“To underestimate, ignore and diminish space amounts to the overestimation of texts, written matter, and writing systems, along with the readable and the visible, to the point of assigning to these a monopoly on intelligibility.”
Henri Lefebvre[ The Production of Space (Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991), p. 62]
“Neither object nor subject, neither screen nor projectile, the subjectile can become all that, stabilizing itself in a certain form or moving about in another. But the drama of its own becoming always oscillates between the intransitivity of jacere and the transitivity of jacere, in what I would call the conjecture of both.”
Jacques Derrida and Mary Ann Caws[ “Maddening the subjectile,” in: Boundaries: Writing & Drawing, Yale French Studies, No. 84 (1994), p. 169.]
According to French philosopher Henri Bergson an image situates itself halfway between a representation and a ‘thing’.[ Henri Bergson, Matière et Mémoire. Essai sur la relatin du corps à l’esprit (Paris: Les Presses Universitaires de France, 1965), pp. 5-6.] This ‘halfway’ invokes a space. And this space meets the materiality of canvas and paint. Even if, in his earlier work Zhang Enli painted a lot of ‘things’; for example rolls of paper, wires, sacks, tiles, walls, the paintings reaffirm at the same time their status as an image, were it only for the grid that the artist applied to most of his canvases. Even if he paints his subject matter from memory and doesn’t use the grid as a tool anymore to transfer the image from a sketch or a photograph, the penciled grid functions as a reminiscence of a method for ‘making images’ in relation to perception. Another French philosopher, Gaston Bachelard considered images the only reality we could experience, or it was only through images that we could experience reality.[ It is clear Bachelard thought this in a pre-digital era. At the moment we find ourselves in a moment in time we can completely live within images without experiencing reality. See a.o. Bachelard’s Poétique de l’espace (Paris: Les Presses Universitaires de France, 1957).] I am convinced Zhang Enli in some way shares this thought. Images for Bachelard are not merely seen but lived. And that is where Zhang Enli’s work knows a relevant development from the ‘seen’ to the ‘lived’. His earlier work depicts a plain world. The common is brought very close in a straightforward figurative style, at times explicitly expressionistic. It is a world of people, spaces and objects, testifying of the artist’s empathy for, or complicity with the ordinary. This form of ‘portraiture’ of the overlooked ones in society, is gradually replaced with metonymic representation: more and more Zhang Enli looks to the basic anonymous things that surround us: buckets, chairs, tables, and then bathrooms, toilets, wall-surfaces, tiles, wires and tubes. Turning his attention further to spaces, the environment, he also develops wall-painting out of the enclosure of the frame, reflecting on the painting of space. These paintings both assert and undermine representational practice, in their surrender of the fixed form of the image, gradually disfigured by opening on to the whole force of randomness that subtends it. Moreover, Zhang Enli’s recent painting obviously operates on a non-narrative and even non-verbal signifying level, and perhaps almost abusively so, in order to reaffirm its irreducibility to the verbal.[ Or as Henri Lefèbvre said in The Production of Space, p. 62: “Non-verbal sets are thus characterized by a spatiality which is in fact irreducible to the mental realm.” ] But what is Zhang’s painting after if it is not first meant to communicate something? It doesn’t search fidelity to the visible aspect of things, but as a painter, however, he doesn’t seek the invisible, so-called pure essence of things either. My speculation is that his recent painting seeks to ‘embrace’ space. Indeed, he calls some of his more recent works or painterly interventions on walls and ceilings ‘space paintings’. They index this simple, but risky move: the move into a visual milieu, to absorb it and to leave traces in it. Fluid and more solid traces, but also cloudy and opaque ones. In some specific examples, like The Gold Arowana (2017), The Garden (2017), or An Alien (2019-20) Zhang soaks the surface and lets the traces sink in. It is a movement of constant immersion in the milieu, a constantly repeated permeation of the background. So if there are lines, and there appear often a lot of lines in the space paintings, but also in for example A Surgeon (2020), reminiscing Zhang’s series of paintings depicting tubes, these lines are not contours. They become stamina, energy, potency; they combine, compose and decompose, get entangled and disentangle again. ‘Space -painting’ for Zhang Enli means letting a milieu, in the sense of background, environment, or atmosphere, work, in such a way that form and background are completely mixed up, with an extraordinary material energy that extends here in all directions. Can one still speak from figure and ‘painting-background’? Derrida calls the latter, after Antonin Artaud, subjectile, which is different from mere ground or support. It is both ground and support. But for Derrida it is also a theory to generate hypotheses concerning the relationship between subject and object in art. It is stretched out, extended, beyond, through and behind the subject, yet it is not alien to the subject. ‘It has two situations’ dixit Derrida.[ Jacques Derrica and Mary Ann Caws, Maddening the Subjectile, p 168] In Zhang Enli’s painting, space is something the ‘gesture of painting’ assimilates to, but also stages, invokes and obscures again. He uses a multiple, continually developing concept of space: there is no distinguishable horizon, empty space can become volumetric, sometimes there even appear paradoxical opaque holes, which seem to float on top of the painterly space as is the case with The Entrepreneur (2018). As Stephen Barker states in his reading of Derrida’s notion of the subjectile, “space, in order to exist as such, is always disturbed, always a function of jacere: thrown, cast, flung, hurled. Space is never restful. Indeed, space is being thrown, spacing as it spaces.”[ Stephen Barker, “Subjectile Vision: Drawing On and Through Artaud”, Parallax 15, no. 4 (2009), p. 18.] The word subjectile was a conjunction Artaud crafted from the con-joining of ‘subject’ and ‘projectile’. In his abstract ‘space paintings’ Zhang Enli wants, by applying gestural patches of color, or by tracing long whirling lines, to alternate depth an proximity in some sort of unlimited space without preconceived design, and to get projected into that space through the gesture of painting. Washes of paint and color, heterogenous, and hybrid abstract forms are brought in connection with each other in a relationship that seems continually in a state of becoming. Through his seemingly doing whatever in the exhibition space, or on the canvas, he questions in a very analytical way what the gesture-of-painting could be. This not in terms of achievement, because painting is not a problem to be solved. Painting records unsuccessful realizations, or better non-realizations: effective and ineffective gestures with which the painter is seduced into, but also resists the realization of something. The relation of the gesture of painting with a comprehensive view on space, a blurring of subject and object in concrete experience, is, according to media philosopher Vilém Flusser, not easily reconciled with traditional Western world views, with an analytical, rational, subject as its center creating abstractions and distancing her- or himself from the concrete.[ Vilém Flusser, “The Gesture of Painting,” in Gestures (Minneapois & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), p. 67.] Zhang Enli’s gesture of painting traces the richness of phenomena in the world, their aura and mystery in harmony with an inner response, in some sort of ‘becoming one.’ Flusser connects this to Zen, which, “like the phenomenological method, emphasizes the concrete experience of phenomena.”[ Idem, p. 68.] In Zhang Enli’s painting it is a way to make the world “‘appear’ again, illuminated with the splendor of concrete phenomena.”[ Idem, p. 71.] Still in a very recent series of works, all executed from 2018 till 2020, Zhang Enli returns to the practice of portraiture, not of specific persons, but as some sort of typology, and to some extent reconnecting with his very early works. Only the titles indicate their intention to be portraits, as they are called A Craftsman 2; A Meat Eater; Red Faced Man; A Warrior; etc. but eidos or Gestalt is scattered or evaporated. As Norman Bryson observes about Japanese Cha’an painting, the image “is made to float on the forces which lie outside the frame; it is thrown, as one throws dice.”[ Norman Bryson, “The Gaze in the Expanded Field” in Hal Foster (ed.), Vision and Visuality (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988) p. 103.
] It is interesting that Bryson turns to the idea of throwing, not so different from Derrida’s aforementioned concept of space as something restless, as a result of a gesture of throwing. In these recent portraits, Zhang Enli allows the rest of the universe, everything outside of the frame to break into the image. They seem demonstrations of the ‘becoming one’ Flusser evoked, as Zhang, as a painter, is literally touched by his subject in some sort of animistic movement. It is an eerie form of identification through the gesture of painting, reminiscing Zhang’s early empathy with common people and their lives.
1 The Production of Space (Oxford and Cambridge: Blackwell, 1991), p. 62
2“Maddening the subjectile,” in: Boundaries: Writing & Drawing, Yale French Studies, No. 84 (1994), p. 169.
3 Henri Bergson, Matière et Mémoire. Essai sur la relatin du corps à l’esprit (Paris: Les Presses Universitaires de France, 1965), pp. 5-6.
4 It is clear Bachelard thought this in a pre-digital era. At the moment we find ourselves in a moment in time we can completely live within images without experiencing reality. See a.o. Bachelard’s Poétique de l’espace (Paris: Les Presses Universitaires de France, 1957).
5 Or as Henri Lefèbvre said in The Production of Space, p. 62: “Non-verbal sets are thus characterized by a spatiality which is in fact irreducible to the mental realm.”
6 Jacques Derrica and Mary Ann Caws, Maddening the Subjectile, p 168
7 Stephen Barker, “Subjectile Vision: Drawing On and Through Artaud”, Parallax 15, no. 4 (2009), p. 18.
8 Vilém Flusser, “The Gesture of Painting,” in Gestures (Minneapois & London: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), p. 67.
9 Idem, p. 68.
10 Idem, p. 71.
11 Norman Bryson, “The Gaze in the Expanded Field” in Hal Foster (ed.), Vision and Visuality (Seattle: Bay Press, 1988) p. 103.