It’s the second Saturday in February and that means Art Walk in Wynwood and the Design District tonight. Even though just about everyone focuses on the walk more than the art during this monthly event — in part because a human-stuffed gallery is hardly conducive to chin-stroking contemplation — you may want to stop in at Wynwood’s Butter Gallery to catch Paper before it closes on Feb. 26.
The exhibit features works on paper, “the essential Chinese invention”, by four young Chinese artists from Hangzhou: Guo Tiantian, Qiyuan, Su Xiangpan, and Zheng Tianming. Having grown up after the end of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the four China Academy of Art grads are fusing East and West to express themselves with a freedom and sentimentality unique to their generation, says show curator Inez Suen. I recently spoke to Suen, who also heads the International Chinese Fine Arts Council (ICFAC), about Paper (or zhǐ), “body parts morphing into lotus flowers”, and her grand mission to unite the global Chinese arts community.
Inez Suen: To be totally honest, it was because paper is easy to carry and easy to ship. Works on paper are pretty popular now, and I felt it was a good way to introduce the artists to an international market. This is their first international show. They’ve only ever showed in China.
All four artists are in their 20s. Was it a conscious decision to showcase such young talent?
IS: Butter Gallery is all about emerging artists and cutting-edge art. I curated with that in mind. They also represent a new China. All of these artists grew up in the “New China” era. They didn’t go through the Cultural Revolution, and they didn’t go through the tough times. They grew up in a modern China with video games, and they had McDonald’s. They didn’t suffer – let’s put it that way.
How does that influence their work?
IS: I think they are a lot more free. If you look at the subjects of these works, they’re very similar to any young artists’. It’s a lot about relationships, sexuality – there’s a lot of self expression. They’re all very sentimental with very little focus on the political.
What I love about the art I generally see coming out of China now, is that it’s really a fusion of East and West. Because in school, they’re taught not only traditional Chinese crafts: painting and calligraphy. They’re also taught the modern Western techniques: oil painting, acrylics. They’re getting exposed to Western contemporary art through the internet. It’s very interesting.
Does Paper exhibit this East-West fusion?
IS: There’s a definite fusion. One of the artists in particular, Qiyuan, she paints with traditional Chinese ink with traditional Chinese brushes on traditional Chinese paper. But then the subject of her work is very much non-traditional. It’s body parts morphing into lotus flowers morphing into snakes morphing into owls. It’s pretty incredible stuff. Another of the artists, Guo Tiantian, her work is painted on traditional Chinese scrolls, but again the subject matter is definitely non-traditional. There’s no landscapes, there’s no calligraphy. It’s very much contemporary expressionistic painting.
I heard the artists couldn’t get visas to come to the exhibit. What happened?
IS: Yeah, it was the U.S. The U.S. wouldn’t grant them visas because they were afraid they would stay here forever and not leave. China had no problem letting them go.
Is that common?
IS: I haven’t heard of it. The reasoning the U.S. gave was that they were too young, they had no reason to go back, and they were fearful they were going to stay here.
I immediately assumed it was the other way around. Even though Chinese artists today aren’t under Mao’s thumb, there is still a lot of censorship in China, particularly on the internet. How would you describe the climate for artists in China today?
IS: I traveled to China in June. I went to all the major arts districts in all the major cities. I visited a lot of galleries and went to a few artists’ studio. From what I could see, there’s no police walking around outside [intimidating artists] or anything like that. As far as the censorship goes – I know China is known for its censorship, but I think our country censors quite a bit. We just don’t talk about it as much.
So are Chinese artists today free to create as they please?
IS: More or less. You can definitely read through the papers and pick out examples of people who have gotten persecuted because of their art, but I think it’s a pretty rare thing now. And I think you have to be pretty outspoken to draw the attention of the government.
Your bio describes you as “a native of Chicago by way of Taipei”. How did you end up in Miami?
IS: I moved down to Miami about a year ago. I lived in New York for the last ten years working in the art industry. But I moved down here because I thought the weather was nice, and I really enjoyed the thriving art community that’s been developing down here over the last ten years.
What is your assessment of Miami’s arts scene?
IS: I think Miami is actually one of the bigger art centers in the United States. The artist community here is very tight knit and very supportive. People in the arts community here — including the gallerists and the curators and the museums – they all [are] very accessible to artists and the public. They’re open to collaboration. New Yorkers are, too, but it’s a different machine. It’s a different ballgame.
What can you tell me about the International Chinese Fine Arts Council?
IS: We’re a 501(c)(3) non-profit here in South Florida, and our goal is to foster cultural exchange in the contemporary arts between South Florida and the Chinese arts community. One of the projects I’m working on is a trip to China towards the end of this year, where I would like to take five or six Miami artists, curators, and gallerists over to China and do a little tour. Our long-term goal for the organization is to build a good contemporary Chinese arts collection.
IS: Yeah, in South Florida. I think it’s an interesting place for it.
So, is the ICFAC South Florida centric, despite its name?
IS: Well, right now it’s only in South Florida because I’m pretty much the organization and I’m in South Florida. The goal of course is to expand internationally. There’s a specific reason we named it the Chinese International Fine Arts Council. Chinese people have been dispersed all over the globe, and often times Chinese art is only thought of as art from China. It’s really not the case. There’s Chinese-American. There’s Chinese people in Australia making some great art. I actually met a Cuban-Chinese artist yesterday. I’m hoping to unite the Chinese contemporary arts community and expose it to the rest of the world. It sounds like such a blanket statement, but that’s the underlying goal and mission of the organization.
Still on the fence about going to Art Walk tonight? Our coverage of previous Walks will put you in the mood.