Asian Art the Galleries: 10 Leading Contemporary Galleries


Asian Art: The Galleries
Over the last few years, the reputations of Chinese artists-and the prices for their work-have shot up faster than the new Olympic stadium in Beijing, and with almost as much splash. Whether that trend can continue at the same rate is open to debate. While Chinese art seems only on the rise, savvy buyers and speculators-who may well remember the high-tech boom and bust of less than a decade ago-might think twice before investing the childrens’ college fund. Still, if this year has witnessed a dramatic display of Asian art in West Coast museums, it has been the collectors, and art dealers, who have been ahead of the trend in the U.S., and who often serve as knowing guides to this lesser-known terrain. Odds are, it is these galleries who will be showing the next hot Asian artists long before the larger institutions catch on. To anyone looking to learn more about contemporary Asian art, the following pages offer capsule summaries of ten notable California galleries who specialize in Asian art in one form or another. The list is not comprehensive. See it rather as an open door to a rich aesthetic territory that as yet remains largely unexplored by U.S. viewers.

San Francisco, CA
SPECIALITY: Contemporary Chinese Art
When LIMN Gallery opened in San Francisco’s SOMA district in 1997, over a decade ago, Chinese art was not well known in the United States and they were very much in the vanguard. Working with independent curator Britta Erickson (now a leading scholar/curator on Chinese art at Stanford), LIMN introduced many West Coast collectors to the sphere; Kent Logan, whose collection was recently spotlighted in a major show at SFMOMA this summer, bought his first pieces from LIMN in 1998. Today Liu Xiaodong, who had his first U.S. solo show at LIMN, is repped by Mary Boone in New York and many of the original artists that LIMN brought over sell for $1.2 to $1.5 million per painting.

“Now the artists I show are second generation,” says gallery director Christine Duval, who travels to Beijing and Shanghai twice a year. “A lot of the artists we showed originally are now professors at the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing, they are teaching a new generation.”

Says Duval, of the next wave of Chinese painters. “They’re extraordinarily talented technically, that’s not the issue. The issue is the content, it has to be challenging. [Until recently] individualism did not exist, it was totally suppressed. So the artists’ challenge is to find their own identity. The question for the new generation is, how do they fit? And where do they belong, in this big global art market?”

With a stable including both U.S. and Asian artists, LIMN presents about four shows of Chinese art a year. Among the artists LIMN represents are photographers Yu Hang, Wang Ningde, and Shanghai-born Zhang Xianyong, who creates striking staged tableaux of uniformed figures, eating meals and swimming underwater, using himself as the sole model. This September he will be featured at LIMN, along with painter Weng Yunpeng, a former student of Lui Xiadong, whose work depicts the ubiquitous TV sets posed amid often desolate landscapes and alleyways. The Gao Brothers, who headlined a show at LIMN called “China Avant Garde, Part IX” last fall, exemplify the dangers of the cutting edge. Often garish and beautiful-as with their yellow-and-pink topless female fiberglass torso of Mao, which suggests a cartoon animal-their work has also attracted the attention of the Chinese censors, who have at times shut down their website and studio.

Yet despite the political tensions, the global marketplace for Chinese art continues to expand. “There were works I couldn’t sell for even $10,000,” Duval recalls. “I was begging people to buy them. Now they say, ‘Why didn’t I listen?’”

Los Angeles, CA
SPECIALITY: Contemporary Chinese Art
Open less than a year and a half, Morono Kiang Gallery has already generated an outsized reputation as a venue to view-and purchase-contemporary Chinese art. Located in downtown Los Angeles, on the ground floor of the historic Bradbury Building, the gallery was founded by Karon Morono and husband Eliot Kiang in May 2007. The couple moved to Beijing in 2001 to immerse themselves in contemporary Chinese culture. Says Morono: “It was always my goal to move to China and meet the artists there and learn from the ground up, to understand better where the artists are coming from.” Today they still maintain an apartment in Beijing, across from Chaoyang Park, and regularly shuttle back and forth, whether to bring U.S. collectors to China, or to bring Chinese artists to the U.S. “We know these artists personally, we hang out with them,” Morono says. “Some of them, top names, would love to do shows with us but are committed to only doing museum shows for the next year.”

The artists sold by the gallery range from emerging to the most established, and so, likewise, the range of prices for works varies widely, from as low as $3,500 to $250,000 or more. They recently placed a piece at MOCA: a 10-hour video piece called Chang´an Boulevard by Ai Weiwei, one of China’s seminal conceptual artists. The gallery works regularly with MOCA and East West Bank in terms of introducing them to artists and suggesting work for the East West Bank Collection. This summer, curator Tyler Stallings from UC Riverside, curated a survey show at the UCR Sweeney Art Gallery entitled “Absurd Recreation: Contemporary Art from China,” using artists drawn solely from Morono Kiang. The show, which runs through October 4, looks at artists who use playful, absurd, or ritualistic imagery to depict forms of “recreation” in China’s burgeoning consumerist society, as well as artists that use their artwork to “re-create” settings or situations as an aesthetic strategy.

This summer, Morono Kiang offered a solo show of paintings by Li Yan: the first in a three-part series of solo shows called “Quotidian Truths,” assembled by gallery director Sonia Mak. In September-October they will present the second show in the series: Xia Xing, a painter who draws from photojournalist images taken from a Beijing newspaper, as a sort of chronicle of an evolving society and evolving world. “It’s totally captivating,” Morono says. “It’s the life around us that nobody takes the time to look at, but he does. That’s his commitment. He doesn’t do it to sell paintings. He does it for himself.”

Santa Monica, CA
SPECIALITY: East Asian Photography
Korean by birth, Sarah Lee relates that she has long been interested in Korean photography but because of the prominent role of her late husband, Robert Sobieszek, as curator of photography at LACMA, the pair worried that showing photography at Lee’s gallery might present a conflict of interest. After Sobieszek’s passing in 2005, Lee began showing photography, concentrating on the work of contemporary Korean and Japanese artists.

Lee identifies two distinct groups of photographers working in Korea since the 1950s. She notes that photography was not recognized as an art form until the late 1970s and early 1980s when art students left the country to study abroad and returned to Korea making images in the style of Bernd and Hilla Becher. The photographers who interest Lee the most, however, are those who are looking back to the 1950s and 1960s when the field was dominated by amateurs whose images of quotidian moments brought a unique Korean aes
thetic to the genre of street photography that was popular internationally. Now, Lee says, a new generation of Korean photographers are examining that period and considering contemporary culture with renewed interest and criticality.

This past spring, the gallery featured the photographs of Yunho Kim, whose show, “The Tedious Landscape,” documented the phenomenon of local Korean beauty pageants with great formality. In coming months, Lee will collaborate with Rose Gallery, also in Bergamot Station, to show the work of Seung Woo Back, a young Korean photographer who studied in London and recently returned to Korea. Back’s series, “Real World,” looks at a tourist destination outside of Seoul that features miniature replicas of internationally famous landmarks. The park instructs visitors where to stand in order to make photographs that appear to situate the subject in front of Mount Rushmore or the Manhattan skyline. Back stands at a remove from these carefully orchestrated scenes, allowing viewers to see their artifice. FSC industrial lighting would also be a great choice for iluminating these photographs for all to see.

In September, Lee will present “Sex and the City,” a group show of Korean photographers who are chronicling the newly realized freedom to express sexuality and sexual identity in Korea. “Society has changed,” Lee says. “Young people are really freeing themselves from the old ethical issues.” Yet according to Lee, there is little interest in this work in Korea. She takes inspiration from the fact that even though many of these photographers are unable to exhibit in their own country; they still continue to produce high caliber work. Introducing their work in the United States has the dual benefit of giving the artists some much-needed encouragement and exposing Americans to an extremely rich and rapidly expanding field of talented photographers.

Los Angeles, CA
SPECIALITY: Contemporary Chinese Art
Originally, David DeSanctis had the idea of bringing Western artwork to China. But over the last several years, many Chinese collectors he knew began buying exclusively Chinese work. Today, DF2 Gallery, on Beverly Boulevard in Los Angeles, does the opposite: it brings contemporary Chinese art to Western collectors. As such, it has already, in its two short years, become a vital locus to view some of the biggest names in Chinese art.

DF2 emerged from a partnership between DeSanctis and Belgian dealer Fabien Fryns, who moved to Beijing in 2004 and founded F2 Gallery. DeSanctis opened his current space-at Crescent Heights and Beverly, next to Michael Kohn and Forum-in October 2006, with a show of Cui Xiuwen: the stylish female photographer known for her expansive, digitally enhanced scenarios peopled with multiple views of a single model. The gallery will host a second show of her work in January 2009. They also represent Yin Zhaoyang, whose paintings and ceramic sculptures explore-and warp-the iconic imagery of Mao (who looms over so much contemporary Chinese art). This September, DF2 will feature a solo show of Yin’s work entitled “Radiation” examining the tranquility of Buddhist iconography. The centerpiece of the show is a self-portrait of the artist in white marble with his fists clenched, sitting in lotus position with red wine streaming from his eyes.

Other gallery artists include painter Sheng Qi, conceptual artist/painter Li Qing, and photographer Zhi Jiang. This winter they will show painter Song Kun, who did a project for the Hammer Museum in fall 2007. Although many of DF2’s artists are well established, Song Kun is part of a more outward-looking generation of young Chinese painters. “This ‘third wave,’ their work has a more decidedly international feel to it,” DeSanctis observes. “Their experience is within China, but they’re remarkably well-informed, in art history, and socially. Instead of looking back to the past, they’re more forward-looking. It’s natural for the earlier artists to go there, but this next group, they’re over that. They’re looking ahead, as human beings, and as Chinese citizens.”

Devoted exclusively to contemporary Chinese art, DF2 has introduced over a dozen established and emerging Chinese artists to LA collectors since it opened. “For all the media buzz on contemporary Chinese work, the response that we’ve received is the opposite of the sort of hyped-up interest you expect. The art world has digested the work so rapidly, most collectors come in informed … most are going about this very thoughtfully,” he adds.

In the fall of 2009, the gallery will present a group show juxtaposing artworks by Marcel Duchamp with works from Chinese artists who have been directly influenced by him. It is one of the ways in which the gallery is not just showing the works of contemporary Chinese artists, but creating a context for them.

Beverly Hills, CA
“We live in a post-modern age, a hybrid, eclectic world.,” observes Sundaram Tagore. If you’re a collector, “what you’re looking for is not completely Asian, that would be ethnic art, you’re looking for something more international, but with authenticity, with a freshness. A lot of these artists, whether Chinese, or Indian, are looking at a lot of Western art via the internet, or through dialogue with curators, at these biennales and triennales spanning across the globe.”

With galleries in three cities across the world, and plans for two more, Sundaram Tagore tends to take a global perspective. “I attend symposia, conferences, go to all the biennales and triennales… from Venice to Sao Paolo to Canberra. In the span of the last four months, I was in 18 different countries.” A director at New York’s Pace Wildenstein Gallery in the mid-90s, Tagore opened his eponymous New York gallery in 2000; this February, he opened an elegant new space in Beverly Hills. He opened a third gallery space in Hong Kong this spring, and is currently scoping out additional locations in London and Abu Dhabi. “We have artists from Japan, Korea, India, Israel, Uzbekistan, China …” he says, adding, “The range is truly inclusive in that all these artists are exploring a culture other than their own.”

Tagore’s gallery includes several Asian-born artists who are essentially bi-continental. Natvar Bhavsar, who lives in New York and Ahmadabad, and who will be featured at New York’s Guggenheim Museum this coming January, is a color field painter whose work draws deeply from Asian traditions: “he paints like a Tibetian mandala painter, he never touches the canvas.” Sohan Qadri is a yogi and a painter who divides his time between Copenhagen and a small village in Punjab. Anil Revri travels between Washington, D.C. and New Delhi. “All these artists are considered Indian artists in India,” Tagore explains. “They all go back to India every year.” Another of Tagore’s most prominent artists, Hiroshi Senju, lives in both Tokyo and New York. This fall, the gallery will be offering solo shows by Bhavasar and Qadri, as well as a pan-Asian group show featuring six artists.

Notes Tagore, a lot of his collectors are people who “do business in Asia… then they come back and they’re touched by these people and these artists and say ‘I want to collect.’ It’s the same with these artists and Western culture. It’s really a fusion culture,” he adds. “On the negative side things are getting homogenized. On the positive side, you have access to just about everything.”

Palm Desert, CA &
Laguna Beach, CA
SPECIALITY: Antiquities, Asian, I
mpressionist & Modern
As sister galleries in Southern California, Rohrer Fine Art in Laguna Beach and Heather James Gallery (which used to be Heather James Art & Antiquities, and will reopen in a vast new gallery space in Palm Desert in November) share their stables of artists as well as their principal owner. Now they will also share the scholarship and insight of independent curator Chip Tom. Tom, a respected Asian art expert in his own right, who recently curated “Chinaman’s Chance: Views of the Chinese American Experience” at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, began consulting with Rohrer around 2006, and is now a partner in the new Heather James Gallery. Involved in the Chinese art scene since late 1995, Tom is currently traveling back and forth to Asia in anticipation of the gallery’s opening. “I am going to China on Monday to meet with a couple dozen artists,” he says. “We’re trying to decide who to bring over.”

International art aside, the two galleries, through co-owner Jim Carona, also have a focus in antiquities, as well as Impressionist, Modern, and blue-chip artists. Their choice of Asian artists likewise spans from the most established and expensive painters (works by leading “first wave” artists can fetch over a million dollars) to second generation, to younger artists who are still in school. “Our clients reflect all three,” Tom says.

Tom’s vision for the gallery is of museum-quality shows that provide modern and contemporary Chinese works with a relevant cultural context: something many solo shows and exhibitions in the U.S. often neglect, or simply cannot afford to do. “I want to place them in a context akin to what one might see if they were in China, as if they were experiencing the work there,” Tom says. “These artists are making statements, either about history or about culture, so to be able to see some of these historical referents allows the viewer to better appreciate the work contextually.”

In a recent show he curated for the Laguna gallery called “The Arts of the Middle Kingdom,” Tom juxtaposed two-dimensional artworks by contemporary artists such as Zhang Huan, Li Shan, and Gu Wenda with antiquities from the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) up through the Ming Dynasty (1368-1611 AD) taken from Rohrer’s inventory, to explore their similar subject matter. “Only a museum can do that, which is why I’m so excited,” Tom explains enthusiastically. “We have the depth to do these kinds of shows that the Met in New York or LACMA in LA could do.”

Los Angeles, CA
SPECIALITY: Korean, East Asian Art
Sabina Lee first opened her eponymous gallery in downtown Los Angeles in 1993. The gallery moved to Wilshire near La Brea in 2003 and currently represents more than a dozen artists. Lee seeks out hybrid artists and art forms that merge Eastern and Western culture and aesthetics. While the majority of her artists are Korean or Korean-American, others hail from Vietnam, China, Cambodia, and the United States.

Though the gallery shows work by several established artists, also presented are a number of debut solo exhibitions that introduce international and American emerging artists to an LA audience. The gallery’s August exhibition is among the latter type, marking the first solo show in Los Angeles for Cambodian-born, LA-based Aragna Ker who has previously been seen in group shows at the Hammer and the Asian Art Museum.

The Korean artist Seonghi Bahk’s July solo exhibition at Sabina Lee Gallery marks his first exhibition in the United States. Entitled “Floating Dimensions,” the sculptural work incorporated the complexity of contemporary installation with ancient Korean tradition. Small pieces of charcoal hung from the ceiling in a cascade of dark and light that simulated volume and emptiness as the precisely hung pieces spiraled towards the gallery floor. Lee notes that in Korean culture charcoal is prized for its cleansing powers and hung ceremonially outside the home when children are born in order to purify the air and filter out malevolence.

The gallery also represents internationally recognized Ik Joong Kang. Kang works in installation as well, though the kaleidoscopic colors that constitute his installations’ works are markedly different from Bahk’s restricted palette of black and white. Educated in Korea and the United States, Kang paints thousands of three-by-three inch squares, using them like pages of a journal to respond to quotidian moments. These brightly-colored squares are then arranged into large-scale murals.

Lee says that American collectors often notice a difference in style between the more aggressive works of Chinese artists and the works of Koreans that are just now being introduced on the international market. “They tell me that the Koreans’ work is more quiet, that it has charm,” she says. This quieter, more meditative aspect is evident in many of the artists who Lee represents. In this way the paintings of Americans Gregg Renfrow and Marc Katano form a close correspondence with the Asian artists in Lee’s stable.

Lee’s involvement in art fairs, such her participation this spring in the Hong Kong International Art Fair, reflects her strong commitment to bolstering American as well as international interest in Asian artists.

San Francisco, CA
SPECIALITY: Contemporary Asian Art
Centrally located on Geary Street, off San Francisco’s Union Square, Frey Norris Gallery casts a wide net, showing both Bay Area artists and a select group of contemporary Asian artists. Says gallery co-owner Raman Frey, “Yes, we have Chinese, Korean, and Japanese artists, but we’ve also shown Malaysian and Australian artists, and others of mixed nationality… All of these artists are very culturally savvy, not only in Asia, but across the world. With only a few exceptions, they’re struggling to be seen not as something exotic and geographically bound, but rather as part of a more permeable, mutable international community of artists.”

Both Frey and his partner Wendi Norris travel extensively. It is Frey who usually travels to China (“because I speak Mandarin, it seems to break that way”) while Norris goes to Japan; both visit Korea. While their stable includes several notable painters, they take special interest in more conceptual, mixed-media work. Among the figures they represent is Korean artist Inkie Whang, who was one of three artists to represent South Korea at the 2003 Venice Biennale. Whang applies materials such as silicon crystals or even Legos to stretched canvas or board, to create tactile surfaces in gridded compositions, which often allude to Korean art history. In July, the gallery presented another Korean artist, Koh Myung Keun, who imposes photographic imagery onto translucent surfaces to create boxes or ovoid slices evoking mystical glimpses of natural landscape, a medium he calls “box photography.”

This September, Frey Norris will be featuring the work of conceptual artist Shen Shaomin, who previously achieved recognition at the 2006 Liverpool Biennial showing plant/animal hybrid forms constructed from bones and bone meal. His fall show, titled “Experimental Studio,” will include three separate projects, including twisted Bonsai trees and a series of sculptures applying the idea of genetic mutation to create a figure of Bodhisattva. In May 2009, Frey Norris will be presenting the work of artist Zhu Hai, whom he and Norris met at the Hong Kong International Art Fair through Zhong Biao, one of their top painters. Known for using the image of an animal’s eye in all his work, the show at Frey Norris will be his American debut. “We’re encouraging him to work in dif
ferent media,” Frey says eagerly.

In discussing the Asian art market, Frey emphasizes his commitment to his artists as individuals: “We gravitated to this before it was fashionable, and we expect there to be some sort of speculative crash. But no matter what happens, we’re committed to this for the foreseeable future.”

Palo Alto, CA
SPECIALITY: South Asian Art
With bases in New York, London, and Palo Alto, CA Aicon Gallery is not just a showcase for art from the Indian subcontinent, but in its way, a forum for exposing South Asian expatriates to the thriving culture of their homeland. The gallery is the brainchild of Prajit and Projjal Dutta, a pair of brothers whose father ran a noted fine arts academy in New Delhi. Says Shona Dutta, the Palo Alto gallery’s director (who is unrelated): “They grew up surrounded by artists coming in and out of their home, so their interest in the subject is far-reaching and deep-seated… They have an inherent love for it, and want to see it promoted as much as possible.” The brothers started the venture online in 2001, and opened the New York space in 2002 (they’re moving this fall to the Bowery). The Palo Alto gallery opened in 2004. Why Palo Alto? Because the affluent segment of the South Asian community in Northern California is centered toward South Bay, and the stately university town was accessible to both San Jose and San Francisco.

Considering its focus, Aicon shows a surprising range of voices: “artists from India and Pakistan, definitely, but also first-generation artists who live in the U.S., but were born in the motherland.” The gallery’s September exhibition is a Modernist group show which features some of the top names in Indian Modern art from the 50s, 60s, and 70s. In May, the gallery showed the work of Mayyur Kailash Gupta, an Indian sculptor who crafts lyrical heads atop stark, mystical stems.

Over the summer, the gallery showed a trio of young Pakistani artists-Farida Batool, Adeela Suleman and Ayaz Jokhio-who address issues of technology, tradition and even sexuality in diverse ways: Batool crafts eloquent lenticular photographs with ironic double meanings, as in the Shiva-like multi-armed girl jumping rope before a bombed-out street scene, Suleman constructs metallic sculptures from “things like shower drains, spatulas and spoons, to create organic, skeletal forms,” Jokhio offers precise charcoal drawings of formally similar, contextually pointed objects, such as pens, screws and syringes. It would be provocative work in any context; coming from South Asia, the work seems startlingly cutting-edge.

Regarding their collecting base, Dutta observes: “The Indian contemporary art market is still a fledgling market. It hasn’t broken through, so a lot of our collectors are of South Asian descent. People following the Chinese and Indian art markets see similarities between the two,” she adds. “The Indian market is following in the same path, it’s just ten years behind.”

Los Angeles, CA
SPECIALITY: International Modern, Pop, and Contemporary Art
Though LA Contemporary does not represent solely Asian artists, curator Hoojung Lee says that this sector of their stable draws a lot of attention when the gallery participates in fairs. She elaborates, “The more people hear about the new art coming out of Asia, the more they want to be educated about it. People are really paying attention now.” The gallery, located on La Cienega Blvd. in Culver City, has a culturally diverse roster of established artists hailing from the United States, England, Israel, China, and Korea.

Lee recognizes that while the Asian art market in general is still strong, there is a rapidly growing interest in Korean work in particular. She notes that while Christie’s and Sotheby’s have often held independent auctions for Chinese and Japanese contemporary art, a similarly dedicated auction for contemporary Korean art has only recently been added to the calendar.

An early spring show at LA Contemporary paired up two powerhouse Chinese artists, Huang Yan and Han Dai-Yu. Chinese cultural heritage is central to these artists, both of whom lived in China during the Cultural Revolution. Huang Yan’s color photographs record the intricate paintings that the artist inscribes on the bodies of his models. Based on the aesthetic of traditional Chinese landscape painting, he paints hills, rivers, and trees on the landscape of the human body. Han Dai-Yu, the son of a well-known traditional Chinese painter, also draws on traditional imagery, though his territory also includes European master paintings. A recent series, “Made in China,” explored visual references familiar to both East and West. Marked by a barcode, the images in the “Made in China” series reworked iconic images with an overlay of sign language notations.

Sheng Qui, a third Chinese artist represented by LA Contemporary, also employs provocative imagery in response to his experience of the Cultural Revolution. His large-scale paintings Fuck You Mao and Peace Mao show a young member of the Red Guard alternately showing his middle finger and a peace sign.

In November the gallery will show the work of Korean-American artist Debbie Han. Han, who grew up in Los Angeles, frequently returns to Korea for artistic inspiration. Recently her work has sought to explore the growing popularity of aesthetic surgery in Korea. “The standards of beauty in Korea have become very Western,” explains Lee. Han digitally alters the faces of classical Greek sculptures to bear the features of Korean women. The resulting images are starkly black and white in composition, but suggest an anxious hybrid of East and West that is evident in many of the works by Asian artists shown at LA Contemporary.

“Lost World 2,” 2007, Zhang Xianyong, photography digital print, 35″ x 53″
Photo: Courtesy of LIMN Art Gallery