Zhang Enli - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale Hong Kong Wednesday, June 22, 2022 | Phillips

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  • I consider my 30 years of painting has all been about portraits.
     Zhang Enli

    The State of Constant Floating Flux


    Executed in 2016, Things is a thought-provoking, monumental masterpiece exploring the state of impermanence and human entanglements employing the artist’s most signature motif – lines – which straddles the distinction between his renowned ‘object’ series and his latest ‘abstract’ series. A compelling example, Things displays Zhang’s stylistic transition from representational to abstract paintings, marking a milestone period in the artist’s oeuvre. The lines depicted break free from the previous conspicuous association with objects such as wires, pipes, ropes, and trees. Instead, they are presented simply as motifs, abstracted out of the context of everyday life, and thus are more elusive to any concrete definition.


    The artist with the current work, in his studio
    Image from K11 Art Foundation Documentary, 2018


    Lines as a subject matter in both its objectual manifestations such as ropes and strings, as well as its abstracted form, as seen in the current example, is crucial to Zhang’s oeuvre. His special attention in the expressive possibilities of this motif results in his repeated explorations and reinventions of this seemingly common element.


    In Things, layers of sinuous, free-flowing lines overlap and intertwine with one another, filling up the canvas. Shades of navy blue, teal and charcoal seem to have infused into the background, creating a murky appearance that reveals no sense of clarity. The strong movement conveyed by the twirling lines create the sense of an expanse, to the point where it pushes outside the pictorial surface, whilst the colour palette brings out a sense of elusiveness and melancholy, as if the lines are retreating from the surface into the blurred depth of chaos. An energy of unrest shrouds the painting. Everything seems to be constantly morphing and changing -- each individual look at the painting yields the same impression.


    Willem de Kooning, East Hampton V, 1968
    Sold by Phillips, New York, 23 June 2021 for USD$3,055,000 (Premium)
    © 2022 The Willem de Kooning Foundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York


    The emotional potency of this work is very comparable to what renowned Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning is known for. Melded fluidity of lines and freedom of colour that culminate into an emotionally powerful presence is one of the characteristics of de Kooning’s work. In comparison, the colour palette of Things is more subdued, complimented by the dramatic tension of movement conveyed, echoing his focus on the extraordinary quality of ordinary life.



    Trained in traditional Chinese brush painting, Zhang adapts traces of this in his technique of diluting paint until it is almost glaze-like. Veiling paint onto the canvas allows him to explore with variations in density and gravity to convey complex relationships of his chosen object. Intentionally rendering no distinct perspective in this painting, the artist employs the dry brush technique from Chinese ink painting to imbue an airy quality to the lines, as they each float around the pictorial plane like chiffon ribbons, creating chance encounters with one another.


    “My focus on lines has to do with my painting of traditional Chinese styles when I was younger. I think those lines have a lot of power. On a certain level, they are very chaotic and alive, but imperfect. You can feel that they are bound up and entwined, which is close to how people often feel inside.”
    — Zhang Enli

    Abstraction of Human Experience


    Vivid, pulsing life has always been Zhang’s creative fountain. Instead of following art historical traditions, movements, and styles, the focus in his work has always been on reflecting upon human experiences, even when his subject matters move from figurative representations to still life. His choice in the latter echoes the inherent quotidian quality of us and of our daily lives, which comes through in this work in an abstracted rendition. Though seemly simplified, objects and abstracted motifs are free from obvious personality traits, and thus open up the possibility for discussion that transcends the context of confinement of space and time, penetrating into the essence of perception and experience.


    These lines are very closely related to our life. The curbside iron wires and the electric wires above roads, I simplified then extracted them, and they became symbols and lines corresponding to human emotions. Chinese have rich expressions and unique understanding of lines. When painting, (I focus on) how to intertwine and eventually present them, so that everyone will have direct psychological dialogue with the work.
     Zhang Enli


    Zhang’s explorations with lines conveys his understanding of the entanglements and bonds of human beings and invites the audience to make their own interpretation on the narrations in his work. He transforms what is abstractly perceivable into tangible form, while blurring the boundary of the two. A sense of deja vu strikes when one lays eyes on the painting: the hustle and bustle of modern cities, a sense of mental and emotional overload, and the lingering mood of fuzziness that haunts many on a daily basis. Interpretations that exist within the space of lines is immeasurable; these flowy lines are just as human as us.



    Zhang Enli, The Nylon Rope, 100.5 x 100.5 cm., 2014
    Sold by Phillips, Hong Kong, 4 December 2020 for HK$604,800 (Premium)

    In this perspective, Things become a rather intimate work: it confronts the viewer with an introspective journey within that goes as deep as one allows. In some way, the work almost represents the headspace of a modern human. In the midst of the bombardment of sensory stimuli during daily life, there seems to never be an end to the information we receive and thus the train of thoughts that runs nonstop in our heads. In this respect, Zhang has tapped into a similar state of mind as Japanese artist Chiharu Shiota. The latter uses strings in her sculptures and installations to achieve a tangible representation of that intangible haze and cocoon surrounding distant memories and experiences. There are many ways to read into line as a symbol, and one of them is that it represents a basic component of one’s experience, forming up the trajectory of his/her life. A line may seem insignificant, yet build-ups of which make up something that is larger than life. This deeply philosophical work brings to our attention that perhaps no one is consciously aware of just how many such lines exist within us, and how complex our day-to-day experience has become.



    Chiharu Shiota, Trauma / Alltag, 2007
    Sold by Phillips, Hong Kong, 7 June 2020 for HK$1,890,000 (Premium) 
     © 2022 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn


    A Multifaceted Creation


    Though a simple motif, the malleability of a line as a symbol lends itself to the explorations of much more dynamic and complicated topics. A line could be many things to many people -- where Cy Twombly saw the beauty of the kinaesthetic progressions of cursive writing, Zhang sees how draping, swirling, and overlapping of lines allow for the exploration of human perceptual nuances. Both angles engage the heightened dramatic impact that is inherent to the expressive potential of lines.



    Cy Twombly, Untitled, 1969
    Sold by Phillips, New York, 14 November 2019 for USD$3,740,000 (Premium)
    © Cy Twombly Foundation 

    In contrast to Twombly’s organized representation of lines as writings, Zhang broke down any sense of control in the present work. The unrestrained execution opens up the possibilities of interpretation to an immense degree, resulting in an unexpected yet strong sense of freedom that seems contradictory to the image. Another interesting juxtaposition comes from the playful pun contained in the title. The words for ‘things’ in Chinese can also mean ‘East-west’. Rather different from the ambiguous reference to ‘things’, ‘East-west’ gives a clear directional indication, or perhaps even alluding to ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ cultures. This element not only leaves a taste of philosophical rumination to the overall viewing experience, but also allows for diverse personal narratives to emerge, reflecting Zhang’s mastery in deeply engaging the audience on both sensory and psychological levels.


    Transcending the ordinary appearances of his chosen subject matters, Zhang infuses in his work with cultural and societal innuendos that are surprisingly stirring and multifaceted. The common objects and their abstractions bridge shared sensibilities to that of an individual, imparting much impact in people’s hearts in whatever ways that they allow for.



    Zhang Enli speaking about his creative phases and focuses with K11 Art Foundation,
    featuring details of the present lot


    Collector’s Digest


    Zhang Enli was born in Jilin, China in 1965. He has been honoured with many solo exhibitions at important institutions and galleries around the world, including the Long Museum Chongqing (2020), Hauser & Wirth Zurich (2020), Xavier Hufkens Belgium (2019), Museo e Galleria Borghese (2019), and the K11 Art Foundation Shanghai (2019).


    The current work was featured in the exhibition Shanghai Painters, shown at N3 Contemporary Art in Beijing (9 June – 12 August 2018). The artist’s new exhibition, Looking Outwards, will be on view at Hauser and Wirth St Moritz starting 9 July to 10 September 2022.



    Installation view of the current work at N3 Contemporary Art, 2018


    Hao Ke, ‘Interview| Zhang Enli: Painting is Everywhere”’, 99 Art, 22 September 2021, online

    • Provenance

      ShanghArt Gallery, Beijing
      N3 Contempoary Art, Beijing
      Acquired from the above by the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Beijing, N3 Contemporary Art, Shanghai Painters, 9 June - 12 August 2018

Property of a Belgian Collector



signed and dated '2016 Enli [in Chinese]' lower left; further signed, titled and dated '"Things" 2016 Zhang Enli [in Chinese]' on the reverse
oil on canvas
249.5 x 300 cm. (98 1/4 x 118 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2016.

Full Cataloguing

HK$2,200,000 - 4,200,000 

Sold for HK$2,520,000

Contact Specialist

Charlotte Raybaud
Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+852 2318 2026

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

Hong Kong Auction 22 June 2022