Landscape – Q&A with Zhang Enli

Villa Croce Museum presents Landscape, the first italian exhibition of Zhang Enli (1965) conceived and realized specifically for the museum’s rooms. Opening at the same time as the space Painting project at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, the exhibition subtly blurs the boundaries between interior and exterior spaces.

Zhang’s diaphanous painting brings nature from the outside park surrounding Villa Croce right inside the museum and turns its centuries-old walls into light paper surfaces, thereby reinventing a classical subject matter of traditional watercolor painting.

We had the pleasure of conducting a brief interview with the artist who explains the inspiration and process which lay behind the show Landscape. His personal responses to our Q&A are as follows:

Can you describe where you derived inspiration for your new show, Landscape?

Actually, I would keep an eye on some objects including these trees, when I was traveling or would go to a place I had never been before. The first time I went to Genoa, the museum near the sea surrounded by trees reminded me of Landscape. Absolutely, I have been fascinated with trees and kept observing them for many years. The works I did before were just paintings on canvas, but this time it is about the whole space. At the first sight of the space in the museum, the ideas I had come up with in Shanghai were changed. Since there were doors and windows around the museum, when I looked up, I found the center of this space on the roof, instead of on the wall.

You seem to have transitioned from painting found objects to natural landscapes, does this relate to a change in your surroundings, or a shift in interest?

Yes, It relates to a change of interests. I expand the definition of ‘objects,’ for example, “the trace” of the 2 spaces, one is about “nails” and another one is regarding the trace of water. Of course, the leaves have appeared in my paintings before, but I think they fit the space in Genoa quite well. Everywhere in Genoa, buildings subject to change and becoming old by the time are not perfect artificial spaces, forming a visual contrast with the real traces outside.

In past paintings you have worked from photographs and used a grid, was this part of your process in the show at Villa Croce? If not, how has your process changed?

I also made a grid on the wall of Villa Croce which seemed useless but did serve as a tool to keep the proportion when I started painting. The thickness of the trunks depends on the grid. Whereas, I didn’t use the grid when I drew the roof, as the main task is to full-fill the four sides but leave some blank to the sky in the middle. The shape of the blank space and the size of the leaves played a key role in it.

In terms of the ICA show in London, and the current show at Villa Croce, can you explain how the gallery space influences your painting?

I have the impulsion of painting no matter in the space of ICA or Villa Croce, because painting becomes more real and direct here. The construction and area of the space take the place of the content of the painting. Instead of simply standing in front of the picture, the spatial painting brought me into it.

[Interviewed by Abigail Lewis]


Internationally acclaimed for his seemingly abstract paintings, Zhang creates captivating compositions made of everyday objects: pipes, steel ropes, water faucets, tile walls, and tangled wires. Through the apt layering of acrylic and watercolor, his representations of familiar elements shift the common understanding of both depth and composition. The consistent selection of plain and featureless subjects evokes the sense of estrangement the artist experienced upon moving from his rural province to the sprawling megalopolis of shanghai first to study and then to live.

Unlike many contemporary chinese artists emerged during the 1990s economic boom from movements such as ‘Political Pop’, ‘Kitsch Art’, and ‘cynical realism“ who address and critique global capitalism, Zhang’s work is intimate and subtly evocative. His paintings and site-specific interventions create a world made of familiar and trivial object that go overlooked, a silent world vivified by unusual angles. His body of works is structured in thematic series: the containers, the cardboard boxes, the trunks, the wire meshes. The focus on insignificant details and interior spaces is not meant as a political nor as a metaphoric statement, on the contrary it opens up a neutral space where colors and images speak silently and make viewers daydream.

Villa Croce – Via Jacopo Ruffini 3,  Genoa
November 6th 2013 – January 8th 2014