Zhang Enli, Watercolour on the Wall, 2019, watercolor. Installation view.

Zhang Enli, Watercolour on the Wall, 2019, watercolor. Installation view.

Zhang Enli

Zhang Enli’s most recent wall painting deserved to be seen, rather than described, but it existed only for the duration of the exhibition at Galerie Xavier Hufkens, so it makes sense to tentatively capture it here. Zhang’s swirling tangles of green watercolor were applied so thinly against the white wall that the hues appeared luminous. The sweeping gestures recalled action painting, and the overall effect was optical, unashamedly pleasing to the eye. The mural shared this quality with the other highly accomplished abstract paintings in the solo show. Each tone felt like an expression of a life-form, or a fringe of space, rather than a record of an eye’s experience. Abstraction here did not make itself felt as an ideology or as a mode of representation, but as a kind of emptiness, a withdrawal of presence, the concluding chapter in the history of the diminution of a strong emotion.

It has often been observed that Zhang’s subject matter has undergone major changes over the past decades, but the consistent logic of this evolution is less often remarked upon. Perhaps surprisingly, his seemingly abstract recent paintings are a clear continuation of his earliest concerns. The empty spaces that Zhang’s paintings demarcate are, and are also not, self-portraits: a culmination of decades of autobiographical painting, and at the same time a successful escape from the bounds of the self.

When Zhang first began exhibiting in the 1990s, he was known as something of an expressionist. His portraits of the urban poor of China could be read as a working-through of China’s adoption of socialist realism as a state style in the 1950s. Whereas the official style had celebrated the dignity and resilience of the socialist worker, Zhang’s day laborers and petty traders seemed more preoccupied with survival and with grasping the fleeting pleasures that life offered them.

During the early 2000s, these human figures began to slowly disappear from his canvases, to be replaced by the grimy, used-up things that they had handled: old jars and empty buckets. The contents of Zhang’s pictures, halfway between waste and resource, recalled the collections of professional scavengers or the private accumulations of those hoarders who, having been scarred by extreme scarcity, become unable to throw anything out. As the artist remarked in a 2009 conversation with Hans Ulrich Obrist, the pictures represented more or less what a tradition is: a garbage heap that people endlessly dig through, looking for treasure. The objects that populated the paintings were meticulously rendered but also seemed to retain every touch, every grimy fingerprint, every impression that had been imposed on them. In his paintings of tangled cables, or of old rubber hoses distending under their own weight, Zhang displayed a sensitivity to the material properties of the object that verges on a kind of hyperrealism—but not in the sense of photographic verisimilitude. The way that wires tangle, rubber droops, or fabric hangs presents a metaphysical fact, not just a physical one—as if an essential characteristic of each thing had a moral right to be represented or brought forward at the expense of everything else.

Other paintings were populated by furniture—empty chairs, desolate beds, and battered desks, all still seeming to bear the imprint of the weight of absent bodies. This preoccupation with absences and with the intrinsic identity of objects suggests that Zhang is not very interested in surfaces. He’s interested in voids. Blankness manifests in his later paintings of empty rooms: either his own studios or abandoned spaces where grimy tiles, ad hoc electrical wiring, and sewerage outlets constantly remind the viewer of all the proximate spaces that press in upon the room and that threaten to rupture into it. His first “space paintings,” or temporary wall murals, functioned almost as psychic defenses mirroring the sensory pressure of the outside world. His recent work takes this logic even further, announcing the artist’s disappearance within, or rather into, the placid green garden surrounded by the gallery’s wall.