Jun 20 2014

Roundup: Pedder Building

by Siobhan Bent

In May, Art Basel in Hong Kong brought with it the many collectors, curators, journalists and art enthusiasts who follow in its wake. Galleries across the city—some participating in the fair, some not—strove to rise to the occasion. The Pedder Building was no exception, with all of its six tenant galleries putting forth shows to coincide with the fair. With the exception of two, all of the below exhibitions are on through the end of June.

All photos by Siobhan Bent for ArtAsiaPacific.

Installation view of Su Xiaobai’s lacquer paintings in “Painting and Being,” on view at  Pearl Lam Galleries, Hong Kong, 2014.

At Pearl Lam Galleries, London’s National Portrait Gallery curator Paul Moorhouse (formerly of the Tate) has organized a solo show of lacquer paintings by Su Xiaobai from 2012–13, entitled “Painting and Being.” Moorhouse, a specialist in 20th-century art and known for curating exhibitions of Lucien Freud and Gerhard Richter, and Su, who was born in Wuhan, China, and trained at Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, speak the same language: Western abstract art. At Pearl Lam, this is evident in the exhibition setting—a mystical, somberly-lit environment reminiscent of the Rothko Chapel—and in the works themselves, which, Moorhouse notes, “shake off the ubiquitous compulsion to interpret, encouraging instead a response to their intrinsic nature.”

For over a decade now, Su has been experimenting with oil, lacquer, linen and wood—and it shows. Each piece in the show is an individually compelling object, comprised of thick, crackled lacquer on undulating wood, which are large-format, misshapen and sometimes nearly 20 centimeters in depth. These hollowed—and hallowed—works are absorbing, mystical and historical, yet also new.

One Line (2013), with a Barnett Newman-esque dash running across a slab of white-lacquer-like aged ivory, incorporates color in the form of a solitary red line. The palette of the works varies throughout the room; the majority of the paintings, which are in white, are accented by a trio of verdant green canvases. Others, like Imperial Academy I and II (both 2012) are bare, ridged and raw, as though they have just been washed up from the sea, dredging up emotion in the viewer.

Siu Xiaobai’s One Line (2013) channels Barnett Newman with a dash running across a slab of white-lacquer-like aged ivory.

If the mood at Pearl Lam Galleries hinges on the gut response of the audience, at Gagosian Hong Kong a contemplative air surrounds “Giacometti: Without End, an exhibition of lithographs by the modern master, accompanied by archival material, sculptures, paintings and drawings from the same period. Original manuscripts, photographic portraits and other secondary material inform the viewer’s understanding of Paris sans Fin, Giacometti’s diaristic artist’s book consisting of 150 lithographs and text, created between 1959–65.

Curated by Veronique Wiesinger, the exhibition captures Giacometti’s dynamic, energized relationship with his adopted city and the people who inhabited his life there. Bronze sculptures including Annette assise (petite) (1956) bring to life the prodigious artist’s notes and drawings. It is fortunate that a fully illustrated book also accompanies the exhibition, published by the gallery in collaboration with the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti, for the sheer amount of material in the show is more than can be absorbed in one visit, and is sure to inspire both aficionados and newcomers to delve deeper into the artist’s work.

HERNAN BASCase study (Kyle, the bee incident), 2014, acrylic on linen, 127 × 101.6 cm.

Downstairs at Lehmann Maupin is the first Hong Kong exhibition of American artist Hernan Bas, entitled “Case Studies.  Here, Bas, known primarily for his expressionistic paintings, stays true to form, presenting a series of colorful, collaged works created with incredible detail. Each tells the story of a male protagonist navigating a coming-of-age narrative.

Case Study (Baxter, Deep Sea Enthusiast) (2014) employs acrylic and crushed seashell on linen to convey a lush, tropical setting—yet a sinister mood prevails in the painting. In Case Study (Kyle, Flamingo Incident) (2014) a series of bright pink starfish dot a vibrantly painted canvas, but the overall imagery is morbid, with the protagonist stoically strangling a flamingo.

These works, according to Miami-born Bas, are not self-portraits but rather drawn from many influences, including fairy tales, which are eerily reflected in the timid adolescent men portrayed in the “Case Studies” series.   

Gu Wenda’s “Alchemy” (2000) is made from human hair—a traditional remedy for anxiety in Chinese medicine.

Neighboring Hanart TZ Gallery has invested all its energy in Gu Wenda, organizing three simultaneous solo exhibitions: an eponymous show at the gallery; one at the gallery’s booth at Art Basel Hong Kong; and another at the art fair’s Encounter section, which featured the artist’s much-documented United Nations – Man and Space (1999–2000), comprising 188 flags made from human hair. If only they could all be seen together!

Still, “Gu Wenda” at the Pedder Building delivers a solid cross-section of the artist’s oeuvre, which is not surprising given that his relationship with Hanart began more than three decades ago and has included the seminal 1992 co-exhibition with Xu Bing, entitled “Desire for Words. The main gallery is now showing Gu’s signature series, “Alchemy” (2000), in tandem with the new large-scale ink paintings Genetic Ink and Green Tea Paper.

In “Alchemy,” Gu collaborates with the Shanghai Cao Sugong Ink Factory to convert powder made from Chinese human hair—traditionally a remedy for anxiety—into ink. Mythos of Lost Dynasties Series #1–#27 (2011), an installation comprised of the hair at various stages of conversion, and a film of the process itself, lays bare the labor-intensive means by which this “genetic ink” is developed and deployed. Whether or not the monumental, 27-panel work will cure the anxiety of cultural identity, as Gu hopes it will, remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain: although hair has different meanings across cultures, it does mean something to everyone. This is perhaps why Gu’s film, which captures workers kneading, rolling and cooking a paste from countless strands of anonymous human hair and forming it into sticks of ink is nothing short of mesmerizing.

British artist Toby Ziegler’s dreamlike pastel canvases reveal themselves upon closer inspection to be derived from Gainsborough paintings—the colors and composition have been adapted by a computer program and then transferred onto aluminum with paint. 

At Simon Lee Gallery, British artist Toby Ziegler is also using tools to convert one thing to another; he uses digital technology to source and develop figurative imagery, which is then broken down into the abstract.

Or is it?

At first glance, Ziegler’s sprawling aluminum canvases are free-flowing and dreamlike in pastel hues. Further investigation reveals, however, that the series of five oil paintings featured in the show, the artist’s first solo exhibition in Hong Kong, are actually derived from Gainsborough paintings—the colors and composition of which have been adapted by a computer program and then transferred onto aluminum with paint. Once the oils have been built up on the aluminum canvas, Ziegler smears or sands them into near oblivion. There the paint remains, somewhere between the figurative and abstract, or, as the exhibition catalogue aptly puts it, “on the brink of formal composition and its collapse.” It’s a study in control and abandon, an exercise in building up and breaking down, taking away information and then adding it in a newly interpreted form. Two works in the series are iterations of a certain Gainsborough painting. The question is, can you tell which one?

MIQUEL BARCELÓ, Quatre Coins Jaunes, 2013, mixed media on canvas, 200 × 300 cm. 

At Ben Brown Fine Arts, a similar theme is being explored in the form of “Miquel Barceló: Courant Central,” an exhibition of recent paintings and sculptures by the Spanish artist. In his second solo exhibition in Hong Kong, Barceló—who first gained notice in the 1990s for his participation in Documenta 7, and then in 2004 for a watercolor exhibition at the Louvre, which made him the youngest artist ever to be shown there—draws inspiration from such varied subject matters as primitive cave drawings, Spanish bull fighting and nature.

Yet despite—or perhaps thanks to—his divergent influences, “Courant Central” is unified by the artist’s incredibly textural and emotive style. This is evident in the eerily haunting Têtes (2014), a dream-like, spiritual grouping of horse heads inspired by a visit to the Chauvet cave in southern France, and the stark white yet deeply moving Courant Central (2013), a heavily painted composition of pigment and vinyl on canvas that evokes an overpowering, heavy river current. In Tokonomas (2012), mixed media are built up on the canvas, rendering a tumultuous terrain in black and white. Ceramic vessels made of Mallorcan earth are at once playful and disturbing: Double Autoportrait (2011)’s facial features appear as if formed haphazardly, or spontaneously generated, and imbued with the artist’s energy.

MIQUEL BARCELÓ, Trois Moutons, 2013, pigment and vinyl on canvas, 60 × 81 cm.

Their 12 Pedder Street address aside, these six exhibitions share an important characteristic: they all occupy the most prestigious month of the Hong Kong art world calendar, the most high-stakes time slot, sharing the international stage for one all-important weekend with Art Basel in Hong Kong. In doing so, they represent the diverging ambitions of their respective galleries, who seize the opportunity to define their programs. It is an important moment for galleries, artists, collectors and art lovers of Hong Kong to take stock and relish. And with Art Basel in Hong Kong shifting to March in 2015, we won’t have to wait an entire year for it to come around once more.

Siobhan Bent is a writer based in Hong Kong.