Asian Art Heads to Its Own Fair

The New York Sun
November 8, 2007

Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable to hold an art fair in New York devoted exclusively to Asian contemporary art. Now, it is not only thinkable — someone has done it. The inaugural Asian Contemporary Art Fair opens tonight at Pier 92, with 76 galleries participating: 53 from Asia and the rest from America and Europe. And while it remains to be seen how the fair will do financially, for New Yorkers it's a great opportunity to see a cross section of work by Asian artists living around the world.

There is some sculpture, video, photography, and mixed media, but by far the dominant medium in the fair is painting. Goedhuis Contemporary, from New York, is showing "Number 1" by Ma Liuming, from a series of paintings of the artist's young son. In the 1990s in Beijing, Mr. Ma became famous for his performance art pieces, but he has recently returned to painting.

The booth of the Korean gallery Arario is dominated by large canvases by Leslie de Chavez, a young Filipino artist, and Hyung Koo Kang, from Korea. Mr. Kang does huge, monochromatic portraits, many of them of artistic celebrities. One of the paintings on display is of Auguste Rodin.

Mr. Chavez's paintings are meditations on his country's history, and its (in his view) mindless absorption of the culture of its conquerors. His paintings are dark — literally, since he begins each work by painting the canvas black. Two of the paintings at the fair are unusual in his oeuvre for being mildly — and, no doubt, ironically — pornographic. One shows a Filipino schoolgirl, her breasts poking through a T-shirt with an image of Warhol's "Marilyn," pulling up her skirt to reveal her lacy underpants. The other shows a pair of naked women, posed seductively, with the words "here 2 stay" written like a tattoo.

This Saturday, Arario is opening a 20,000-square-foot space on West 25th Street, with a group exhibition that includes top-selling Chinese artists such as Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, and Zhang Xiaogang. A curator at the gallery, Jeeah Choi, said that Arario planned the opening to coincide both with the fair and with the postwar and contemporary art auctions next week.

The major Asian galleries in the fair are all Korean, which may have something to do with the fair's being underwritten by a Korean dealer and collector, Cristal Kim. Besides Arario, Kukje Gallery and PYO Gallery both have large booths. PYO is highlighting a group of "inverted sculptures" by Lee Yong-Deok. Mr. Lee starts with a photograph of an ordinary person, from which he makes a sculpture. He then pours a mixture of fiberglass, gypsum, and other materials over the "positive" sculpture and lets it harden, thus creating a person-shaped cavity in a fiberglass block. Four of Mr. Lee's works are in the new Four Seasons Hotel Silicon Valley.

The top sellers of the Chinese contemporary scene are present at the fair, but fortunately in small numbers. Gallery Artside, based in Beijing and Seoul, is exhibiting Mr. Zhang's "Girl No 4." The gallery declined to state the asking price but noted that a similar work sold at Sotheby's Hong Kong last month for $1.6 million.

Mr. Goedhuis, who has been dealing in Chinese contemporary art for over a decade, suggested that prices for some artists have become irrational, as new collectors, without much experience or discernment, jump on the bandwagon. And the increased interest in Chinese art by Chinese collectors will "move the prices into another stratosphere," he predicted. "If you think they're high now, just wait another 20 minutes. They'll be doubled."

The painter Tianbing Li, who was born in China in 1974 and now lives in Paris, said many of his friends have moved back to China to take advantage of the booming art market. "Living in China is very good for artists right now," said Mr. Li. "You can get a big studio, you can hire assistants very cheap. But I chose to stay in France, because I think an artist needs to be alone sometimes. In Beijing, there is too much noise." Mr. Li's Zurich dealer, Kashya Hildebrand, is showing six of his paintings, from a series called "The Children's Project," in which, from the five black-and-white photographs taken of him as a child, Mr. Li invents a new childhood for himself, filled with color, toys he didn't have, and a brother — which he also didn't have, because of China's one-child policy.

Ms. Hildebrand said all of the paintings have already been sold, for prices around $200,000. "I have such a waiting list now [for Mr. Li's work] that I interview people first," she said.

To which Mr. Li added: "I refuse a lot [of requests], because I don't want to produce like a machine."

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