Installation view, 'Zhang Enli: Gesture and Form', Firstsite, Colchester, England, 2017

Zhang Enli at Firstsite reviewed by ARTFORUM

8 March 2018

Zhang Enli’s art stands in opposition to the cynical realism and political Pop of his contemporaries and predecessors.

His works are more of a celebration than a critique of daily life. For some time, the Shanghai-based artist has been emptying out the more recognizable content of his canvases. In the beginning, depictions of people gave way to large still lifes; now, representational bits of the world get transformed into vast painterly abstractions. For instance, at the center of ‘Tension 1,’ 2013 – the earliest of the ten paintings currently on view – a tangle of emerald ropes wraps around what appears to be a pair of dark, thick wires. The rendering of these humble materials within a large space – the piece is more than seven feet wide – allows the artist to paint with a great physicality in long, loopy gestures.

More lyrical and syrupy brushwork appears in ‘Black and Red Lines,’ 2016, a lush abstraction rife with murky, watery forms. A grid underpins the imagery of each painting, underlining the work’s formal architecture while subtly transforming the paintings’ surfaces into fragile, translucent veneers. Trees are also a popular subject with Zhang. Over a ten-day period in the exhibition space, he created a mural dense with them (‘Space Painting,’ 2017) that stretches along a curving, tilted wall within the gallery, producing a kind of forest backdrop for the rest of his works. Zhang cleverly nods to English academic pastoral painting with this effort, of course – but what comes through is not a fidelity to detail or verisimilitude but rather the sumptuousness of Zhang’s painting itself.