A Celebrated Chinese Artist Expresses the Intangible in a New Suite of Paintings

  • Image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

    Image courtesy of Hauser & Wirth.

Some words and concepts don’t translate well. Some ideas can’t be expressed in words at all. Zhang Enli knows this. Translated from his native Chinese, his latest body of work is “Intangible,” or “无形,” a term that alludes to the ethereal and that which cannot be known.

Unlike the works for which Enli is best known—empty landscapes, nature scenes, figurative renderings of everyday objects like pipes or umbrellas—these large-scale oil paintings are abstract and vaguely mysterious. They are awash in a lush, earthy palette of blues, greens and browns in dense brushstrokes, their curving lines and tendrils twisting and looping across the canvas.

But while this show at Hauser & Wirth in Zurich represents a departure from his earlier figurative style, it can also be viewed as a logical development in his practice. In 2013, at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Enli unveiled Space Painting (2013). It wasn’t just a painting; it was more like an installation of paintings or an atmospheric environment, with a single cohesive work of soft color covering the walls, ceilings, and floors of the room. The work was abstract—there weren’t any forms or figures viewers could clearly identify, just suggestions of them. The result was otherworldly.

“When I paint these spaces,” Enli said at the time, “I paint them in order to invite people in—to let all people enter and become immersed in the atmosphere.” These new works build on that sense of immersion. They might be loosely categorized into three stylistic trajectories: Some prominently feature sweeping tendrils, while others focus on grid-like panes, and still others, like his earlier Space Painting, center on swaths of muted color. In all these abstract works, there’s the suggestion of familiar forms from both the natural and manmade worlds.

Green Lines (2016), for instance, evokes foliage and a mesh of trees; it also calls to mind the tangled wires that appear in many of Enli’s earlier paintings. Yellow-Green (2016) also has the feel of a landscape, perhaps with a storm brewing on the horizon.

Enli’s new paintings are both similar and distinct from his earlier work. Space Painting surrounded the viewer, seemingly trapping them in place while prompting an interior journey through the world of thought and memory. “Intangible 无形,” on the other hand, seems to open the mind in a different way, with each individual work providing an escape into a unique scene.

Enli, who studied traditional Chinese painting and also acknowledges Western influences, knows that some things are indescribable. Yet he has no use for categories. “I have never put a clear distinction between abstraction and figuration,” he has said. “They are just paintings that are visible.”


—Bridget Gleeson


Zhang Enli: Intangible 无形” is on view at Hauser & Wirth, Zurich, Oct. 12–Dec. 23, 2016.

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