East and West
A Conversation with Pearl Lam
By M. Brendon MacInnis
Pearl Lam, the founding director of Costrasts Gallery,
based in Shanghai but with affiliates around the world, discusses
collecting art in today’s China. Her gallery’s
stated mission is to explore Western and Eastern influences
on art, looking at the relationships between art, architecture,
and design without prejudice. The gallery also commissions
pieces from designers worldwide, and operates an artist in
residency program. The focus of our conversation centers around
a New York based artist (born in Madrid) Isidro Blasco, whose
work is on view at Contrasts Gallery’s special exhibition
space in Shanghai at 500 S. Ruijin Road, Building No. 4, from
April 27 – June 7, 2008.
You’ve got a couple of gallery spaces in Shanghai
and a gallery in London. What’s that all about?
Well, I opened a gallery in 1993…
You opened a gallery in Shanghai?
In 1993, I opened a gallery in Hong Kong. Then in 2003 and
2004, I did a show in the French Concession District [in Shanghai].
The only reason opened in China, in Shanghai and Beijing,
is I wanted to cultivate Chinese collectors. I don’t
need to make a living from the gallery, that’s my advantage.
Today, most gallery owners are like investors who watch the
auction prices. For them, art is little more than a commodity,
it’s like playing the stock market.
When you say you want to cultivate the Chinese collectors,
what do you want these Chinese collectors to collect? Chinese
Of course. Chinese collectors already collect contemporary
work, but it’s work that is rooted in the culture here.
They collect from a Chinese perspective. I don’t say
that’s wrong, but what I want to open up, for the Chinese,
the idea to look at it from a different perspective, an international
So, what caught your attention with Isidro’s work?
Isidro’s work is very different, it’s difficult
for the Chinese market. Because the Chinese, in terms of the
art market, the Chinese do not like the photograph; they don’t
Well, he doesn’t actually do photography…
Yeah, but these are photo sculptures. I like it; I like the
photo sculptures because it looks like the scaffolding of
old Chinese architecture. And what is important about the
development of China these days is the urban development,
where there has been this complete destruction.
You mean in Shanghai?
No, Shanghai is the best! I mean in Beijing. If you look
at Beijing, Beijing is horrible. It’s a completely new,
sci-fi city, without consideration to preserve anything.
Well, I’ve never been there.
Actually, Shanghai, when you look a what Isidro is doing
in all of his painting, I mean in all of his sculptures, he
is only focusing on the Chinese architecture, the old buildings
where very common people live. Having said that, of course,
Shanghai history is only starting in 1848. Shanghai is not
a Chinese city, by and large. There is no distinctly Chinese
architecture here, except the gardens.
What Shanghai has is this melting of all cultures, which
has been here since the nineteenth century and on to the Japanese
Actually, Shanghai reminds me of New York in some ways,
the melting pot idea. So, getting back to the art market in
China, it sounds like you want to open things up to an international
Well, actually I have changed my thinking while doing this.
It’s not about international thinking, because I see
the gallery itself as having a cross-cultural impact. What
the Chinese are collecting is absolutely correct, because,
after all, we’ve never gone through all of these expressions.
Why should the Chinese follow the West? We haven’t gone
through this historical moment, you know? I mean, of the West.
The thing is, it’s even more important today; we really
need to have that cultural exchange because I think the Chinese
have to understand, for example, why the West is doing Conceptualism
and all of the art that they [Chinese collectors] find intimidating.
It’s also true that, from a western perspective,
in architecture, you have Frank Lloyd Wright borrowing heavily
from an Asian aesthetic. Then you have the influence of Japanese
woodcuts on the French; Van Gogh copied them, Degas...
The Japanese have a lot to do with China. The core of the
Japanese culture is based on the Chinese.
Well, it’s all connected. If we look at music too,
in America you had in the 1960s the so-called British invasion
of rock music, with the Beatles and the Stones bringing this
music back to where it came from; while most Americans at
the time thought this was something new coming from England.
And then certainly in painting, you have an Asian aesthetic
in the early Impressionists…
But the thing is, you have to remember that today, western
art is not concerned with aesthetics, whereas the Chinese
are still focusing on aesthetics. That’s the main difference.
And the West doesn’t understand China. The West always
insists on the western domination of contemporary art.
And I think that by opening the gallery, it gives an international
push to contemporary art. In China, we’ll go through
the same thing, but it will be different in the history. There
isn’t the hierarchy between art, design, and decorative
art. So, all of that makes it very different. Also in Japan,
you don’t have this hierarchy.
You mean the hierarchy between decorative art, and fine
Fine art, design, and decorative art — this hierarchy
thing doesn’t exist here. First of all, all artists
Is that a good thing, actually?
Well, if you look at our history, I mean, our porcelain prices
today; the price for a porcelain is much higher than for a
landscape painting. This is because it’s based on the
quality. Art is not made to sell. Artists were invited into
the court of the emperor, they were held in esteem. But in
the West, the artist is usually working class, they have to
sell work to get by.
Well, Europe also had the royal court…
Until the twentieth century. But the Chinese artist makes
art, supposedly for self-cultivation. That was a complete,
different approach — very, very different. And the problem
of today’s world, of the Chinese artist, is we have
adopted, totally, the approach of the West. Which is to make
art for money. In olden times, we would call them craftsmen.
We don’t call them artists.
That’s why, if you look at most Chinese art today,
they’re just copying blindly the western theory. I mean,
it’s not even the western theory; they are adapting
the western Conceptualism without even understanding what
Conceptualism is, Abstract Conceptualism. So, they only adapt
a very superficial aspect.
But I got the impression, from talking with Isidro,
that you show a lot of design, decorative work in your galleries?
It’s the only gallery that does art and design, together.
Because I’ve taken everything back, back to our traditional
Chinese culture. Our traditional Chinese culture has no subjugation,
between art, design and decorative art. I’ve taken this
whole thing as the foundation of the gallery; I am not following
the model of the western gallery. Because I don’t think
I get the point. I think that in architecture, too, there
is a similar evolution in how we regard the architect. Now
we’ve got starchitects…
Architecture is a very different thing, after the Second
World War. Everything now is Modernism, you have concrete
jungles over the whole world. Architecture is a complete loss
in Japan. Every single country where you had something original,
it’s gone. The only thing you can produce since after
the Second World War is mass architecture; and the saddest
thing is that now it’s all based on the western aesthetic
and concept. All of our old, beautiful Chinese architecture
is gone; it’s all gone. There is nothing evolved from
our past. And it’s not just us, in India; it’s
the same thing. Nothing is original, relating to a unique
culture. Everything is in the international language. That’s
the success of globalization, to create one, homogenous culture.
And that’s also the saddest thing.
Well, I think it’s basically just laziness. People
want the convenience of the predictable.
No, it’s not laziness; I think it’s the educational
background, and also many other reasons. It’s because
the developer wants it built fast, and they are only focused
on the price per square foot, to get maximum usage. Buildings
are really what represent a civilization, and we’ve
lost it, completely, in the twenty-first century. And the
saddest thing is that art; art is going that way too.
It’s a western domination of contemporary art. Everybody
is referencing the West, to measure what’s good, without
regard to their own cultural heritage. And that is why, after
I decided to open the gallery, in China, I had to do something
very different. I had to show China what the West is; why
they have very different art; and why we have very different
art. Even with our cultural exchange, we should not lose ourselves.
We should be who we are.
Ed. Note: Isidro Blasco’s photography-based
sculptures and wall works will be on view at Contrasts Gallery’s
special exhibition space in Shanghai at 500 S. Ruijin Road,
Building No. 4, from April 27 – June 7, 2008. The exhibition
When I Look At It will feature seventeen of the artist’s
constructions, using photographs that were taken in Shanghai.
An opening reception will be held April 26, from 5-8pm.
And, Who Are You? Work from
Sara Tecchia Roma Gallery
By Joyce Korotkin
In a perfect world, one would expect that great contemporary
art would rise like cream to the top, seemingly of its own
accord. But in today’s imperfect art world, more often
than not, nepotism fueled by a frenzied, investment-driven
marketplace, rules the stars. Those who work in the art world
(be it as artists, curators, art dealers, collectors or critics)
know only too well the gritty reality: that in today’s
lucrative, global yet elitist art market, artists careers
are either electrified by celebrity or short circuited, based
upon an elaborate hierarchy of social and political networking.
How skillfully an artist negotiates the rules of this system
— such as by attending endless rounds of exhibition
openings and parties, graduating from the right schools, meeting
the right people, getting recommended to dealers/curators,
and the like — makes or breaks a career.
Despite the increasing number of galleries that appear as
if overnight, and despite the almost absurd proliferation
of art fairs, replete with piggybacked ancillary fairs, annuals,
biennales and festivals that have exponentially increased
the venues for exhibitions and commerce — and although
there seems to be no dearth of collectors eager to buy (according
to the sales statistics from art fairs and auctions) —
the majority of artists doing great work vastly overwhelms
the existing spaces in which to show them. The actual number
of contemporary artists who achieve recognition from among
the hundreds of thousands who don’t is woefully small.
The view from the perspective of collectors is equally grim;
since desirable artists’ works are judiciously “placed”
by their dealers in favored collections, collectors often
find themselves jockeying for positions on select waiting
None of this is news; it is, rather, the status quo of the
art marketplace today.
Enter Charles Saatchi, the British art collector/gallerist
who in 1997 created a sensation with Sensation, an exhibition
of young British artists that took place at the Royal Academy
of Art in London and later toured to Berlin and New York.
The show made international superstars of Damien Hirst and
Chris Ofili, while burnishing London’s newly minted
image as a hip center of cutting edge art. Now Saatchi is
at the forefront again, with the launching last year of the
innovative Saatchi Online’s “your gallery,”
This free website for artists (and the artworld at large)
represents a radical development in the art marketplace. Extraordinary
in its scope and democratic approach, the site levels the
playing field for some 80,000 artists who are already registered
Dubbed, “your gallery,” it exists as a floating
gallery in cyberspace, buoyed by the cache of the Saatchi
name. It is a gallery with no directors, walls or boundaries
of any sort — operating like an open market in a public
square. Any artist from anywhere on the planet who chooses
to upload a page of his/her work on the site can do so, whether
emerging or known, young or old. Anyone from anywhere on the
planet who chooses to peruse the site can read its numerous
sections, contact artists directly to buy work or arrange
shows, or just chat.
All of this is free; Saatchi Online charges no commissions
or fees whatsoever for artist registration, and takes no commissions
from sales. To be sure, it remains to be seen whether this
site is a harbinger of the times, or if it exists because
of the times.
Not surprisingly, since its debut, the your gallery site
has expanded into an enormous online network that regularly
gets 50 million hits per day from users around the globe —
30% from USA, 30% from Europe and 30% from the EU and the
rest of the world (Source Awstats); with sales of art from
the site within the first year topping some 130 million dollars.
Currently placed at number 235 on the Alexa Research Top 100,000
Websites in the World, it already outranks the Metropolitan
Museum in New York (at 23,370), the Museum of Modern Art in
New York (at32,360), and London’s The Tate (at 61,506).
While its main purpose is to promote the artists registered
on it, in cyberspace, your gallery is taking its first steps
into real time and space, with its first exhibition in a “brick
and mortar” gallery in New York, entitled AND WHO ARE
YOU? Work from Saatchi Online. The show is curated by Ana
Finel Honigman, and hosted by the Sara Tecchia Roma New York
gallery in New York (“your gallery” does not operate
its own gallery space).
Showcasing eleven artists selected from the online site,
the exhibition posits a critical analysis of art world recognition
and how it is achieved, using the premise of the Saatchi site
itself as a platform for its artists to discuss perceptions
about art world politicking. According to Honigman, the artists
were selected from Saatchi Online because she was interested
in creating an “elitism for all” theme, with artists
ready to take on issues about how art world insiders operate.
We see this focus in the work of Fame Theory, a Williamsburg
based collaborative between filmmaker Seth Aylmer and economist
Jose Serrano-Reyes, whose electronic LCD Art Ticker (2007)
offers a scathing indictment of how the “value”
of an artist’s work is determined. Like the ticker tapes
of Wall Street, Aylmer’s Art Ticker tracks the price
of an artist’s work, but the value is measured by correlating
the party appearances and media mentions of the artist.
Jay Batlle’s The Minimalist Series, an appealing series
of overscaled paintings, suggest satires of urbane sophistication
with their teasing bits of recipes extrapolated from Mark
Bittman’s New York Times culinary column, The Minimalist.
Vaguely erotic titles such as In 2 Minutes, It’s All
Done, are taken out of context from the recipe, adding an
often witty edge to the implied narrative. Painted in minimalist
black and white, the recipes are partially obscured by Expressionist
swaths and swirls of paint, marker and ink that recall a chef’s
saucy flourishes on plates; but that also recreate art historical,
canonized masterpieces, questioning socially constructed notions
of status via the media hype of gourmet food and the privileged
class of art.
In a similar vein mocking hypocritical hipsters’ notions
of success is video and comedy sketch by director Josh Powell.
His Dilettante Films video, Just Blow (2007), mimicks advertising
commercials that appeal with a high moral tone of privilege,
to hedonistic partygoers who blow only the best cocaine.
Taking potshots at artworld stardom, and raising questions
about authorship, appropriation and plagiarism as well as
the contemporary notion of “ownership” of a particular
style or technique, Eric Doeringer contributes Bootlegs. The
souvenir sized, inexpensively priced reproductions of significant
contemporary works of art are presented, salon style and sold
on sidewalks infront of the large Chelsea galleries, at the
Whitney Biennial, at art fairs, and on Saatchi Online, thereby
subverting their iconic status.
Equally sardonic are Eva Roovers’ mixed media kit,
How to Become a Famous Artist (2007), and Nora Klumpp’s
video game, Jenny and the Labyrinth (2007), that question
the validity of the online marketplace itself, demonstrating
the disquieting flexibility of online identities. Also questioning
the influence of identity are the photographs of Airyka Rockefeller,
who ruminates on exactly how much of one’s self an artist
should show, when the image of being young and cool supercedes
identity in a youth-fueled contemporary emerging art community.
In her Lightjet c-print, The Curtain (2007), from Self-portraits
to Disappear, a woman placidly sits on a windowsill, her face
obscured by the overhanging window shade, exposing her beauty
to exploitation while protecting her identity from it. Likewise,
photographer Bill Durgin’s spare self-portraits, set
in empty white rooms, are shot in positions that alter or
distort his form into anonymity, questioning the limitations
of artistic identity by removing it.
Cultural dichotomies are exposed in Sara White Wilson’s
C-print, La Declaration des Droits des The Gap (2007), with
its images from Paris and Berlin of peeling posters and graffiti
markings whose accidental juxtapositions create an unintended
narrative. Miranda Maher explores the cultural psyche with
Home Improvement 2 (2007), a wall piece comprised of bird
nests, paper ribbons and shelves whose cast shadows whisper
leftover memories of the secret selves left behind.
William Lemon III answers the show’s question, And
Who Are You?, perhaps most poignantly with scented woodblock
prints and audio from his multi-media art opera, Seven Acts
for an Iron King (2007) that delves into the universal timelessness
of creative inspiration, as opposed to the more shrill call
of the contemporary art world’s muse — Fame.
McKenzie Fine Art
By Mary Hrbacek
Artists perpetually hone and expand their creative options
to suit an expressive criteria. In this regard, Jean Lowe
customizes a hybrid confluence of fine art, book cover art
and socio-cultural commentary in this bigger-than-life installation
that utilizes papier mâché faux bookshelves to
display her ironic, tongue-in-cheek social commentary, couched
in the titles and illustrations of the book jackets. She employs
a sharp wit in her artistic amalgam of contemporary painting,
craft and cultural satire.
Our society spawns an endless supply of experts who ponder
the problems that plague anxious souls in seach of social
success, personal growth, and happiness. Parents who raised
the so called Baby Boom generation were presumably too busy
enjoying themselves to take time to instill in their children
the abc’s of basic behavior — leaving them, as
adults, to search for that elusive Eight-Step Program which
would surely set everything right. Attentative pop psychologists
and self-help gurus have found their gold mine.
Some of Lowe’s titles seem outwardly amusing; Anxiety,
the Unexploited Weight Loss Tool, draws a smile until we recall
the real-life afflictions of anorexia nervosa and bulimia.
Craft Your Way To Mental Health is another title whose surface
irony gives way to a sobering acknowedgement of mental health
challenges. To be sure, however, Lowe’s message is essentially
playful and light-hearted.
She is intent on poking a well-deserved jab at the hyperactive
social expectations of today’s self-healers. There seems
to be no end to the list of what we apparently don’t
have a grip on. One has to admire, nevertheless, the persistence
of our collective quest for perfection. There will always
be another problem, with another set of experts to answer
our questions. With this over-wrought need for acceptance,
it is indeed a task for the individual to simply “be”.
Americans have an unquenchable thirst for upward mobility
and the status symbols that signal prestige. Simple pleasures,
such as meeting friends at cafes or having a delicious luncheon
with a glass of wine before heading back to the work —
these are somehow foreign to us.
Lowe has created scores of volumes in papier mâché
that impressively mimic book cover illustrations. Her facsimile
of an Oriental rug and roughed up grand piano mock the trappings
of a cliche cultured living room; there is a sense here that
we have fatally bought into the myth that there are no limits
to what can be achieved if we only work hard enough. On this
point in particuliar, Lowe aimes carefully and hits her target
square in the gut; the American work ethic, that boasts of
out-producing the rest of the world, ulimately consumes even