Hailing from China’s Jilin province, and presently based in Shanghai, artist Zhang Enli has interrogated the concept of portraiture for over three decades. Early in his career, during the 1990s, he created a vast series of paintings depicting the people of Shanghai. Later, themes spanning the interior and natural world found their way into his oeuvre, though the artist steadfastly maintains that these works are portraits too. His most recent canvases, “psychological landscapes” as he puts, eschew the limits of direct observation, marking a shift in the artist’s practice towards intuitive expressionism.  

Enli tells Something Curated: “I find a sense of liberation in this notion of portraits. While a portrait has been an identifiable and distinct form in art history, I aim to challenge the boundaries of portraiture and redefine its historical context, thus finding my own sense of liberation within it. I believe portraiture can encompass everything from a chair to a table, transcending its traditional definition.”

Zhang Enli, Antique Dealer, 2023. Courtesy the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

Open now and running until 11 May 2024, Enli’s second exhibition with Belgian gallery Xavier Hufkens, titled A Traveller, comprises a new series of gestural portraits. The result of years of experimentation, the artist has created a unique visual language that links colour and form to memory and emotion. “I believe they are the best works I’ve ever made as I am in the optimal phase of creation. Last year was a very intense year with many institutional shows leading to a demanding schedule. I worked extensively, resulting in some of my best works. I feel that I have entered a more mature phase of my artistic journey now,” Enli reflects.  

His enigmatic canvases echo both the world at large and the artist’s subconscious; and through swathes of colour, sensations and the imagination converge. The artist expands: “Over the years, I’ve tended to avoid heavy colours and instead opted for lighter and more neutral tones. I find that neutral and light colours better reflect reality. While many artists prefer to use bold colours, I believe that can be overly subjective. I prefer to utilise more neutral tones, which feel more natural to me. These colours are often organic, drawn from everyday life and nature.

Installation view of Zhang Enli’s A Traveller at Xavier Hufkens. Courtesy the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels. Photo: Thomas Merle

I don’t want people to feel pressured or shocked when viewing my paintings, and perhaps this explains my motivation for the choice. In my earlier works, I often used strong colours such as black, but at a certain point, I began to pay more attention to the interaction with viewers. If you examine art predating the Renaissance, you’ll notice a preference for a sense of harmony and balance over shocking elements. Additionally, I feel that as I age, my paintings should become more organic and reflect a deeper connection to nature.”

Art Mapping Piemonte. Zhang Enli, A Cheerful Person, 2021. Church of San Rocco, Montabone. Photo © Giorgio Perottino/ Artissima. Courtesy the Artist and Hauser & Wirth

Spontaneous and energetic, Enli’s distinctive style draws from both Eastern and Western traditions. Today a fixture of the Chinese art landscape — held in the collections of numerous museums across the world — his work continues to evolve and respond to the times. Enli posits: “I think an artist should be able to manifest and define the era one is living in. An artist needs to be able to feel and capture the sentiments and the core ideas of an era. When looking at the works of Edward Hopper, for instance, one can truly sense the spirit of the time as his works really captured the essence of America’s industrial urbanism.”

Zhang Enli’s A Traveller runs until 11 May 2024 at Xavier Hufkens — 6 rue St-Georges, St-Jorisstraat, 1050 Brussels, Belgium.

Feature image: Zhang Enli in his studio. Courtesy the Artist and Xavier Hufkens, Brussels

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