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Of Trees and Objects

A Dialogue on Painting between Monica Dematte and Zhang Enli 2016

At the end October 2013, Vigolo Vattaro (Trento)

MD: Let’s talk about the trees you paint.

ZE: I see trees everyday, although I don't properly regard them as a "subject". Thinking about Chinese painters from the past, it is clear to me that they painted trees and rocks from life. Day after day, I walk past some tree, they are a familiar presence; for me, to paint a tree is the same as to make someone's portrait: each tree is different and has its own individual features.
Obviously, we cannot see a forest in a urban context, but we do see individual trees, like people. I have painted a lot of trees1, in the daylight, at night, during the summer and so on; they are neither a landscape nor a background, they are living parts of the city.

MD: Some maintain that your use of the brush is the same as in traditional Chinese painting although you use oil rather than ink2: each brushstroke is charged with significance. Do you agree?

ZE: Yes, also because I think that tradition is not something to be looked at from a distance. Rather, it is a way of being, believing in certain values. For example, when draw a line with a great command of the brush, not just to “draw an outline" but to actually paint, this mastery, the ability to control the brush at every single moment, descends from Chinese painting. When we look at the background in Tintoretto's paintings, we won't find any afterthought, any correction: they are painted in a self-confident, swift and sharp manner, they are not just filled with color, they are actually "painted".
There is a remarkable difference between the areas painted by his assistants and those made by Tintoretto himself; the beauty of painting rests with the artist's experience and his command of the medium. It not easy for a young artist to achieve such a result. When a painter paints quickly, the control of many aspects such as color, form, and line, is crucially important.

MD: Have you always had a close relationship to the Chinese tradition? Or has this awareness dawned on you just recently?

ZE: I have always been aware of it, even if I use oil painting, which is a very different medium. Yet, if you are a good painter, you overcome the limitations of each material and go straight to the essence of painting. The East and the West made use of different materials, that is true, but one should overestimate the meaning of such differences. When I was young, I was not really familiar with that many subjects and forms, they were still "veiled" by many unnecessary elements. Everything is clearer now, and I feel more in control.

MD: Can you explain to me concretely your mastery of color and brush?

ZE: Whether the brushstroke is inspired by the "eastern' or by the "western" tradition, what I want to convey is my personal understanding of every single stroke of the brush.

MD: Can you say it more clearly?

ZE: Yes. When I am about to paint lines, at every stroke of the brush I take into account my physical state, the length of the process, and atmospheric factors because all these can affect my work.
Every painter should be aware of these conditions, the most basic ones, for me they are extremely important. I am terribly sensitive in certain occasions and respond to external situations.

MD: How did you develop these sensations? Was experience the best teacher?

ZE: Experience, I would say. For instance, if I am rushed and paint, let's say, in the evening, when I look back at it the following day, the colors do not quite convince me, they do not express exactly what I wanted. If you let this kind of emotion run freely, you end up losing in sharpness. I prefer to paint when I am in the best possible mood, at the most favorable moment.

MD: How to you achieve the peace of mind that allows you to express yourself at your best? Do you have a method?

ZE: Yes, of course. I pull back: it's the only way to focus and paint undisturbed. If you lose control, you might paint with little care. Every so often, looking at the works of a painter, we might guess that his pictorial process is fully absorbed and controlled, but slowly we come to discern the anxiety that is hiding underneath. In my opinion, anxiety should not be poured out on the canvas in a un-mediated manner yet, on the other hand, one should not be overly detached because works filled with a degree of emotion can best involve the viewer on an emotional level.

MD: So, when you let yourself drift into painting you are in a peaceful mood, correct?
ZE: In such instances, one must achieve the highest level of technical and emotional mastery since it is precisely on these occasions that something new may come out.

MD: Was it in similar circumstances that your transition from figuration to abstraction occurred?

ZE: I don't really draw a line between figuration and abstraction. The external form doesn't really matter, what is relevant is that which you want to express. You cannot draw a line between "visible" and not-visible forms. At least, this is my thought on abstraction and figuration.

MD: Definitely. How did it happen? Maybe one day, while you were painting, you suddenly realized that each stroke of the brush was more important than tracing any recognizable forms. And then you decided to stay with it.

ZE: No, it did not happen like you say. I am as much involved in the brushstrokes when I make an abstract work as when I am painting an interesting face in a figurative style. If a painter confines himself to one style, be it abstract or figurative. his own world will shrink down. For artists, it is like being somewhere deep into the sea, how could you possibly stay within clear boundaries?

MD: It seems to me that at some point painting on canvas became almost too easy, so you ventured into painting large spaces.

ZE: No, they are both challenging. The most interesting thing about "space painting" is that the work will be destroyed, it disappears, it doesn't remain. The fact is that not everything one does should be preserved and when I paint spaces, the works are destined to disappear. They leave no trace, like a dream. they belong only to those who actually saw them. Yet. the reason why I make these works is a different one. I like the idea of painting "a space" that becomes like a huge box. a large container. Once inside, you lose any sense of space and time. it is like being in a cave ... a state of stillness, something is enveloping you. I feel safe in there. It is a highly subjective feeling: when I was a child, I used to be very comfortable in closed and familiar spaces.

MD: I see. I realize that in your studio you feel something similar to what you experienced as a child in those comforting places. So when you are abroad, you recreate a personal space, and paint it all over. It is a way for you to feel well, to feel at home ...

ZE: Yes. this is true in many ways. To me, a closed space becomes my own world. Furthermore, there's this desire to change something, to make it different. If I was not inspired by a certain space, I wouldn't invest so much energy on it. I only paint when I have a real, deep desire. I must gather a whole range of sensations and emotions in order to paint. For example, what I painted in London was related to my own memories of the city.

MD: Yet that doesn't come through at first sight.

ZE: Right, that relationship exists just as long as I am painting, once I am finished it's no longer there. In Genova I will start from some personal, emotional. almost physical feelings. The work won't be specifically related to Genova, but it will be related to the sensation that will strike me once I am immersed in the city. Every artist's work must be grounded on freedom, something that originates from deep within. I immerse myself in a place and let it shape me. My past is always there. of course. but I am open to new, inspiring experiences. Being in London, Genova, and India, I had to leave my own environment behind and take in external influences. In India, for example, I was impressed and fascinated by the colors, the way to combine them ...
Going back to that feeling of extreme freedom in painting, I can say that my pictorial compositions are driven by the space and its features.

MD: Your relation to space is very concrete: high here, low there, decaying over there ... these are all new possibilities for you.

ZE: If I am to paint a specific space, my initial ideas are usually questioned the very moment I get there. A peculiar kind of imagination comes into play: the knowledge of the surrounding environment. For example, in order to paint in Genova I will have to "forget" the London space. It is the only way for me to engage with a new space.

MD: Hand or brain, which one wins in the process of painting?

ZE: The eyes. The history of painting is a history of seeing, the hand comes after. Perspective, understood as a painting technique, is not absolute, it is neither as sensitive nor as mobile as the eye. Painting is a primary experience, it allows you to transform objects and make them two-dimensional.
After all, one must learn how to express sensations that are quite abstract. In painting. if imagination takes you over, what you have painted will eventually seem "real" ... this makes you feel really well. For example, conveying a sense of softness in painting is not easy at all!

MD: How do you manage to make the eye and hand work together?

ZE: You must develop the highest degree of familiarity so that you can forget the hand while you are painting. That is how you can truly express yourself. If a painter begins to think through colors and outlines, he can't be a good painter. You should not be overly aware of your hand, the brush, and so on. The specificity of a painter is to be found in his works, by which I mean his oeuvre, not just the details. Technical skills should not be evident. the best technique is that which doesn't stand out. On the other hand, technique should not hide nor cover its best qualities ...

MD: Why have you stopped painting human figures?

ZE: Right now I enjoy painting objects, I seek to find their expressions. I believe they are similar to human expressions. It is like when you enter a room where someone used to live. you realize that it can represent that person. Sometimes I do that, I paint a place where someone lived, a person who no longer is or is just temporarily absent. I find this very inspiring. I like to think about the relationship between people and objects. When a painting is finished, I try to forget it or not to think about it. A white canvas is a brand-new world for me. Then. I feel that I want to paint this bottle and I do it. This is my attitude. everyday. If today I paint this piece of glass well, I am happy. But it may also be that I realize, once it is finished, that there is a more transparent kind of glass that I like even more and so I paint it.
This is what draws and keeps me going. Everyday I discover new objects and I leave the old ones behind, I forget them. When painting new subject material I am starting afresh. New sensations arise in this way. There is no goal, if something catches my attention I paint it, that's all.

MD: What kind of objects are you mostly drawn to?

ZE: There is no rule. Eyes function in such a strange way ... I see something and all of a sudden I want to represent it. I don't plan it beforehand. Look. look how beautiful this bottle is ...

MD: What does painting allow you to express?

ZE: It allows me to express myself, that's all. What is eventually expressed doesn't really matter. On the other hand when you are not sure about what you want to express, then that uncertainty becomes very important. We don't know what civilization was trying to express at its very beginning, yet many things, many signs remain. Expression materializes when we are not aware of what we are trying to express, whereas if everything is laid out in advance, it can be a problem.

MD: So before you start painting you are not sure about what you will be doing, what happens after?

ZE: Afterwards, I am very aware. If you know everything in advance, you cannot paint. Indeed, you do not need to. You need to paint that which you still don't know well. I don't mean to sound cryptic nor to be equivocal: I am trying to catch some sensations, the peculiar traits of our time such as, for example. a certain interpretation of a given color or shape. These sensations are not conspicuous, it is up to the artist to find and make them explicit.

MD: Let's talk about historical periods. In my opinion, the most meaningful works, either of art or literature, express not only the age in which they were created, but also reach beyond...

ZE: Well, yes. But a painter or a writer must be able to grasp a significant feature of his time in the first place, otherwise how could they express or even reach beyond it? In the end, history will prove whether or not they were actually right. Indeed, sometimes the works that outlive their time are not the finest, it may even be the opposite if the essence of that period is quite trivial. Gifted people are not necessarily the most profound, they may be just technically skilled.
Today we know that the finest works of art do not show off their technical mastery, quite the opposite. With so many artists racing against time, what really matters is going beyond the surface and getting to the core, to the essence.

MD: Still, I am under the impression that outstanding works of all times are quite similar.

ZE: But they don't repeat themselves, they will never do. You are speaking of immutable things, but each generation is different; small changes take place that are hard to explain, they may even go unnoticed. Major changes are brought about within a state of uncertainty, of doubt, these are the most generative moments. And history moves beyond all changes. Great and critical shifts are difficult to discern: their relevance hinges upon future developments.

1Trees portrayed by traditional Chinese painters belong to the genre of 'landscape' painting, assumably the highest form of painting since the Song Dynasty.

2Traditional Chinese painting is done with a specific type of brush and ink (and mineral pigments) on paper or silk. It requires that each brush stroke, that is the framework of the painting, cannot be corrected. Furthermore, the paper or silk surface that is not covered with ink remains visible and the empty areas are as important and meaningful as the brush strokes.

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