Zhang Enli: The Box
Hauser & Wirth, London
10 January - 1 March 2014
Review by Lily Le Brun
In a new series of paintings at Hauser & Wirth, Chinese painter Zhang Enli has depicted commonplace objects that evade any cultural specificity, deliberately excluding symbols that are usually associated with his home country. His quiet and subtle paintings, however, are motivated by the traditionally Eastern endeavor to represent an object’s very essence, revealing the soul within the prosaic. ‘I deal with reality,’ he has said, ‘in order to express something that goes beyond reality’.
For this show, entitled ‘The Box’, Enli shows 10 large but unassuming artworks, painted with a thinly applied, close palette of earthy, muted colours. Enli’s brushstrokes are loose and gestural, and demonstrate a sensitive control of the thickness and thinness of each stroke that is reminiscent of delicate traditional Chinese brush work. Although familiar objects within the paintings can be identified - rope, net, floorboards, balls - these are not figurative paintings, nor are they completely abstract. Rather, they represent abstract feeling via recognisable objects. Enli has often remarked that although he uses ‘objects from today’, they represent feelings from his childhood, like the memory of the feeling of rubber, the weight of a rope hung from a hook, or the tautness of a net when holding cloth in a bind.
Painted in diluted oil, almost every work in the show allows traces of an underlying graphite grid to emerge through the thin paintwork. The presence of the grid within his works may not be, as the press release ambitiously states, able to order ‘the chaos of contemporary life’, but it certainly emphasises the shapes, balances, and tensions of the depicted object, and the light touch of Enli’s hand.
The self-conscious exposure of the mechanics of the painting is a way, Enli has said, of bringing the viewer closer to the painter, a way of heightening their awareness of how a painter controls space to create visual illusions. The grid’s rigid, flat structure gives expression to pictorial depth, to the gentle softness of a curve and to the freedom of a painted line. It is not there for scale, as an aid to enlargement; it cannot be, because although Enli uses objects he finds within his studio, none of the works result from direct observation. Instead, they are produced from sketches, photographs and, most crucially, memories.
This subtle and engaging show is in many ways an affirmation of Enli’s growing introspection. Growing older, he has found that he doesn’t wish ‘to express what is happening externally as much; now I don’t work from found objects, but rather from memories, or thoughts I have.’
A desire to communicate this to the viewer, to allow the art to reflect the viewer’s personal life and interact with their personal space, is perhaps most powerfully expressed in his work ‘The Box’, a purpose built plywood structure within a smaller gallery room that’s interior has been entirely covered in Enli’s swirling brushstrokes. Entering this space feels like walking on, or even within, a painting. Like the rest of the paintings in the show, it combines simple structures with a human touch to gently suggest how painting can immerse us in an atmosphere that evokes the remembered within everyday reality.