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January 26, 2011

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From pain to serenity

PEOPLE used to joke about Zhang Enli's tortured Expressionist works about chaotic modern life. Today he is acclaimed for painting a serene reality of mundane objects. Wang Jie reports.

Ten years ago Zhang Enli was painting in the painful and cliched style of German Expressionism, but today his style is one of subtlety and solitude. He focuses on ordinary objects, investing them with extraordinary meaning.

"I deal with reality in order to express something that goes beyond reality," Zhang says of his painterly works of rubber tubing, bare mattresses, lace curtains, soccer balls, string, hand basins, hoops and other everyday objects and fixtures. They seem to draw expectations from viewers.

Zhang is also noted for his "Trees" series that often features a canopy of trees opening into the sky, the focus as much the opening as the tree branches and leaves.

A solo exhibition of his works is now underway at the Minsheng Art Museum through February 13.

Many things have changed for Zhang, who is 45. He is a very big success - the first Chinese artist signed by Hauser & Wirth, one of the world's major galleries of contemporary art, based in London and Zurich.

He has shed his old image. He has lost weight, exchanged his baggy sweaters for chic clothes and now drives a Porche or BMW.

Despite appearances to the contrary, Zhang says, "I am not the nouveau-riche type. But material life is important and I just like beautiful things."

Looking back at his German Expressionist years, he says, "I still don't think it was wrong, though people questioned and joked about it. Some of my works in that period were really good."

Those early works were about disturbance, suffocating pressure and life that was disordered and changing too rapidly.

Zhang, who works in Shanghai, grew up in Jilin Province in northern China and graduated from the Arts & Design Institute of Wuxi Technical University in 1989.

Zhang's dramatic turn in art came in 2002 in his "Trees" series.

"Some people asked why I suddenly changed to a new style," he says. "I'd like to say that I just unbuttoned two buttons on my clothes."

He paints with thin washes of pigment, which often leave traces or drips of turpentine down the canvas. He achieves a richness and sophistication that balances the apparent simplicity of his technique and subject matter.

At times his brushstrokes suggest traditional ink-wash painting in which every stroke articulates parts that are important to the whole.

"Perspective representation is a very big topic in classical painting, but it is largely ignored today," Zhang says of his work. "The logical relationship, the lines and the construction count for a lot and I am fascinated in finding the mystery inside."

His paintings are a strong departure from the frenzied and fashionable work of some of his Chinese contemporaries, bearing no relationship to the so-called "political pop," "kitsch art" or "cynical realism" that characterizes much of the work during China's art boom in the 1990s.

"I am the kind of person who really loves painting. I always believe there is another world of painting existing somewhere that I can feel and touch," says Zhang. "My life is enriched because of this world."

One canvas usually takes half a day to complete, Zhang says. "Everything is in my mind before I start and when I paint, I want without stopping."

But the process of finding what to paint is not a quick one. "On the surface, I appear quite relaxed, either wandering or pondering, but my mind is working non-stop," he says.

Zhang prefers to be an observer in life, even at his own solo exhibition.

"I intend to retreat from the limelight of my exhibition, checking feedback from viewers without drawing attention," he says.

He paints when the weather is fine and sunny; if it isn't, he doesn't pick up his brushes.

"You say I'm hot and successful, but I don't agree. It's better that an artist is posthumously famous. Art is very hard to predict, you can never know your fate," he says.

Art is like a swimming match, he says.

"One never knows if he or she is successful while in the middle," Zhang concludes. "Who knows? Maybe I will button up those two buttons again."

Zhang Enli's solo exhibition

Date: through February 13, 10am-6pm

Address: Bldg F, 570 Huaihai Rd W.

Tel: 6282-8729


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