Zhang Enli’s latest exhibition reflects on his evolution as a painter, from figurative beginnings to imagining radical new approaches to the medium.
“I wanted to be a painter since childhood. After painting for so many years, you will find that it is no longer art. It’s almost an understanding of life” For the artist Zhang Enli, painting is about pushing beyond notions of representation or abstraction, and tuning into feelings and emotions. His work traces the ways in which he has observed the world over the years, from memories growing up in the Northeastern grasslands to the social transformation of the Chinese people in the wake of rapid growth and economic prosperity. Through his turbulent brushstrokes, he searches for interior meaning in the everyday world, creating a complex and intertwined portrayal of human nature.
Zhang Enli studied calligraphy and traditional Chinese ink painting during his childhood, creative endeavours that shaped his expressive and energetic approach to mark-making. “When I was a child, I didn’t have any opportunities to see the paintings from outside of China. I mainly copied picture-books and studied Gongbi (claborate-style painting). The lines in the drawings influenced me and helped me to create my own voice.” As his visual language evolved, he began to layer different influences alongside his experimental practice. “I extracted many learnings from traditional frescoes, not only China but from all around the world. In these frescoes, I can see the willingness and ambitions of the great painters. Early on, these frescoes made me feel I was exactly in the scenes created by the painters. I felt the profound influence painting has on space, and the transformative impression left on the audience’s mind.”
‘A Room That Can Move’, a new exhibition presented at Shanghai’s Power Station of Art that traces Zhang Enli’s 30-year career, is his largest and most comprehensive solo show to date. Including more than 100 paintings, curator Hou Hanru celebrates the artist and his expansive evolution as a painter. Divided into three parts, the non-linear exhibition includes figurative paintings that focus on ordinary people and issues of their lives; still-life paintings depicting “containers” that trace the passage of time and more recent abstract paintings that record memory and explore the subconscious. “A Room That Can Move doesn’t refer to something specific,” Zhang Enil shares, “but to a state of uncertainty.” The state of unknowing caused by the global pandemic also informed the show’s creative production, “I usually start to prepare for an exhibition 18 months in advance. But due to COVID-19 everything became unknown as well. The unexpected and unknown are always around in life.” Zhang Enil continues, “After my 30 years of art life, this is an opportunity to put all of my artworks created during these years together and present them to myself and the audience.”
Perhaps one of the most exciting developments in the iconic Chinese artist’s practice, are his ‘Space Paintings”. A series of works that mobilize the viewer’s bodily experience in a symphony of time and space, pulling the traditional art of painting into an entirely new direction. Previously, his painting’s primary purpose was to transform everyday objects’ physicality into the materiality of painting. Over time, he began to desire greater immediacy, simplicity and authenticity and began to paint directly onto the walls, echoing the style of ancient frescos. Creating these ‘Space Paintings’ frees him from the limitations of the frame, incorporating the gallery’s architectural components to create an overwhelming and immersive experience. The work experiments with space and materials to reimagine painting as an action, or embodiment, enabling inner emotions to emerge. “After my exhibition, my painting on the wall will disappear, and the wall will return to the white wall, which is their original status. The only thing left is the memory in my audience’s mind. My artworks became the trace of time and memory.”