Zhang Enli

Meat Market (2)


Not on display

Zhang Enli born 1965
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1699 × 1498 mm
Presented by Qiao Zhibing in honour of Gregor Muir 2017


Meat Market (2) 1997, and its companion piece Meat Market (1) 1997 (Tate T15056), is a large-scale painting in oil on canvas. Each painting depicts a man handling a piece of meat on a chopping table; in Meat Market (2) the man stands on the left side of the painting, turning slightly to the viewer’s right. His right hand is poised ready to strike the meat with a butcher’s knife, and his left hand is holding a part of the meat. The composition of Meat Market (1) is similar, but the man’s body is positioned on the right side of the canvas, facing the viewer’s left. His right hand is lifted in mid-air while the left one is holding a blood-stained knife. In both works the background colour is almost black, with the figures sketchily picked out against the dark ground by just a few, dynamic white and red lines indicating their faces, torsos and feet.

The colour palette and expressionistic technique in these paintings are typical of Zhang’s work of the period, when he mostly painted portraits of people in markets, restaurants and streets. After graduating from the Arts & Design Institute of Wuxi Technical University in Jiangsu, China in 1989, he was assigned to teach at Donghua University in Shanghai. Zhang’s experience of everyday life in the new city became the main subject of his paintings, as he has explained:

At that time, I was living in a small dormitory on the campus, making about 100 RMB [Chinese Yuan; equivalent to about £12 at the time of writing] per month, but having a lot of free time. I had nothing else to do but paint, let alone go out for a drink. The gloominess of depression often surged in my mind. It continued like this for several years. We had no idea about selling artworks and barely had opportunities to do exhibitions overseas at the time. Then, in 1995, a small apartment was allocated to me which was not far from the school. Finally, I had my own home. During this period, I started to cook for myself and go to the local market regularly. My family life began. In 1996, I moved to a bigger apartment. On the opposite side, there was a big market. I went there every afternoon and it became my daily routine. I loved meat, therefore those butchers became the objects for me to observe. Most characters in my paintings were based on the people who sold meat and vegetables. In 1997, I painted two paintings called Meat Market (1) and (2), and painted more and more later on. I ended up painting several works of those who sold meat, called The Butcher. Afterwards, I named all my works from the ’90s till the early 2000s – The Butcher series. This sense of stress in the image mainly was caused by an unalterable current situation which brought me great anxiety and hopelessness. In the early ’90s, I wrote a sentence: ‘We’re all meat on the chopping board, but every once in a while we play the role of the butcher.’
(Zhang Enli, in email correspondence with Tate curator Sook-Kyung Lee, 4 May 2017.)

Zhang has since proceeded gradually to working with more restrained colours and minimal compositions in a less expressionistic style (see, for example, Bucket 3, Bucket 5 and Bucket 8, all 2007, [Tate T13292T13294], but his paintings of the 1990s, such as Meat Market (1) and (2), were formative for his artistic development. They also resonate with other expressionistic painting by his contemporaries in China, such as Yan Peiming, Zeng Fanzhi and Yang Shaobin. The tendency towards expressionism in the work of these artists could be associated with an increasing desire for individualism during a time of huge economic reform in their native country but, more importantly, it was a means of diverging from the socialist realism that was still the dominant artistic style in China at the time.

Zhang’s work is informed by both Chinese and western art history, as well as a conceptual approach derived in part from traditional Chinese philosophy. Shanghai’s rapid transformation to a post-industrial metropolis has played an important role in the development of his work, which reflects the tensions inherent in the contrast between the simple life he would have known as a child and the complexity of life in the modern-day urban environment.

Further reading
Zhang Enli: Human, Too Human, exhibition catalogue, ShanghART: Shanghai 2004.
Zhang Enli: Human, K11 Art Foundation, Hong Kong 2017.

Sook-Kyung Lee
May 2017

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