Bucket 5 is one of an extensive series of paintings of buckets by Zhang Enli. Other works in Tate’s collection from this series are Bucket 3 2007 (Tate T13292) and Bucket 8 2007 (Tate T13294). Each one is a metre square and depicts a simple metal bucket, seen from different angles. In Bucket 5, the bucket is shown from above, with its handle resting to the left side of its rim. A light from the left casts a shadow on the inside of the bucket, which is empty, and to its right. As in the other paintings, the bucket fills most of the canvas and is set against a simply rendered background.
In his early career Zhang painted expressionist portraits of individuals or groups of figures. Subsequently, he focused on landscapes, particularly images of trees. However, the genre with which he has been predominantly engaged is still life, painting everyday objects with loose brushwork in thin washes of oil paint. Although Zhang works in oil on canvas, his technique owes much to traditional Chinese brush painting using ink or watercolour, where each brushstroke is a specific and unique gesture that holds its own space in the overall composition.
The artist has said, ‘I deal with reality in order to express something that goes beyond reality’ (quoted in Monica Dematté, ‘Human, Too Human’, in ShanghART 2004, unpaginated). His paintings express a personal philosophy, one of the key components of which is the notion of the ‘container’ (in Chinese, rongqi). He often chooses to depict items that can be used to hold or enclose, as in the series of bucket paintings. These works reveal the banal exterior of these vessels, while suggesting their potential as literal and metaphorical containers. The buckets’ emptiness signifies not just the absence of physical contents, but a more existential void.
Talking about this series, Zhang explained: ‘I painted so many … buckets so I combined them together as a series to make them copious. Most people like extraordinary things, but they are not important … The spectacular things might attract you, yet the truths we are really looking for are always hiding behind those [commonplace objects].’ (Quoted in ‘Something Related to Art – Dialogue between Xu Ke and Zhang Enli’, in ShanghART H-Space 2008, p.26). The sense of volume in the form of the buckets contrasts with the flatness of the picture plane, a play on issues of representation that is typical of Zhang’s work.
In contrast to the frenetic, market-led culture of twenty-first century China, Zhang’s work invites and encourages a slow and patient reading. In a catalogue essay on the work, Philippe Pirotte wrote, ‘In Zhang Enli’s work, the trivial becomes a vehicle of attentiveness, rather than familiar neglect’ (Pirotte 2008, p.7).
Zhang Enli: Human, Too Human, exhibition catalogue, ShanghART, Shanghai 2004.
Zhang Enli, exhibition catalogue, ShanghART H-Space, Shanghai 2008.
Philippe Pirotte, Zhang Enli: Container, Göttingen 2008.