On our way to Seoul to attend a traditional Korean wedding (see photo at the bottom of this post), my husband and I stopped off in Hong Kong, where I attended Art Basel Hong Kong for the first time. I spent two days at the fair and still didn’t see it all, but what follows are short notes on a few of the works that struck me and stayed with me. What those who attended the fair only on the Wednesday–the VIP day–may not have realized and what I found remarkable as someone who attended several iterations of Art Basel Miami Beach when it first began, is that when I went to the fair on the Thursday, the first day the fair (which is in its fifth year in Hong Kong) was open to the public, there were thousands of people waiting to get in–and these were ticket holders! The fair was so crowded that announcements to “be careful of the art” were continually made on the loudspeaker. Curiosity about international contemporary art in Asia abounds!
My favorite area of the fair was the Discoveries Section in which young galleries devoted their booths to single artists. The Delhi artist Astha Butail was one of the three artists at the fair nominated for the BMW Art Journey travel scholarship, but won first prize in my book for her extraordinarily brilliant and understated, yet eloquent installation. Her work was showcased by the Bangalore- and New Delhi-based Gallery SKE. The installation consisted of 322 small wooden frames in assorted geometric shapes. Each frame housed hand-woven muslin pulled taut across archival paper; the fabric was striped and featured two muted tones, an eggshell white and a soft brown. The frames were arranged in sequences that seemed to me like abstract, Minimalist representations of systems of communication, each frame connoting an individual word or letter. Some of the rows suggested to me full sentences; others a short phrase. Each sequence was perfect in itself, a balanced thought. The abstract language of the installation as a whole seemed entirely appropriate within the context of an international exhibition.
Another standout in the Discoveries Section was the house of mirrors effect of the installation by Berlin-based Kathrin Sonntag at Galerie Kadel Willborn of Karlsruhe and Dusseldorf. Sonntag, whose work was included in the exhibition Photo-Poetics: An Anthology at the Guggenheim in 2015, here apparently recreated in more compact form a fragment of an installation she first presented in 2014 entitled, I see you seeing me see you. In keeping with its title, the installation consisted of a self-referential and literally self-reflective collection of everyday objects, mirrors, and photographs of the objects in the same still-life configurations that share the viewer’s space, causing shift’s in the viewer’s perceptions and making him or her hyper-aware of competing levels of fiction and reality.
Other noteworthy works in this section were the digitally manipulated paintings and a 3-D printed sculpture by Los Angeles-based Petra Courtright, seen at Societe, Berlin, and the sculptures of another Angeleno, Kathleen Ryan at L.A.’s Ghebaly Gallery. The colorful painted bronze twig sculptures of yet another Los Angeles sculptor, Evan Holloway–LeWitt cubes with an eccentric twist–seen in the booths of both Xavier Hufkens of Brussels and David Kordansky of L.A. in the main section of the fair were yet other standouts.
In the main section of the fair, I was taken with a painting by Cho Yong-ik, a Korean artist associated with the Dansaekhwa tendency, which emerged in the mid-1960s. Dansaekhwa translates into English as “monochrome,” but the works embrace far more than that. The artists who worked in this mode championed repetition, meditation and tranquility and emphasized the materiality of painting. While Danseakhwa art stands as a counterpart of sorts to Minimalism, it is deeply spiritual in nature and favors an intimate engagement not with industrial, but with humble materials (often paper, but also canvas and other fabrics, and paint or ink). The Wave Series work by Cho Yong-ik on view at Edouard Malingue Gallery of Hong Kong and Shanghai was a monochrome painting in a soft brown color executed in acrylic on canvas. The surface was marked with a single repeated, delicate gesture, a feathery whisking of the wet paint in a tantalizing reverse brushstroke that resulted in marks that appear to curl off the picture surface in tiny waves.
Not water, but fire was referenced in paintings by Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich shown at Tyler Rollins Gallery, New York. Although new to me, the Phnom Penh-based artist, who lived for a time in the U.S., is Cambodia’s best known contemporary artist, his works featured in a solo show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2013 and to be included in the main exhibition in the Arsenale in this year’s Venice Biennale. Two of Pich’s works on view featured dense, black surfaces supported by gridded bamboo armatures whose structures look back to Minimalism as well as to Cambodian traditions of construction. The painted surfaces are old burlap rice bags and their tarry surfaces are made up of encaustic mixed with the charcoal produced by the fires used to boil the oil that the bamboo was soaked in, so that the process of making was integrated into the work. Flicks of vibrant red paint representing flames that appear on the otherwise monochrome surface offer further reference to process, while contributing to the work’s emotive and elemental appeal.
Korean artist, Du Ho Suh, currently residing in London, had a considerable presence at the fair, his work seen at any number of galleries. While the artist’s large-scale architectural installations that recreate his apartment spaces in single color transparent fabrics are his best known and most spectacular works, quite wonderful too was the large yellow object encountered upon entering the fair, which took a few minutes to be recognized as a refrigerator. Multiple other, smaller objects made of fabric–a doorknob, a string of lights, his door’s locking mechanism–also appeared, fragments manifesting Do Ho Suh’s unique take on Superrealism. These were remnants or memories of the New York City apartment that he recently vacated after living and working in and “about” the space for 18 years. STPI Gallery, based in Singapore, showed related works from the artist’s Rubbing/Loving series, objects both in two- and three-dimensions that replicated details of a studio lent to the artist in Singpore that were made by molding paper around the objects and then using the process of frottage.
Among my favorite works at the fair was a brilliant piece dating to 2007-2009 that I had somehow not seen previously by Vancouver Conceptualist/performance artist Rodney Graham entitled My Late Early Style (Part 1, The Middle Period) shown at the London-based Lisson Gallery’s booth. This piece consists of a large-scale photograph of the artist in the persona of a proud, trim and dapper amateur painter, the paintings of his “middle period” displayed on the wall behind him. The works are in an array of mid-twentieth century Modernist styles and three of the heavily impastoed abstract canvases seen in the photograph are displayed on one of the booth’s adjoining walls. While simultaneously mocking and sensitive to the vulnerability of the gifted amateur, the work seems to reflect on abstract painting as a bygone art, which seems particularly ironic given the profusion of abstract painting seen in the 2017 Art Basel Hong Kong fair.
Presumably, the most recent of the works seen in Graham’s photograph is a stain painting, which appears on the floor immediately behind the artist. Among the paintings in the fair that I found truly stunning was Snow Day (2017) by Janaina Tschape, a Munich-born, Sao Paolo-raised, Brooklyn-based artist, seen in the booth of Fores D’Aloia & Gabriel, Sao Paolo. This mixed media work presents a fluid, light-filled abstracted landscape that seems to look back to Helen Frankenthaler’s early stain paintings.
While Tschape’s is a decidedly sexy work, the prize for the most erotic work at the fair goes to Twombly’s Seguso (1979), a watercolor, crayon and pencil drawing shown at the booth of the Cardi Gallery of London and Milan.
The prize for the sweetest work goes to Liu Ye’s pencil drawing, Mondrian in the Morning (2000), at Esther Schipper Gallery, part of a series of works by this Beijing-based artist in which young children (or the Dutch cartoon character, Miffy) variously confront Mondrian’s abstractions.
Finally, the prize for an artist whose vigor and ability to reinvent himself continues to surprise goes to Jim Dine whose dynamic abstraction, The Skeleton of Time (2012) at Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago, looks back to the ’50s style of painting from which Dine emerged and which, as was hitherto said, is again prevalent today.