli paints the common. Immigrants coming from the countryside into Shanghai or plain objects, often the subject of his earlier paintings, make no claim to grandeur or immortality, to politics or consumerism. The artist moves our gaze away from overt ideologies, be they political, traditional, folkloristic or commercial, towards the overlooked. In a way Zhang's paintings mistrust all fiction, as if engaging with any sort of fantasy would lack urgency. His work does not aim to formulate invisible, idealistic concepts, so often called on to compensate for dreadful realities. Instead, it depicts a strikingly plain present, perceived by only the most focused eye. This is invariably absorbed on second consideration because our immediate sensory tendencies usually look to explore the imaginary or flow with the spectacular.

In his earlier work, the common is brought very close, made frontal, 'in your face'. It seems that Zhang adheres to the doctrine of Socialist Realism to the letter, only without its propaganda-infused generalisations and streamlining. He paints a world of people, spaces and objects determined by their material and historical present condition, yet with a degree of intensity that cannot easily be absorbed or assimilated. As Feng Boyi described it: 'In the works of the early nineties, like "One kilo of beef, Smoker, Strong worker", and so on, we find a wealth of humanity amongst the peasants who have settled down in a corner of the metropolis. In these "countryside corners" of the city, life goes on, history passes by, and many stories happen and develop among people. ... The way he expresses his relationship and feelings towards the "lost" countryside is completely different from the one shown in the paintings by Chinese artists of the eighties, which were rather idyllic and still retained a sentiment of beauty and serenity. Here instead there is the bitter awareness of being ignored and having no way out, experienced by many people after their arrival to the metropolis.' 5 These earlier paintings, at times explicitly expressionist, resemble manifestos: individualistic, primal and laden with a quasi-moralist edge. Simultaneously opposing and prolonging the programme of a revolutionary socialist art, Zhang Enli's paintings, though interpreting a certain leftist orthodoxy in their subject matter, disturb that ideological world. He depicts simple people standing around a dish, stacked up vertically in the picture plane, eating in a feverish frenzy, stuffing themselves as if it were their last meal. In other early paintings, people are engaged in frantic, failing attempts at intimacy. None look out from the canvas, seemingly oblivious of the viewer and without any sense of embarrassment. Even in the portraits depicting human heads, they are seen from behind or from unusual perspectives so that the onlooker's gaze remains unanswered. These pictures testify to Zhang's empathy for, complicity with, ordinary people: not shying away from portraying negative character traits or flaws with picture compositions, he paints an antithesis of revolutionary images of the recent past.

Over time, Zhang Enli's paintings have progressively omitted human presence, though it often resonates through his works in an eerie way. The chairs and tables are empty now. Ordinary plastic or wooden furniture, cartons, boxes and dustbins are honoured with their own 'portrait'. The urgency of these pictures, delving into an iconography of basics that surround us, and that we possibly need, doesn't console or repair (as was the aim of Socialist Realism) but generates unease. Like a classical still-life painter, Zhang Enli devotes himself more and more to excluding the human form. Still-life assaults the centrality and prestige of human beings as the primary focus of depiction and at the same time the values of the human order of the world.6 The depiction of objects has a history, as Norman Bryson describes, of being overlooked due to their trivial and inert nature. In Zhang Enli's work, the trivial becomes a vehicle of attentiveness, rather than familiar neglect. We do not deal with a classical transfiguration of the commonplace, but instead with a painter who situates himself in a tradition of transfiguring our attention.

A recent series of paintings concentrating on a water bucket looked at from many different angles for its own sake, suggests this. Eighteen paintings of the same bucket trace its form, the beauty of an industrially made object: the quality of a material thing, its objectivity, its actuality, its 'reality'. Vision is directed to the anonymity of things and the idea of humble life, which replaces conventional narrative to explore a 'world without importance'. The heavy shadows produced by the tilted buckets suggest dark eyes looking back at us. The 'thingness' of the buckets becomes an imposture, and as idols they suggest potential agency, even adopting characteristics of something miraculous. We could draw a parallel between Zhang Enli's endeavours and the still-life paintings of Spanish seventeenth century monastic culture, wherein 'the worldly scale of importance is deliberately assaulted by plunging attention downwards, forcing the eye to discover in the trivial base of life intensities and subtleties which are normally ascribed to things of great worth; this is the descending movement, involving a humiliation of attention and of the self. From another point of view, the result is that what is valueless becomes priceless: by detaining attention in this humble milieu ... attention itself gains the power to transfigure the commonplace.'7

In other works, Zhang leads our attention to the gleam that plays on the surface of a table, or a piece of cloth covering two chairs as if shrouding a corpse.-Rusty barrels, basketballs, leather balls, ropes, details of tiled baths or mosaic walls, form a world without prescriptive narratives, which gives place to the suggestive mind connecting the familiar with the strange: the Freudian uncanny. A detail of the drain of a toilet gazes at us in one painting; in another, stains on a toilet seat suggest contamination and disease. We are forced to stare back, made uncomfortable by what we so readily overlooked. Yet once we accept the impudence of the common, acknowledging its self-imposed presence, a poignant intimacy takes over. In one body of work, bathtubs, carton boxes and dustbins are all titled 'Container', but every painting, a latter-day unsentimentalized relic, is somehow linked spiritually to the other.

Zhang Enli always paints with artificial light. His spacious studio barely has windows and is hidden at the far end of the industrial compound at 50 Moganshan Road, the beating heart of the Shanghai contemporary art scene, just opposite a run-down water tower. For a painter obsessed with reality this lack of natural light might seem a serious inconvenience but over the years he has turned this spatial limitation to his advantage. His work has become infused with an artificial atmosphere, which gives it a manifestly 'urban' quality. Zhang Enli's paintings are indeed permeated with city light. That is to say, they portray the light of a city that seldom witnesses a real clear blue sky. The humid climate of Shanghai finds an echo in his paintings. The light is saturated and the oil paint, though applied very thinly, always leaves traces of turpentine dripping down over the canvas, as if the paintings were sweating. It is not illogical that light itself has become more and more the subject in Zhang's paintings. Light bulbs and chandeliers don't spread the light in a clear-cut way. It is as if light has to work its way through the heavy, tactile atmosphere. Some wonderful paintings of car- and city-lights in the night seem to negotiate or suggest distance. There is no real depth of field in these paintings and the proximity of the lights is groped or fumbled at, rather than monitored by the eye.

Most recently, Zhang Enli has turned his attention from things to nightscapes and spaces. Again his spaces lack any glamour or grandeur. They are empty rooms with marks of decay and dirt, lousy bathrooms or dilapidated urinals, even empty discos. From the chaos of the urban environment, the artist distills and isolates the form and atmosphere of those spaces from oblivion. He transforms them into 'designed' arenas, forgotten in the pace of the bustling Shanghainese megalopolis. For a recent exhibition in the rooms of objectif_exhibitions in Antwerp, Zhang painted a pictorial environment of his living quarters. The artist left out the objects and furniture, of which the presence is rendered through contours, blank spaces on the walls and shadows on the floor. This inverted presence becomes a diorama of the absent, testifying to the fact that pictorial representation is always a trace of an observation. The traces mark but they do not define. They merely suggest spaces waiting to be filled in and to be supplied with details. Triviality is framed and marked with complacency. The environment recalls a 'negative' image but it is not. We do not see a mere tonal inversion of a positive image, in which light areas appear dark and vice versa. Rather we deal with a reflection on an exercise in visualisation: keeping ourselves concentrated and sustaining a visualisation while the images around us are in a constant state of eclipse and fading, proves difficult.

In Zhang Enli's paintings, a shift takes place on various levels. The quick, intuitive glance, constantly zapping through a manifold reality, must settle down and transform into a reflective gaze, before it can consciously grasp the hitherto unnoticed subject matter. The images retrieved in the outer world, be they photographs or images accidentally stumbled upon in the vicinity, are brought back to the quiet, intimate atmosphere of the studio. Zhang often uses photographs and processes them in his studio in order to define the image to be painted. Stripped from their distracting context, the being-in-the-world of things is represented through thin paint applied rapidly on canvas. Executed in a very transparent application of oil paint, almost like watercolour, the nervousness of the facture also recalls the hectic aura of the earlier 'populated' paintings, but far from conveying dashed-off painterliness, his surfaces have a flat, matter-of-fact delivery. Though most of the paintings are permeated by an indisputable stillness in time, they retain a painful urgency.

1 Political Pop is a trend concomitant with the socalled 'Mao Craze', which infested China in the nineties. The figure of Mao was revised and reinterpreted with humour and irony, thus subverting his power and impact. Moreover, Political Pop promoted a juxtaposition of communist symbols with profane, trivial details of a rising consumerist culture.

2 This is another experimental genre that flourishes alongside Political Pop, combining Chinese traditional details (like the colours and the iconography of the Cultural Revolution) and details of the Chinese folkloristic tradition with elements of consumerist culture (like internationally recognized brands such as Coca-Cola). The aim is to focus on the effects produced by capitalism on a postsocialist society.

3 Cynical Realism as a genre represents the response to the dissatisfaction of the art world towards politics and society. Cynical realist painters use irony and mockery to criticize society and to express their uneasiness, disillusionment and boredom. Despite their dissatisfaction with society they are not politically active, nor idealistic enough to engage in change.

4 Feng Boyi, 'Loudness of Cities or Towns', in 'Zhang Enli. Human, too human', BizArt, Shanghai, 2004, p.33

5 Ibidem

6 Norman Bryson, 'Rhopography' in: 'Looking at the Overlooked, Four Essays on Still Life Painting', 1990, Reaktion Books, London, p. 60

7 Norman Bryso n, 'op. cit.', p. 61

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