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The Waking Dream

Author: Gregor Muir 2017

"Shanghai is a totally different city from other cities where I lived. It's not like Wuxi, or the north of China, which is where I'm from. Shanghai is not a typical Chinese city. For me, when I first arrived, it was more like a European city". - Zhang Enli*

At the heart of Zhang Enli's work: the artist’s eye, homing in on something - something everyday, inconsequential and away from the ceremony of high art. Studying his paintings, we find ourselves absorbed by their subject-matter and technicalities - the deft application of thin layers of paint over a pencil line grid, which the artist uses to scale up an image from a photograph or sketch. His dexterity as a painter can be found, for example, in Old Leather Sofa (2009), a painting that draws our attention to a furry white throw resting over the seat of a brown leather chair. The small rug appears to exist, represented in paint, yet, on closer inspection, this area of the canvas is barely touched. Having painted everything except what we see at the painting’s centre, Zhang reveals himself as a master of illusion with an extraordinary ability to craft space and to push paint to its descriptive limits.

Numbering among his more familiar works, are Zhang's tree paintings, as well as his paintings of buckets and chairs. Similarly we recall his washroom tile paintings, cigarette packets and cardboard boxes. Then there are the nets, basketballs, tubing, and, more recently, his Intangible abstract works, which seem to return his all-consuming ‘space paintings’ – previously covering the floors and walls of entire rooms - to the confines of an oblong canvas. The blurred lines and washes of the Intangible paintings, both expressionist and impressionistic, point to a new strand of thought that will undoubtedly extend well into the future. But preceding all of this, comes a lesser known period of the artist's career, one which has yet to be widely discussed. People looking onto Zhang's career over the past decade may not even be aware of its existence. Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to catch the tail end of a far more rugged practice than the one we know today. Back then, in the 1990s, Zhang was a figurative painter, a painter of people.

In 1985, Zhang moved from Jilin province to study at the Arts and Design Institute of Wuxi Technical University, now the Jiangnan University located over a hundred kilometres north west of Shanghai. Tucked away in the north east corner of China, the move from his home in Jilin province - bordering North Korea, Russia and Inner Mongolia - to Wuxi in the more southerly province of Jiangsu, would have undoubtedly left its mark on the formative artist. Looking back at this period, Zhang recalls his satisfaction at having been rejected from more traditional art academies, finding his experience of Wuxi with its focus on graphic design "more open and uncontrolled". The degree of freedom afforded to Zhang at Wuxi, would ultimately help him pursue a path as a self-taught artist. Having graduated from Wuxi in 1989, Zhang moved to Shanghai, where he took a job as a teacher at Donghua University. "To have a stable job, and a lot of free time to paint, was ideal".

I wish I had seen what Zhang must have seen upon his arrival in Shanghai; a glimpse of the old industrial centre before its ascent toward a glittering new skyline. Triggered by economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiaoping, the wave of development that gripped Shanghai in the '90's became so intense that it effectively obliterated one city and replaced it with another - epitomised by the bulbous yet spiky Oriental Pearl Tower, which has since entered the work of countless artists ranging from Yan Pei-Ming to Luc Tuymans. It is this earlier city, populated by industrial workers, that Zhang captures so poetically in his figurative works. This was a time before Shanghai was able to boast two of the world's tallest buildings which would usher in the age of the cloned business traveller.

Exploding onto the world stage like a city without a past, it might be said that Shanghai hasn't strayed too far from its pioneering, colonised, cosmopolitan self. In his novel The Kindness of Women, J.G. Ballard - who was born in Shanghai - refers to the mid-century city of his youth as a "waking dream where everything I could imagine had already been taken to its extreme". Present-day Shanghai, seen at night, its skyscrapers topped with blinking red antenna, inspires the kind of futuristic vision anticipated in the film Blade Runner. Reminding us of a film set, where science fiction has become a reality, Ballard nevertheless points to an earlier city with an inbuilt premonition of itself as "a portent of the media cities of the future, dominated by advertising and mass circulation newspapers and swept by unpredictable violence"**. The restless violence and turmoil of this heaving, living city seethes through the surface of Zhang's early paintings. After all, this was once a more guttural metropolis, filled with the working class.

In Shanghai, Zhang found a small dormitory to live in, which he furnished with only a mattress that he used as a sofa during the day, and bed by night. This eighteen metre square room also served as the artist's studio where he produced a series of colourful, Gauguineseque fruit paintings, before launching into a series of figurative works with themes that would preoccupy the artist throughout the 90s: scenes of lovers, dancers, butchers and people eating. These figurative paintings appear garish when juxtaposed with Zhang’s more recent work. The colours are moody and atmospheric - deep reds and yellows, with brooding dark backgrounds. The figures are cartoon-like, with exaggerated faces and chunky forearms, reminding us of other artists, all connected with German expressionism, such as Max Beckmann, Rainer Fetting or Jorg Immendorff.

Some of Zhang's earliest paintings from this time show people emitting what appears to be mysterious ectoplasmic plumes. Pheromone-like jets emanate from nipples and mouths in Lovers (1991), while Strong Labour (1993) shows two men at the end of a hard day's work, removing white work overalls while their smoky exhalation forms red speech bubbles. One of Zhang's earliest butcher paintings, Two Jins Beef (1993), depicts a red spray that would be hard not to read as blood spurting upwards from the butcher's arms. Emotional intensity, heightened by frequent depictions of blood, becomes a hallmark of these early, narrative paintings. (Narrative being a feature of this period, but not others, as Zhang's later figurative style becomes increasingly focused on dead-pan representations of basic object). Zhang's desire to elicit an emotional response from the viewer through highly evocative subject-matter pervades several of these early paintings, underlined by the exchange of blows in Indignation (1993), or his depiction of the moment when bad news is broken in Sickroom (1994).

Zhang's first ever dinner and bar paintings are populated by real people, warts and all. These are ordinary people seen at leisure, eating, drinking, talking and smoking. The works becoming highly plausible real-life recordings - observations made by a then marginal artist in an overlooked corner of Shanghai. When I asked Zhang whether it would be fair to say the subject of his paintings from this period are working class people, he offered 'We were all working class back then". In these paintings we get a sense of the artist truly at work - surveying the world, intrigued by the people he sees around him, taking stock of a gesture or ravenous eating, or a moment spent staring into space. These are the ordinary people of Shanghai, forming ordinary scenes, not unlike the essence of seventeenth century genre paintings, only we can acknowledge the shift to everyday life in Shanghai at the end of the twentieth century. Given their basic subject-matter, these paintings shouldn't take up too much of our time, yet we become absorbed by these scenes as they once absorbed the artist in real life.

In 1996, Zhang took a two-bedroom apartment opposite a market to the north of Zhong Shan Road, which he again turned into a studio. It was here that Zhang returned to a subject from his earlier work, that of the butcher. In quick succession came his Two Men paintings, from 1997, showing men playing cards, or being matey, eating and drinking. The following year, the Two Men works merge into the Pub paintings, which initially showed two men drinking before depicting more crowded and chaotic bar scenes. Then came the Smoker paintings in 1998, which may well have been influenced by the artist's profound enjoyment of smoking. Again, ordinary people, doing ordinary things, showing us more of the lives of ordinary people in the depths of the ever changing city.

To his list of dark paintings, Zhang added a series of kissing couples, his figures shown in tender embrace. which, again, may not necessarily tally with what people associate with this artist's work presently, but, for now, we still find ourselves in the last century, in a culture devoid of the helping hand of Art Forum or Frieze, or any other manifestations of contemporary art, such as art fairs or dedicated private museums, which would come much later to Shanghai. In 2000, Zhang secured his first big studio in Suzhou Road. That same year, he would also hold his first ever solo-exhibition at Lorenz Helbling's emerging ShanghART gallery, where he showed his paintings of dancers. ShanghART would later go on to establish Moganshan Road as an area of Shanghai populated by artists' studios and young commercial galleries. Many, at the time, would describe this former light industrial area, as the last place for artists to go as the city slowly started to annihilate itself, replacing low-lying residential areas with glass towers. As Zhang recalled, "It was still really rundown around Moganshan Road. The best local restaurant was called 'Red Chicken', which is where we used to take people when they came to visit the studios. It was a huge restaurant, where the waiters wore roller skates in order to deliver the dishes".

In 2001, Zhang produced a series of paintings entitled Eat, showing Red Chicken diners at big roundtables cradling bowls of noodles, talking, digesting their food. Some pour drinks, one person rests their head on the table, a couple kiss. In these large-scale paintings, Zhang certainly captured the hubbub of the place and how each sitting would encompass its own drama brought about by the daily theatrics of eating out. What is also important about these paintings is how they mark the transition from the dark paintings to Zhang’s use of thinner paint, which would become the hallmark of later paintings. This somewhat lighter touch, whereby paint no longer covers every square inch of canvas, sometimes in grey clouds, allows for a sketchier style. It is as though the artist were now prepared to draw with paint, to capture his observations through a more calligraphic approach.

In 2002, Zhang finally moved his studio to Moganshan Road, where he would remain for the next twelve years. Early on, Zhang found himself working on his observations of local people, whom, it could be argued, no longer occupied the same place in contemporary Shanghai society. Many of these men appear to be ordinary tradesmen, or former factory workers, who, in the aftermath of European and American influence, would continue to fuel the old communist machinery. For the most part, they seem unkempt, with sprouting beards and wayward, out of control hair. Zhang’s recent adoption of thin paint partially fuels this explosion of bald heads and scruffy faces, allowing for a greater immediacy that enables him to jot down images as though using the canvas as a sketchbook. Some of these men tip their heads downwards to show their bald spots (this would later result in a string of watercolours with imaginatively decorated backs of heads). Some of the hairstyles - take for instance a man with his hair shaved high at the sides, leaving a small circular crown - appear to be throwbacks to former dynasties. Looking at these bold dynamic paintings, there's a sense that these men have unconsciously carried the country's past with them on their heads. It is also likely that many of these people would have come to the city from other parts of China, as they made their way from the increasingly impoverished countryside to the new citadels of Shanghai and Beijing.

From the vantage point of Zhang's most recent paintings, his early figurative works may appear far, far removed. It might even be said that somewhere around the Eat paintings and the subsequent move to Moganshan Road, an entirely new perspective evolves, with a focus on single objects, such as tables and chairs, buckets and boxes, resulting in the so-called Container paintings. However, to discuss the figurative works prior to these, such as the Hair paintings, encourages a deeper understanding of the artist's work. In doing so, the question presents itself of what roots Zhang's practice over time - what is his motivation? Perhaps the title of his 2004 BizArt show in Shanghai, taken from Nietzsche's 'Human, All Too Human' [A Book for Free Spirits], says it all. It reminds us of Zhang's consistent investment in the human condition, including his own, extending across a lifetime, in such a way that these humanistic concerns can even be found in his more recent abstract works. For all their intangibility, the artist nevertheless counts the Intangible paintings, not as exercises in abstract expressionism, but projections of real emotions, which he cites as invisible and ethereal but nevertheless real. Again, even in the absence of figuration, Zhang adopts a more soulful stance.

At the end of the 90s, the international art world would start to flock to Shanghai, leaving a questionable level of commercial and curatorial speculation in its wake. As the city started to move from the old to the new, there came a period when I distinctly recall finding the local artists gripped by a sense of future shock - their local landmarks no longer there. This feeling of displacement has since moved about the world in a stealth-like fashion, and I'm tempted to say that London, from where I write, also appears to have undergone a similar fate. Sometimes I too fail to recognise the city where I was born. But looking back at Zhang's earliest works, to include images of communal baths and old fashioned public toilets, reminds us just how important these works have become in relation to Shanghai’s social history. As the world looked in, eager to press on to new horizons, Zhang has helped preserve an otherwise invisible side to the city, presenting impassioned scenes as though we were stood right beside him in one of the most rapidly developed cities in the world.

Gregor Muir, Director of Collection, International Art, Tate

* All quotes from a discussion between the author and the artist, 2017

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