What does the future hold for abstraction in Asia?

Will non-representational art begin to play a larger role in the Asian contemporary art world?

Several exhibitions of Asian abstract art have been popping up in recent years in countries across the Asian region. Many curators are re-examining the emergence and development of Asian abstraction and considering the role it could play in the future of the Asian art world.

Chu Teh-I, 'Juxtaposition/E1002', 2010, acrylic on canvas. Part of the exhibition "Formless Form - Taiwanese Abstract Art".

Chu Teh-I, 'Juxtaposition/E1002', 2010, acrylic on canvas. Part of the exhibition "Formless Form - Taiwanese Abstract Art".

Abstract art exhibitions on the rise

Tracing national traditions

Chinese-speaking regions have arguably been the most active in supporting abstract artists. In 2012 alone there have been a number of high-profile abstract art exhibitions held in respected contemporary art institutions.

The Taipei Fine Arts Museum (TFAM) recently hosted “Formless Form – Taiwanese Abstract Art“, which ran from 7 July to 2 September 2012. According to the exhibition text, the show focused on the idea of “nonnatural imagery” in the mind of the artist and probed how over thirty Taiwanese artists from three generations have explored this subject’s aesthetic potential from the 1960s onward.

The curators divided abstraction into two main stylistic categories: rational and “visceral, lyrical” expression. The former operates conceptually, experimenting with a logic of compositional elements that is not affected by subject matter. Lyrical expression, by contrast, uses abstraction to evoke “subjective, rich emotions”, at times even working within a more surrealist frame to discover “an artistic language from within the subconscious”.

Curator Liu Yung-jen told The Wall Street Journal that the exhibition is the most ambitious of its kind ever to be hosted at TFAM. He stated that though many of the artists learned their techniques studying Western abstract masters, the participating artists developed their “own artistic language, coming from Chinese and Taiwanese culture”.

Yan Binghui, 'Square and Round, In and Out', 1992, ink on xuan paper. Part of the "MINDMAPS" exhibition at Pearl Lam Gallery in Hong Kong.

Yan Binghui, 'Square and Round, In and Out', 1992, ink on xuan paper. Part of the "MINDMAPS" exhibition at Pearl Lam Gallery in Hong Kong.

A “rise of global interest”?

Taipei is not the only city in Asia to host a high-profile exhibition of greater Chinese abstract art this year. On 16 May 2012, Pearl Lam Galleries opened their new Hong Kong space with the exhibition “Chinese Contemporary Abstract, 1980s Until Present: MINDMAP“, featuring seven mainland Chinese artists.

The exhibition aimed to expose Western viewers to a different aspect of contemporary Chinese art, with a focus tending towards political or figurative artworks. According to the press release, the exhibition comes amidst “a recent rise of global interest in abstraction and new market interest in Chinese abstract artists”.

Does the show reveal a potential for contemporary abstraction to become more of a presence in the Asian art world?

Toko Shinoda, 'Aspirations', 1999, lithograph with hand-applied gold. Part of the Nikei Fine Arts exhibition "Kaomise".

Toko Shinoda, 'Aspirations', 1999, lithograph with hand-applied gold. Part of the Nikei Fine Arts exhibition "Kaomise".

The trend seems not to be limited to Chinese abstraction. To open their new Singapore art space, Japanese gallery Nikei Fine Art organised the exhibition “Kaomise”, which will run until 4 November 2012. The exhibition brings together fifteen artists from Japan and other parts of Asia: China, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Included in the show is vanguard Japanese artist Toko Shinoda, the 99-year-old painter whose practice brings together the visual languages of calligraphy and modern abstract expressionism.

Asian abstraction’s roots 

Philosophy, tradition

Many of those involved in Asian abstract art are working to trace a native historical legacy. For China, gallerist Pearl Lam has been on the forefront of this movement. As she said in a “MINDMAP” press release,

Chinese contemporary art is all about re-inventing tradition. I’m hoping that this show will make the Western world look at Chinese abstract art in a new way. We were pouring ink more than 2,000 years ago, way before Jackson Pollock.

Zhu Jinshi, 'Who Will Speak of Chibi', 2009, oil on canvas.

Zhu Jinshi, 'Who Will Speak of Chibi', 2009, oil on canvas.

Lam brought on Chinese curator Gao Minglu to curate her May 2012 Hong Kong opening exhibition. Gao, who previously worked with Lam’s Contrasts Gallery in Shanghai, uses the term ‘Maximalism’ to describe a particular style of Chinese abstract painting in which the act of creation of a work is itself a component of its aesthetics. According to Gao, this mode of practice has roots in both Eastern philosophy, such as Taoism, and classical Chinese literati painting.

Asian Modernism: A hidden legacy

China’s history of Modern and contemporary abstract art was interrupted by the Communist Revolution and its subsequent denunciation of abstraction as a form of Western decadence. In other Asian countries, however, exhibitions are currently being held that re-examine the emergence and development of abstract art via the first generations of artists. At Korean Gallery Hyundai‘s Gangnam branch, a retrospective of the first generation Korean abstract artist Han Mook is currently on show.

Mook Han, 'Reunion', 1993, oil on canvas. Part of Han's upcoming retrospective at Gallery Hyundai in Gangnam, South Korea.

Mook Han, 'Reunion', 1993, oil on canvas. Part of Han's upcoming retrospective at Gallery Hyundai in Gangnam, South Korea.

Similarly, the National Art Center (NAC), Tokyo opened the exhibition “Gutai: The Spirit of an Era“, which ran from 4 July to 10 September 2012. The show consisted of works by the avant-garde art collective Gutai group, who were strongly influenced by Western abstract expressionism and action painting among other movements.

While at the time the group was largely ignored in Japan and dismissed in the West as derivative, the NAC exhibition aims to reevaluate the group’s historical and aesthetic importance. The Guggenheim Museum in New York is also organising an exhibition of the group’s work entitled “Gutai: Splendid Playground“. The show will debut in February 2013 and is the first exhibition of the collective’s work in the US.

Quiet rise of Asian abstraction?

Osage Gallery in Hong Kong took a different perspective on Asian abstract art in their 2010 exhibition “The Burden of Representation: Abstraction in Asia Today“. According to the introduction to the exhibition, the show looked at how abstract art in Asia exists “in a context dominated by figurative and realist modes of painting”. The curators examined how Asian artists are rethinking abstract art’s relationship to representation and how they explore its social and political potentials, with an eye towards the role abstraction may play in the Asian art world in the future.

Do you know of any recent seminal exhibitions of contemporary Asian abstract art? How do you see abstraction in Asia developing in the years to come? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

PR/KN

Related Topics: trends, museum shows, gallery shows

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