ZHANG ENLI (B. 1965)
ZHANG ENLI (B. 1965)
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ZHANG ENLI (B. 1965)


ZHANG ENLI (B. 1965)
signed and dated ‘EN LI 02’ (lower middle); signed, titled, inscribed in Chinese, inscribed and dated ‘170 cm x 150 cm 2002’ (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
150 x 170 cm. (59 x 66 7/8 in.)
Painted in 2002
Private collection, Asia
K11 Art Foundation and the authors, ZHANG ENLI: HUMAN, Hong Kong, 2017 (illustrated, p. 105).
Shanghai, China, The Garden of Forking Paths: Tracks and Intersections of 15 Artists, Shanghai Gallery of Art, September-November 2015.
Shanghai, China, ZHANG ENLI Exhibition: A Room That Can Move, Power Station of Art, November 2020-March 2021.

Brought to you by

Jacky Ho (何善衡)
Jacky Ho (何善衡) Senior Vice President, Deputy Head of Department

Lot Essay

"As the world looked in, eager to press on to new horizons, Zhang has helped preserve an otherwise invisibles side to the city, presenting impassioned scenes as though we were stood right beside him in one of the most rapidly developed cities in the world."

Gregor Muir, Director of Collection, International Art, Tate

Throughout the 1990s, China clocked impressive growth rates. For many in the country at the time, such miraculous economic boom under the government-led reform was like the first rain after a prolonged drought. Except what this rain poured was not water, but a massive influx of consumer goods. People only craved more as the increasingly materialistic China continued to espouse the rise of consumerism. Behind this craze of a new era, nonetheless, was a lonesome “eye of an artist”, staring straight at all these radical changes in life with its silent—but certainly defiant gaze. This eye belong to Zhang Enli, an artist from the Jilin province in northeast China. In 1989, Zhang moved south to Shanghai where he later created his first hallmark series in his artistic career. This series captures the vicissitudes of urban life where people come and go. They smoke, they banquet, they coquet, they feast; what remains constant in the hustle and bustle are their desolated soul. Smoking , painted in 2002, is one such tour de force and the final of Zhang’s works from this series which employs the people as its subject. This exquisite work also marks the artist’s venture into his well-known style distinguished by his aloof sentiments.

From the restlessness of this modern mundane life, Zhang has successfully captured the lost souls in his pictorial world. Smoking , in many ways, is a key exemplar of the artist’s acute observation. Flowing out from his seemingly casual portrayal of a loosened-up space is the myriad internal and interlocking relations behind his characters. Through a semi-transparent curtain veil appearing to be soaked in water, we catch a glimpse of a decadent world occupied by corpulent figures aimlessly shouldering their way through while indulging in binge smoking and drinking. With the sole exception of the man in the lower-left corner, everyone else here, wrapped up in smoke, appears faceless and perhaps even soulless. Yet, the short-haired woman with her muscly arms blows out a flaring white passage, leading viewers to freely interpret this narrative - might this passage lead to a future of boundless possibilities?

Unlike Zhang’s intensely dark and at times raging portraits from the 1990s, Smoking leaves room for viewers to pause and reflect upon what they see through the intentionally blank areas of the painterly surface. Furthermore, the artist capitalizes on the free flowing quality of his diluted ink-like medium and lets it drip in a “Chinese fashion”. The result is one that is as innovative as it is mesmerizing, with layers of smoke rising up into the expanse. As Gregor Muir once remarked, “What is also important about these paintings is how they mark the transition from the dark paintings to Zhang;s use of thinner paint, which would become the hallmark of later paintings. This is somewhat lighter touch, whereby paint no longer covers every square inch of canvas, sometimes in grey clouds, allows for a sketchier style. It is as though the artist were now prepared to draw with paint, to capture his observation through a more calligraphic approach.”

By 2000, basic necessities such as food and clothing became overly abundant and the stimulus initially brought by these consumerist goods slowly lost its appeal. Consequently, Zhang also turned his attention away from observing the state of others and towards his own internal self-introspection and mundane everyday objects. An epochmaking triumph, Smoking sits squarely in the artist’s transitional period when he was migrating from the surface of sensations to the silence of self-reflections. What is impressive is Zhang’s portrayal of solitude, quietude, and turpitude that helped the artist gain international recognition and a unique presence in the contemporary Chinese art world. Almost twenty years have passed since the creation of Smoking . Yet, this masterpiece continues to shine as brightly and speak as poignantly as ever before to the deepest level of humanity as well as the shallowest aspect of human life.

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