Zhang Enli - Modern & Contemporary Art Day Sale Hong Kong Saturday, June 1, 2024 | Phillips
  • “Instead of focusing on a specific moment or an object, my work relates to life changes and life itself. My earlier works from the 1990s to 2000s dealt with questions about life, e.g. survival … I aim to challenge the boundaries of portraiture and redefine its historical context, thus finding my own sense of liberation within it”
    — Zhang Enli


    Best known for his luminous figurative treatments of still objects, and more recently his sinuous and mysterious abstract paintings, Zhang Enli began his career combining both approaches, in a visceral, impassioned style demonstrated in these two works. His ever-virtuosic linework depicts two recognisable human faces, but in a manner that is hardly straightforward or comfortable: instead, it brutalises them with expressionist force, magnifying their mouths and noses into dense smudges while shrinking their eyes to lifeless pinholes. Shoved to the forefront of each composition, both are flanked with dense webs of overlapping lines, suggesting smoke or rain but even more chaotic. Face and background are treated in the same blunt, smoky grey oil paint, but streaks of red cut across both: their place in Zhang’s ‘Butcher’ series is obvious.


    This grim mood is deeply rooted in the artist’s life at the time. On graduating from Jiangsu’s Arts & Design Institute at Wuxi Technical University in 1989, Zhang relocated to teach at Donghua University, where Shanghai’s often-dismal climate, and the miniscule accommodation and salary (about 100 RMB per month), left him deeply depressed: ‘I had nothing else to do but paint, let alone go out for a drink…The sense of stress in the image mainly was caused by an unalterable current situation which brought me great anxiety and hopelessness’i. Wanderings throughout the city brought him to the meat markets, which appealed to his hunger and depression - he had written that ‘We’re all meat on the chopping board, but every once in a while we play the role of the butcher’ii - and inspired portraits like these, based directly on the people working there. Studies of earlier expressionist painters, including Edvard Munch and the ‘masculine lines’iii of Francis Bacon, further enriched his technique, one distinct from the stylistic hegemony of China’s Socialist Realism in the 1990s and deeply influenced by his own impressions and worldview.



    Francis Bacon, Study for Three Heads, 1962, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Image: © The Museum of Modern Art, New York/Scala, Florence, Artwork: © 2024 Estate of Francis Bacon/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London


    In subsequent decades, Zhang’s style became both warmer and less interested in humans, focusing instead on serene, shapely studies of ordinary items like tubes and boxes. More recently, abstraction has entered his work once again, and his just-finished exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s Hong Kong Gallery, Faces, has united his long-retired practice of painting people with this brighter, freer, and more colourful aesthetic, revealing studies of light, lyrical beauty closely influenced by the experiences and people around him. Another recent show’s preface has noted how earlier portraits like this are bound by ‘The concealment of the line, or the performance of the mask … [and] the symbolic tyranny of the figurative world’iv, which he has now transcended. This, however, underrates said earlier work: as these portraits show, it boasts a great creativity and depth of feeling all of its own, and marks a crucial stage in his incredible artistic journey.



    Zhang Enli, Art Museum Director, 2022
    Artwork: © Zhang Enli 


    Born in Jilin, China, in 1965 and based in Shanghai, Zhang Enli has created art prized by collectors and institutions around the world: another two-part set from the ‘Butcher’ series, Meat Market, resides at the Tate in London with other works at the Pompidou Centre in France, Rubell Collection in Miami, and the DSL Collection in Beijing.


    This has been accompanied by extensive solo exhibitions, with recent shows at the Long Museum in Shanghai (Expression, 2023), the He Art Museum in Guangdong (Portrait, 2023) and Hauser & Wirth’s new gallery in Hong Kong (Faces, 2024). He has just finished exhibiting with Xavier Hufkens in Brussells, Belgium (A Traveller), from March 15th until May 11th.



    iZhang Enli, in email correspondence with Tate curator Sook-Kyung Lee, 4 May 2017, online


    iiiZhang Enli, in conversation with Glass Magazine, 11 December 2017, online

    ivQuoted in ‘Lines, Paradoxes and Portraits’, He Museum, 2023, online

    • Provenance

      ShanghART Gallery, Shanghai
      Acquired from the above by the present owner in 2003


Two Works: Untitled from the Butcher series

each signed and dated 'ENLI 99' lower right
oil on linen
each 40.8 x 40.8 cm. (16 1/8 x 16 1/8 in.)
Painted in 1999.

Full Cataloguing

HK$350,000 - 550,000 

Sold for HK$406,400

Contact Specialist

Anastasia Salnikoff
Associate Specialist, Head of Day Sale
+852 2318 2014

Modern & Contemporary Art Day Sale

Hong Kong Auction 1 June 2024