Frederick Stirling Clark, director of a gallery on Fifth Avenue in New York, was asked what impressed him most about Chinese artist Liu Shuishi’s work. Clark had no hesitation in saying it was the paintings’ sense of universal humanity and globally understood thoughts that immediately shone through.
“Liu tends to draw from very deep and universally understood ideas or thought processes,” said Clark, vicepresident of Findlay Galleries, which has exhibited Liu’s paintings.
“His works are very universally human, and I think that, particularly in New York, this kind of universal and very large world view is helpful because collectors want to have a global vision,” Clark added.
Liu was one of many contemporary Chinese artists represented by galleries in New York last month during Asia Week, the city’s largest event focusing on Asian art. This year, more contemporary Chinese artists have come under the spotlight with their global appeal.
Margaret Tao, executive director of Asia Week New York, said, “We definitely have more contemporary art this year, both in terms of people specializing in it, but also those who have some contemporary art along with their classical pieces.”
Zhang Xiaoming, a former vicepresident of Sotheby’s who headed its Asian Modern and Contemporary Art Department in New York, said she is very positive about the future of contemporary Chinese art and the galleries exhibiting it.
“I think those galleries are helping these artists to not only open up a market in a business sense but raise awareness of their work,” Zhang said. In the past decade, global demand for contemporary Chinese art has grown dramatically. In September, Chinese-French artist Zao Wou-ki’s work Juin-Octobre 1985 sold for a record $65.2 million at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong.
The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the largest art museum in the western United States, has just announced the purchase of contemporary Chinese artist Zeng Fanzhi’s painting Untitled (2018) for its permanent collection. The work is part of Zeng’s series of abstract landscapes.
The Chinese art market accounted for 19 percent of global art sales last year, according to a UBS/Art Basel report. Dominic Ng, CEO of East West Bank, which donated funds to help the LACMA buy Zeng’s painting, said in a statement, “Chinese contemporary art has emerged as one of the most compelling areas of the global art landscape.”
He said the purchase showcased “a broad range of artistic voices and contributes to the ongoing cultural exchange between the East and the West’’.
Galleries said one reason contemporary Chinese painting has become the new favorite for art investors worldwide in recent years is the global vision and universal thoughts expressed by Chinese artists.
The Greene Naftali Gallery in the Chelsea district of New York, a show of Zhao Gang’s work running through April 19 has attracted plenty of attention, according to the gallery’s art director, Eleonore Hugendubel.She said the gallery owner was drawn to Zhao’s work because of the strong link to Chinese and Western cultures.
“The fact that his artworks cross international zones and he comfortably works in both cultures simultaneously is very interesting,” Hugendubel said.
She added that there are several reasons behind the emerging contemporary Chinese art market. One of the most important is that cultural and economic exchanges between China and the US have grown dramatically in recent decades.
Xu Lei, who is known for using gongbi, a Chinese imperial painting technique that dates to the Tang (618-907) and Song (960-1279) dynasties, is an example of how elements from a different culture and art genres can be integrated.
In his painting Interacting Trees, exhibited for Asia Week by the Beijing gallery Ink Studio, Xu uses the technique to create a garden landscape that integrates scenes that could be from paintings from 15thcentury Persia, 18th-century France and the Song Dynasty in China.
Craig Yee, co-founder of Ink Studio, said, “For him, this is a metaphor for the cultural space that we all inhabit today.
“We are all basically globally constructed cultural citizens — the idea is highly represented in these paintings,” he said, adding that the metaphors Xu presents with his paintings will endure for years. Xu is one of four contemporary Chinese artists whose works were brought to New York by Ink Studio. All four are deeply rooted in traditional Chinese art, but innovate to form their own styles. Yee said: “There’s growing interest in this group of artists. The collecting base for this kind of contemporary ink work is very strong.”
Cui Qiao, president of the Beijing Contemporary Art Foundation, said, “In recent years, many young contemporary Chinese artists have created pieces that are very global and international.”
These artists grew up influenced by the internet and globalization, as well as China’s 5,000-year-old culture and history, all of which has given them a unique global perspective with a rich cultural legacy, Cui said.
Sajura Shimizu, gallery manager of Ota Fine Arts, said a strong Chinese cultural element could add to their attraction of artworks. Shimizu last month brought the work of 38-year-old Chinese artist Cheng Ran to the 2019 Armory Show, an annual leading contemporary art fair in New York.
The artist has created mixed-media installations based on the work Li Sao by ancient Chinese poet Qu Yuan, while part of Cheng’s work featured in a video presentation of the poem in Chinese.
Shimizu said, “Westerners are more interested to see works that contain elements from another culture, because it is so different to what they have been seeing so far.”
At Chambers Fine Art gallery, which was established in New York in 2000 and opened a branch in Beijing in 2007, another Chinese is attracting attention with a culturally inspired collection.
Taca Sui, a fine arts photographer from Qingdao, Shandong province, who features many Chinese antiques and cultural elements in his work, has exhibited with Chambers for about 20 years.
Ariel Chen, associate at the gallery, said, “His uniqueness lies in his presentation of traditional Chinese culture, which is not that commonly seen in this generation of Chinese artists.” Chen added that the uniqueness is part of the reason the work has been a success in New York in recent years.
“US audiences like his work — especially those who are attracted to traditional Chinese art,” Chen said. “At the core of his work is traditional Chinese culture, but he is presenting that through photography.” Chen said Sui’s work is particularly popular among older people and scholars studying Chinese art and culture. On the other hand, Liu Shuishi’s work contains barely any reference to the artist’s cultural identity.
“These are works that people can relate to,” said Findlay Galleries’ Clark, speaking about Liu’s output. “But more important, his pieces don’t choose a side — so they aren’t necessarily Chinese, Western or anything else.” After his art training in Xi’an, capital of Shaanxi province, and many years spent studying Western philosophy, Liu switched from traditional Chinese landscape painting to his own type of existential expressionism and moved to New York in 2016, Clark said.
“His source of inspiration seems to be the human element, and I think that’s very important in the overall appeal,” he said. Clark added that collectors interested in international artists have a global vision and want to learn something from the artworks such as ideas, thoughts and the culture behind them.
Hugendubel, at the Greene Naftali Gallery, said: “I feel that people who have collections that are international really have a global perspective. And I think that those who collect Chinese art generally have a very global outlook and are familiar with the culture.”
Clark said: “If you look at it over a 20-year period, the growth of the contemporary Chinese art market has been extraordinary — it’s like nothing else. But I think that in the past year or so, it has cooled off a little bit.”
John Tancock, a historian and adviser to Chambers Fine Art, told Bloomberg that decades ago China was just opening up to the West and the economy was booming.“A handful of artists started producing work that was of tremendous appeal to Western collectors,” he said.“Today, that is no longer the case, and there’s no longer quite the interest in China as a sort of unknown phenomenon.’’ Clark said: “But it’s not a bad thing, because it just means that it’s not going insane the way it was — the interest is still incredibly strong and is still growing. My guess is that it will pick up again at some point because it is reasonably new if you think about art in historical terms.”Cui, from the Beijing Contemporary Art Foundation said, “As well as galleries and private collectors, we’ve also seen an increasing number of prominent museums overseas starting to collect contemporary Chinese artworks.
“That’s more important for the artists’ long-term development, as well as academic research.” Cui added that at the same time, more international museums and institutions are starting to work with contemporary Chinese artists on commissioning, where they request the creation of a certain work by the artists.
“In that way, the international community will have a better and deeper understanding of contemporary Chinese art, and cultural exchanges will be promoted at the same time,” Cui said.
Lorenz Helbling, who moved to China from Switzerland in the mid1980s and founded the ShanghART gallery in Shanghai more than two decades ago, said great development has taken place in Chinese art. While there is still a lot of work to be done in the country’s contemporary art field, there is also great potential, Heibling said.
“Chinese artists are now much more a part of the international art world,” he said at this year’s Armory Show. “I think artists in China have things to say, which could also be important for people in New York.”
China is developing an encouraging social environment for the art industry, Helbling added. The country hosts about 20 leading art fairs annually, most of them dedicated to contemporary art from China and overseas.
Since it was launched in 2014, Shanghai Art Week, held annually in November, has been one of China’s major art events. It features two art fairs, Art021 and the West Bund Art and Design Fair, which respectively attract galleries representing younger artists and galleries from the West.
Last year, more than 80,000 people visited the two art fairs and over 200 galleries exhibited works.Helbling said, “I think the public in China is very curious and very open,” adding that Chinese are eager to see what people from other countries, cultures and eras have created. “I think that’s a good sign,” he added.
Zhang, the former Sotheby’s vicepresident, who has worked with contemporary Chinese artists for more than a decade, said, “I think the Chinese market still has a bright future.” Compared with previous years when contemporary Chinese art, supported by a hot market and active investment, experienced exceptional growth, Zhang thinks the artists are “cooling down a little bit”.
“There is introspection taking place in the industry as artists take in influences from other countries and explore their own paths to the future. I think Chinese artists will continue to create great pieces,” Zhang said.