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Contemporary Asian Art at Local Galleries Defy Stereotypes

Susan Du

Miss Mao by the Gao Brothers, previously displayed at the Walsh Gallery

The Asian art galleries in the Art Institute of Chicago are filled with porcelain vases and jade pendants dating back to the 1st century C.E. The Indian art hall features numerous stone yakshis and severed Buddha heads from the Mathura era. Yet the galleries aren’t named “Chinese Art from the Dynastic Period” or “Pre-modern Indian Art”. Rather, they are simply dubbed “Chinese” or “Himalayan”, somehow leaving the impression that these collections reflect present-day art from Asian countries.

The AIC’s regular Asian collections also include a handful of pieces from the 20th century, which may be viewed online but are usually not displayed. According to Chai Lee of public affairs, most Asian art in the AIC’s possession just happens to be ancient and medieval, qualities that the galleries have come to identify with.

“Contemporary Asian art is not the Art Institute of Chicago’s forte,” Lee wrote in an email. “We have some in the collection, but that is not what we’re famous for.”

Yet with the rising influence of contemporary Asian artists in Asia and around the world, some of Chicago’s prominent art museums are late to introduce it. Wu Hung, professor of art history at the University of Chicago, said the contemporary Chinese art movement is burgeoning in major Chinese metropolitan areas.

“Contemporary art is relatively new in China,” Hung said. “But it has developed rapidly during the past 20 years. Some important exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art have been organized around the world, and more than half of the best-selling contemporary artists currently are from China. So it is certainly important to have this art represented.”

Though mainstream museums may lack inclusive sampling of contemporary Asian art, some galleries in Chicago have made a point of showcasing works that reflect Asia’s modern societies.

The Walsh Gallery

From Zhu Ming's Mountain Rock Series, currently on display at the Walsh Gallery

The Walsh Gallery is well-known for its contemporary Asian agenda. Often displaying pieces by established international artists such as Zhang Dali, Chen Wenbo and Ai Weiwei, curator Julie Walsh uses the gallery as a platform to show art that might be considered too controversial to show in China.

Its current exhibition, “Zhu Ming’s Mountain Rock Series”, includes photos, videos and paintings featuring the artist’s signature balloon performance art. These performances incorporate gigantic sealed balloons within which the artist has been known to submerge himself in gradually rising water or photograph himself in darkness while dabbed in toxic florescent paint.

Christina Pannos, gallery director, said even though The Walsh Gallery was founded nearly two decades ago, it remains unique on the Chicago art scene for its focus on contemporary Asian art.

“Julie is an artist herself, and she went to China 20 years ago with art in mind. She met with all these young artists and got the idea that nobody shows this stuff in Chicago,” Pannos said. “Julie was on the cutting edge when she started and she still is.”

Especially because China’s Communist government places creative restrictions on artists, it so happens that contemporary Chinese art displayed abroad often includes a certain political element. Though Pannos said The Walsh Gallery doesn’t specifically search for political art, it’s important that venues are available for those artists to express what they desire.

Andrew Bae Gallery

From Rhythm and Flow by Park Kwang Jean, previously displayed at the Andrew Bae Gallery

The Andrew Bae Gallery is another decades-old gallery that features contemporary works by Asian artists.  Both professional and amateur artists based in Chicago regularly showcase their work there. The owner, Andrew Bae, said the purpose of his gallery is to display art of a universally appealing aesthetic with an Asian feel. He primarily tries to support local artists, rather than showcase the newest trends from Asia.

“I would be very happy if more of my artists’ works were available in collections by the American public or the museums,” Bae said. “My goal is to get their work and their names out to mainstream America as much as I can.”

Bae said although his artists and non-Asian artists often face the same challenges to marketing their work, he chooses to focus on exhibiting contemporary Asian art because it’s still a developing subgenre of mainstream art. However, he said he feels hopeful that it will continue to gain popularity.

“Twenty years ago when I started promoting Asian artists, they were totally unknown in this market and to the people here,” he said. “Many people were even unfamiliar with the term ‘contemporary Asian’. Now, tremendous change is taking place in the art world. Now when you walk into any gallery in Chicago, you won’t be surprised to find artists who are Asian.”

Bae emphasized that his gallery’s target market is not necessarily Asian, but the portion of the general American public that appreciates contemporary art in all forms. The Andrew Bae Gallery recently exhibited a solo show by Park Kwang Jean, an abstract artist who specializes in woodblock, paper collages and ceramics.