Zhang Enli Explores De-Meaning

Metal net, 2010, oil on canvas 98 3/8 x 118 1/8 inches Photo by Thomas Müller


While many contemporary Chinese artists seem to believe that “more is more, and big is better,” Shanghai-based Zhang Enli produces sparsely representational oil-on-canvas works that owe much to traditional ink-painting. The 13 canvases in his first U.S. solo, at New York’s Hauser & Wirth [through Oct. 29], combine Western-style direct observation with the venerable Eastern resolve to depict not the literal appearance but the inner essence of subjects—even when, as here, the image represents the most mundane of objects or places: a carpet, an ashtray, a garden hose, a bathroom stripped of its fixtures.

Zhang (b. 1965) has cultivated cultural dualism. He trained first in Chinese ink-and-brush methods, graduating from the Arts and Design Institute of Wuxi Technical University in 1989, and then set about teaching himself Western art history and oil painting techniques. Before 2000, he painted mostly figurative caricatures. The shift to his deceptively banal, and now signature, iconography resulted—he told A.i.A., via a translator, in a recent conversation at the gallery—from a growing preference for subtlety and quiet that came with maturity.

Zhang describes his studio as a “time tunnel” and a “place of disconnection,” where he enters an alternative world of pure painting. There, using Chinese brushwork with thin paint that he sometimes allows to drip and run in Western, gestural fashion, he seeks to convey the distribution of weight in a water hose draped over on multiple hooks (A Part of a Hose, 2011), the whiplash motion of a ball dropping through a net (Ball with Net, 2011) or the play of light on textured glass (Art Glass, 2009). “Color and form are where art begins,” the artist says.

While Zhang’s avowed goal is “de-meaning,” a stripping away of conventional perceptions that allows viewers to see the world afresh, he does not stop with “the object as pure form.” All these newly revealed things, notably a myriad of open paint cans (Empty Paint Cans, 2011), bespeak an unseen human agent. Each picture, he says, presents a “trace” of human action or habitation.

The history of emptiness in Chinese painting gives those traces a strong resonance. Although Zhang acknowledges Western influences from Manet to Francis Bacon to Luc Tuymans, his use of large vacant areas in many compositions also recalls a traditional Eastern technique—inducing viewers to half-create the picture (or, more accurately, the pictorial experience) by repeatedly drawing them into a void.

The misty passages of shan shui (mountain and water) works, like the vast blank spaces in many narrative scroll paintings, are meant to be filled with memories and projections. They suggest not existential nothingness, as is often the case in postwar Western practice, but rather infinite time and steadily unrolling events. Here emptiness is replete with great distances, the sorrow of parting, the changes that come with seasons and years, the anguish of prolonged separation, and the lifelong evolution of feelings and thoughts. Chinese painting is an art not of reduction but of summation—in which everything is present, though much is unseen.

Thus the most poignant image in Zhang’s show may well be the stark picture of his former painting studio, empty, with only a few floor stains and wall smudges evidencing all that once transpired there. It seems an apt metaphor for the repeated displacements of contemporary society, in China and elsewhere. (Zhang himself has gone from a town in Jilin to the city of Wuxi [6 million people] to Shanghai [23 million] to the international art circuit.) In a larger sense, A Corner of Studio (2011), with its paradoxically “full” emptiness and faint telltale traces, is an emblem for the transience of all human life.