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Painting Space

Author: Gregor Muir 2015

Having worked with Zhang Enli to present a large-scale Space Painting at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, in 2013, this text presented itself as an opportunity to say a little more about these works. While researching this particular strand of Zhang's production, I unearthed a time-lapse film of the artist completing a Space Painting entitled The Box at Hauser & Wirth, London, in 2014. I hadn't seen this film before and was immediately struck by the staccato-like movements of the artist making his way about a compact interior, seemingly painting himself out of a void, transforming the space from a brilliant white cube to a mesmeric blend of pulsating colour.

Working freely without a preparatory plan, this time-lapse film reveals the artist's fearless ability to paint. Paul Klee once spoke of drawing as taking a line for a walk. With this in mind, Zhang brilliantly weaves his palette into a colourful net that gradually envelops him. The paint - applied in small areas and scrubbed across the surface of the room - moves swiftly and fluidly. Brush strokes and drips remain visible as the artist moves from a corner of the room to the floor and ceiling. Occasional squiggles appear, darting over patches of colour. As with his works on canvas, Zhang's application of paint is extraordinarily thin, producing translucent washes that are only a whisper away from not being there at all.  While the artist uses oils for his canvases, for his Space Paintings he boldly applies watercolours straight from the tube.

What distinguishes the more recent Space Paintings from their predecessors is the move away from ghostly renderings of plug sockets and light switches - a site-specificity informed by the actual room - toward an overall abstraction. First seen in India as part of the 2012 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, the abstract works are far removed from the bright and garish colours that we regularly encounter in our contemporary urban world . Rather than belonging to the language of commercialism , Zhang's palette is far subtler, recalling the earthy ochres of Modernist painting. In this way, the more abstract Space Paintings play across time and histories, pointing towards Impressionism and the late works of Claude Monet, while aligning their experiential quality with relational aesthetics. Not only is there a sense of these works having been performed by the artist, but they also need to be experienced firsthand in order for them to become fully operational. To know the Space Paintings, you have to enter one.

There is undoubtedly a wow-factor associated with these works - the culmination of all this painterly activity in one room being mood-altering. You want to hang out, move around, explore. As you become a player on the artist's stage, the Space Paintings return to being containers, the central focus of Zhang 's work. To date, his paintings of everyday objects - buckets, toilets, crates, cupboards and so on - have knowingly served as containers for the projection of our identity. In part, this is how they function. When Zhang presents us with a painting of a chair, he subliminally invites us to take a seat, encouraging our thoughts to advance beyond the picture plane. With the Space Paintings the idea of a painting of a room is flipped into becoming a room that operates as a painting, leaving the viewer exhilarated at the thought of being within the work.

In 2013, for his Space Painting at the Museo d'Arte Contemporanea di Villa Croce in Genoa, Italy, Zhang painted a blank palazzo ceiling with sumptuous foliage , reminiscent of one of his early sky paintings where leaves are seen as though looking up through trees. In another of the villa's ornate rooms, he filled the walls with turning branches. In Somerset, Zhang's most recent Space Painting takes the form of abstract trees, which, in turn, relate to his tree paintings, several of which feature in the show. Making their first appearance in 2002, the tree paintings are produced using an enlarged pencil grid to transfer snapshots onto large canvases. For a time I found it puzzling how these particular paintings, for which the artist has become well-known, relate to the idea of the container. For me, the question of how to place the tree paintings was finally answered during a storm when the thought occurred that these lumbering forms contain the imperceptible world of air. If we were to apply this poetic to Zhang's exhibition in Somerset, then his latest paintings of twisted winter boughs might be expected to play against the nearby Piet Oudolf-designed gardens and surrounding countryside. Paintings that the artist attributes not to the sea, but his memory of water, might also be reflected in the pools that surround the main buildings. Given this graceful exchange between what resides inside the gallery and what lies beyond, it's entirely possible that we may experience this latest Space Painting as a refuge from the elements.

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