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Zhang Enli Paintings on Presence

Author: Sine Bepler 2007-11-12

Zhang Enli's recent idiosyncratic series of paintings signify a mild but crucial resistance to the cult of innovation, transience and contingency. The positioning and depiction of modest everyday objects in his work extend to an extremely perceptive take on presence: Zhang Enli points out and emphasizes the ubiquitous and immediate surroundings. There seems to be a plaintive urge to simply look around at what is already there and give it more consideration. What his art does, is quietly create the necessary conditions that will cause us to stop and think differently about the things we encounter every day.

Offering little in the way of narrative and solace, the works White Chair (2007) and Working Light (2006) – on display at Shanghai Art Museum – are fascinating but can be difficult to approach. These simple portraits of commonplace interiors refuse easy engagement. The works have intentionally been stripped off all explanatory contexts. What Zhang Enli shows us is the humble acknowledgment of 'things in themselves' as the ultimate constituent of reality. However, following Kant's famous doctrine, we can never perceive 'things in themselves' directly. We can only perceive their appearance. The strength of his paintings is cumulative in effect, viewed together their meaning grows in comprehensibility. The artist focuses on singular objects that almost always seem to develop into entire series of closely observed common things like cardboard boxes, furniture pieces, lighting devices, lavatories, and buckets. The works are clearly analytical, as much in the way they are executed, as in the way they are perceived. Zhang Enli's subtle depictions of ordinary objects differ significantly from the imagery and iconography otherwise elaborated on by artists emerging from the same generation. Art, to Zhang Enli, is a way of looking at the world through aesthetic senses, rather than a discrete methodology for the production of high value objects. The artwork thus is subject rather than object; the aesthetic moment is something that is investigated and given consciousness rather than being enacted.

Zhang Enli portraits every detail and gesture of everyday objects that often seem down played or neglected in conventional painting. His brushstrokes almost comes close to traditional Chinese ink painting where every stroke on the canvas articulates details that are significant to the whole. The transparent application of paint, and the immediacy of his gesture, are contrasted to the meticulously planning and inquiry that foregrounds every new series of paintings: Zhang Enli's mode of engagement entails photographically documenting his close environment. He then employs the photo's claim on the real to develop his examination of his surroundings, though in a more intuitive and fragmented manner on the canvas. The circuitous route by which Zhang Enli comes to the image is typical of a methodology based on the experience of memory. It is not the repeated image that is central to each painting, but rather the process of reflection on the events and objects that led him to it. Accordingly, in his current paintings of trees and interiors, only fragments are revealed to the spectator. As in his other work, these paintings come somehow across as 'un-finished' - the paintings being semi-transparent with the appearance of the white of the canvas. This could be understood, as the emergence of reality into the sphere of the art, or, perhaps, vice versa. In his paintings we see traces of grid-patterns utilized to translate the object in the photograph into his paintings. In a world where everything is represented, it is the processing of the representations that offer something new. In other words, the raster is a trace of the process on how the artist engages and (re)interprets his surroundings. Zhang Enli translates the slick surface of the photograph into a more subtle and nuanced image, which we are compelled to slow down and spend time with.

His early works evolves around the unavoidable transfer of the way of life, of disturbance and the suffocating pressure following this, often threatening, displacement. He targets dislocation as a primary condition of life, using it as a constructive backbone for a narrative praxis. Tales of permanent loss and subsequent retrieval are returned to the social and public realms to be tested for their potential to define contemporary conditions in the metropolis. Zhang Enli creates both a comforting and uncomfortable consciousness of presence.

Zhang Enli was born in Jilin Province, China, in 1965. He graduated from the Arts & Design Institute of Wuxi Technical University, Wuxi, in 1989. Today he lives and works in Shanghai. Recent exhibitions include ShanghART Gallery at Art 38 Basel, Basel, Switzerland (2007), Zhang Enli - Hauser & Wirth, Zürich, Switzerland (2007), Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, UK (2007), PRE-EMPTIVE, Kunsthalle Bern, Switzerland (2006), Armory Show 2006, NY, USA, Infinite Painting - Contemporary Painting and Global Realism, Villa Manin - Centre for Contemporary Art, Passariano, Codroipo (Udine), Italy (2006), Zhang Enli, Buero Friedrich, Berlin, Germany (2005), Human, too Human, BizArt, Shanghai, China (2004).

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