Through Trees To Sky
Take a stroll late on a Shanghai summer evening, when the traffic drifts fitfully towards sleep and the clouded sky shines with the reflected light of the city, from the neon signs, the apartment towers, the roads and bridges. Walk along the near-empty streets of the older quarters of Luwan or Xuhui, or among the umpteen nondescript towers that surround them, and occasionally people can be seen – elderly men exercising, restaurant workers playing cards and itinerants sleeping on bamboo mats on the sidewalk. And if at any time you look up, you will see hanging above you the leaves of plane trees, weightless and shifting, in contrast to the hoary trunks and branches pruned with haste and violence. And through their dappled silhouettes you glimpse the light grey sky, the infinite backdrop to millions of ordinary lives: an atmospheric confection, a subjective impression, fleeting rather than concrete.
Born in Jilin in the Northeast of China in 1965, Zhang Enli graduated from the Arts & Design Institute of Wuxi Technical University in 1989. The same year he became a lecturer at the Arts & Design Institute of Donghua University, Shanghai, which post he still holds.
Until now the writing on Zhang Enli’s art has concentrated on its social aspects or summoned up an undefined poetics. Referring to Zhang’s earlier figurative works, the crowded pictures of people hugging, dancing, and eating, Li Xu notes:
In contrast to the “The Scream” of Edvard Munch, Zhang Enli’s works might rather be described as a long and flowing chant in the darkness, a chant for all the anonymous people in a moonless and starless night, with quiet all around and darkness hanging low.” (1)
Beyond an undefined humanism though, the meaning in such seemingly simple works can be elusive, but the elusive is also alluring, and so perhaps inevitably the evocative and atmospheric become substantive. As Alice Henkes writes: “The apparently uncomplicated subjects develop an enormous poetic power.” (2) Zhang himself has said, “I deal with reality in order to express something that goes beyond reality.” (3) But to where exactly, what is this extra-reality?
Li Xu indicates the direction of this unknown extra-reality but does not really explore it, noting that:
“Common everyday objects have become the perfect vehicles for [Zhang’s] intellectual games and means of displaying his dark humour. Cups, books, fruit, fountain pens, ashtrays, desk lamps, pliers, screwdrivers, toilet paper, playing cards, thermos flasks, and remote controlled toys all take on an extraordinary lustre under Zhang Enli’s brush. He often personifies the objects making “it” into “he” or “she.” They have the expressions of human beings and also their temper and failings.” (4)
Slightly more elucidating is Li’s comment that in Zhang’s paintings “we are able to identify two main subjects, or – so to say – two faces of the same [coin]: the ‘city in the countryside’ and the ‘countryside in the city’.” (5) Yet it still does not move us closer to understanding his methods.
We walk down a narrow passageway of Shanghai’s M50 art district to Zhang Enli’s studio, eventually climbing the stairs to the second-floor loft. It is hot and humid. I had met Zhang recently at a dinner where he was quite reserved, so I still did not know him except through his work, the gestural figures, the vacant interiors and empty vessels, and, most bewitching and most baffling to me, his trees.
The modest workshop is somewhat dark and not air-conditioned. We sit on old, overstuffed sofas around a low table piled with books. The smell of turpentine and linseed taints the air. Occasionally Zhang smokes a cigarette. For the whole interview he is polite and careful in his answers. For an artist who is represented by such prominent galleries as ShanghART and Hauser & Wirth, Zhang is extraordinarily understated. Throughout the interview he is at pains to repeat that his art is simple, apparently in case I, too, become enchanted with the poetry of the moment and forget about the art. Only when I switch off the voice recorder does he begin to relax and the conversation really begins.
Grids and stains
The traditional grid method is frequently used by Zhang to scale up images from photographs to stretched canvas. The grid remains in place though; he does not erase or disguise it but uses its lines to acknowledge the picture’s artifice, commenting that after all, “reality is artificial,” by which I understand Zhang not to mean that everything is constructed but that what we call ‘reality’ is a notion mediated by experience. This sounds simple enough except that experience is difficult to define. In fact, Zhang’s entire practice might be seen as an attempt to restate reality, to confirm it. He eschews any sort of pretension whether in subject matter or method. There are no ‘mistakes’ in his pictures as nothing is erased. Everything can be seen; even ‘accidents,’ painting’s little contingencies, are employed in the picture’s architecture. Hence in his paintings of public wash areas the scaling-grid deliberately prefigures the grid of the tiled spaces, whether bath-shower cubical, urinal or laundry washtub, and the drips of random turpentine and paint become actual stains on the tiles.
Often the view of these tiled areas is so centred, perpendicularly or from above, that the perspective vanishes, with the depth-of-vision flattening to almost nothing, bringing the stains and discolorations to the fore. These public-personal spaces, simultaneously places of hygiene and pollution, were preceded by Zhang’s containers (róngqì 容器) and may be understood as an extension of them. The cardboard boxes, buckets, metal food boxes, and string bags are virtually anonymous items and ones whose purpose – to carry or contain something – is always subordinate to another’s, never to be the ‘subject.’ And as Li Xu notes, they take on anthropomorphic personalities. Yet Zhang is adamant that his work is not metaphorical, which I suspect has more to do with his disdain for pretension than an obsession with literalism. Pressed further, Zhang says, “This world is artificial but when you look at it, it will definitely touch your heart. When it relates to you, then you will feel something.” In essence he is searching for the artistic equivalent of philosophical norms, a Kantian proof for ordinary people against the world’s artifice. It is of course a Sisyphean task but one whose practice justifies the effort.
Yet if this is a type of expressionism – and that is moot – then it is one grounded in rigorous looking. In some ways one might consider it an architectonic version of Schiele’s exhausted figures. With Zhang Enli we are required to look intensely, to consider our unadorned and immediate surroundings as we consider ourselves in the mirror. Like all true realists, Zhang is not concerned with depicting a plausible representation but with making us look, making us see what is already there.
For some time Zhang has been taking photographs of trees all over Shanghai, sometimes the same tree but from a different angle or at a different time of day. He lives in the suburbs and the trees he photographs are the ordinary trees he finds in his neighbourhood, not the exotic trees of traditional gardens or historical painting. These are the trees that everyone walks beneath. They nourish our atavistic needs and provide relief from concrete towers, and are the minute-hands of the changing seasons. And yet we see this view only if we pause and gaze up. These oblique heaven-ward views towards the heavens predicate that we stop to think.
In his workshop, large canvases propped against the wall, Zhang uses the grid to transfer the photographic image to the canvas. The faithfulness of this approach is subverted precisely by the method employed to execute it. Reducing a full-size tree to ‘camera’ scale and then re-scaling the reduced picture to full-size in order to present a ‘faithful’ reality, not only mocks the comic way we now experience reality as something mechanically mediated, emphasising its symbolic status over the physical and personal experience of a tree, but questions our understanding of such a fundamental human experience and cultural notion as that of ‘tree.’ While we reflexively associate the notion of ‘tree’ with certain qualities, whether physical (like shelter and shade) or symbolic (like permanence and continuity), the photograph, manipulated and re-scaled, is pure pixelated medium that can either take one closer to ‘real’ experience by making us pause to look at the framed subject, or lead us into artifice (which is perfectly valid but something essentially different in type). As we have seen, Zhang Enli eschews artifice. He wants us to consider closely what surrounds us. The method employed in using the photographic framed ‘detail’ to re-scale and re-construct the trees is one of the means by which he does so.
This is of secondary importance however, compared to the actual re-presentation of the trees themselves. Sometimes they are painted without branches, sometimes with, but even if the trunk is shown, it is never anchored to the ground; instead, the tree branches and leaves freely float on the canvas and in the sky. These trees are literally ‘rootless.’ What holds the leaves and branches together is their relation not to every other mark, which creates the picture’s structure, or for that matter the original photograph, but our idea of a tree. As Zhang says, “We take the meaning of the sky into the work.” Thus the network of branches can be consciously edited, if not entirely elided, whereby there is no tree, but rather a swarm of leaves, of individual marks, each floating independently. This is in many respects a variation on his technique of using thinned oil paint. It is used, like traditional Chinese ink painting, with the gestures of the artist informed by the memory or understanding of the object as much by the object (or photograph) from which it is drawn.
I asked Zhang how his tree paintings interact with one another. He replied, “When I make a group of works there is a relation between all of the paintings, stronger or diminishing, depending on context.” Thus the grid has a further purpose: to engage the viewer to ‘scan’ the picture, to gaze at its individual elements, to separately consider areas of brushwork. I noted that perhaps there was a connection with Jackson Pollock’s “All-over” paintings, whereby the network of single brushstrokes found in a single cube has its echo in every other cube. Zhang, however, emphasizes the primacy of the individual stroke, a theme addressed by Monica Dematte, who observes that in traditional Chinese ink painting (shui mohua) “every brushstroke becomes a visible, unchangeable and founding trait of the painting.” (6) This leads us into a brief discussion of Monet’s “Water lilies,” which Zhang concludes by noting that for all its visual complexity, Impressionism is related to simple ideas, drawing us back to his aesthetic asceticism.
And yet for all his restraint, for all their simplicity of purpose, Zhang Enli’s paintings are far from simple. Every brushstroke is considered and its place in the whole weighed. The trees are literally compositions of thousands of individual thoughts gathered around the idea of what a ‘tree’ is or might be, and, equally importantly, its backdrop. As the ‘ground’ of a picture might be canvas or paper, when we look up into a tree, the sky becomes the base on which the thousands of individual leaves form the ‘tree’ shape, one that of course the tree itself does not consciously possess (its shape just is) but that we learn to recognise, that we construct. In a sense, through our experience of the tree, we give the tree its shape. In a sense, the tree does not exist at all but as merely a shape composed of its foliage, a shape that is largely air interspersed with leaves. It could be a metaphor for painting itself, one which artists as diverse as Seurat and Mondrian would understand. This is precisely why the branches, trunks and root systems are unnecessary. The real subject is something else: something like the poetic experience of ordinary life.
The exhibitions that Zhang Enli is planning involve large rooms filled with his almost life-size tree canvases. Sometimes the leaves are grey, sometimes a dark brown or a shade of green. You will enter this almost votive space and be surrounded by the leaves of dozens of paintings, literally hundreds of thousands of Zhang Enli’s marks, by the process of painting reality. And in a sublime moment, the mundane will be freed of the terrestrial. It will be as if you are among the leaves themselves – a child-like joy – surrounded by foliage but with no ground, nowhere to fall to.
The first exhibition of Zhang’s trees was held earlier this year at Hauser & Wirth in London. The invitation showed a single work from 2009 composed of thousands of individual blue brushstrokes surrounding a white space, a kind of negative of Jackson Pollock’s “The Deep” from 1953. It is called simply “Sky.”
(1) Li Xu, ‘Canto in Tenebris,’ Zhang Enli, 1992-2000 Works (Ex. Cat.), Lorenz HELBLING (curator) (Shanghai: ShanghART, 2000), p.11.
(2) Alice Henkes, ‘Sozialkritische Stillleben,’ Der Bund newspaper [Switzerland], 29 May 2009 (Trans.: Die scheinbar unkomplizierten Sujets entfalten oft eine enorme poetische Kraft.)
(3) Monica Dematte, “Human, Too Human,” Zhang Enli: Human, Too Human (Ex. Cat.), Dematté (curator), trans. Qi Yule (Shanghai: ShanghART & BizArt, April 10-25, 2004), p.14.
(4) Li, op. cit., p.10.
(5) Feng Boyi, “Loudness of cities and/or towns” in Zhang Enli: Human, Too Human, op. cit., p. 33.
(6) Dematté, op. cit., p.16.
* Jackson Pollock “The Deep,” 1953, oil and enamel on canvas, 220.4 cm x 150.2 cm, Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Thank you to He Chaoqiu 何超球 and Laura Zhou at ShanghART, Shanghai.