HK gallery's periodic offer of free space to unknown artists is a winner

Emerging artists' works get exposure between major exhibitions, and some are striking a chord with buyers

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 November, 2014, 5:39pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 November, 2014, 5:39pm

Last year Nic Kwok Ting-fung had an idea. Since his father opened the Wan Fung Gallery in 1986, they have faced the same problem that plagues many of the big galleries: the gallery is in limbo with nothing new to bring in art lovers in the down times between the monthly exhibitions.

Aware of all the relatively unknown artists toiling in Hong Kong without a space to display their work, Kwok decided to find a few of the best and let them show rent-free at Wan Fung.

The artists would be able to gain some exposure, and the gallery would have a new attraction, and collect a commission on any works sold. It was a win-win situation. The Art Space Sponsorship Programme was born.

Now in its second iteration, the programme has already proven its worth. The first show, in May, featured three lesser-known artists. It was a low-key success, drawing artists and art lovers to the gallery's headquarters in Kowloon.

The second show, which ran for a week last month, was different. Titled "Moments", it featured only one artist. The paintings - atmospheric cityscapes of Hong Kong, mostly in the rain - were crowd-pleasers. But much of the interest was directed at the artist herself, Rainbow Tse Lok-yau.

Tse is just 17. She had only participated in one small group show before joining Wan Fung's art space scheme, but her works were already starting to command high prices. In the evenings, Rainbow popped into the gallery to see her works being snapped up one after another; in the daytime, she had to go to school.

By the time the show closed, 12 of her paintings were affixed with the little orange sticker that indicated they had been sold. One watercolour, Cyber #2, went for HK$40,000.

There is no denying her technical skills. Tse says her biggest influence is the Impressionists, and she shares their love of landscapes and ability to get a big emotional impact out of just a few brush strokes.

"I started painting when I was very small, but I only started using watercolours a few years ago. It was then that I found my style: painting cityscapes and landscapes, and things like that," she says. "I've been to a few different workshops given by artists, but I've never attended an art class for a long period of time," she says.

Tse isn't sure why her cityscapes strike a chord with buyers: "Maybe the audience I'm approaching is the Hong Kong people, and they like work they can relate to," she suggests.

Cathy Lee May-yee, director of PubArt Gallery in Central, recently included several of Tse's works in a group exhibition of miniatures.

She believes the young artist has a lot of potential, but says she has yet to find her own character. Recalling a miniature by Tse that featured a7-Eleven, Lee says: "She captured the feeling of night, and added a bit of her personal point of view. I think that's what people reacted to."

People coming to Hong Kong like artwork that shows some of the city's iconic images, and Tse captures that city life in her paintings, she says. "They like the subjects, but of course, her work impresses people too."

The exposure at Wan Fung's art space scheme may turn out to be a watershed moment for emerging artists such as Tse. As effective as it may be, the mechanics of the programme are simple.

Although Kwok says he prefers to focus on "mainly younger" artists, the two exhibitions so far have showcased artists between the ages of 17 and 49. He prides himself on the shows' international scope, and has featured artists from Japan, Malaysia and Hong Kong.

There are no criteria for the prospective artists; all they have to do is submit a portfolio, be able to bring enough works to fill the space, and meet the approval of Kwok, who acts as curator with the help of his assistant Gloria Lai. He admits it is a "subjective process".

Wan Fung Gallery has a reputation for featuring traditional Chinese paintings, and the undemanding contemporary pieces which are popular with many buyers here - a kitten playing in a bamboo grove, for example. But Kwok has proved to have a diverse, nuanced taste for art.

They taught me how to build a show, which I had never done before
Rainbow Tse

In the first show, he demonstrated a willingness to break with tradition, by selecting three artists who create boldly modern works that don't shy away from sexuality, and the more primal urges of the human experience. These were Hong Kong born-painter Wong Pun-kin, Chao Harn Kae, a sculptor from Malaysia, and Jun Ohkubo from Japan.

The three, who met while working together on a design project for Disney, applied as a trio but their styles and influences could not be more different.

Wong paints realistic, near-digital headshots of notables, local celebrities, and everyday people against backgrounds of bright primary colours which he then distorts: blurring, scraping, and smearing their visages like a Gerhard Richter for the computer age.

Chao, the sculptor, also focuses mainly on faces and busts, but creates heads in clay and cast in bronze that are at once meditative and subtly demonic. His works are more reminiscent of pre-modern Mesoamerican sculpture than anything out of Asia.

Ohkubo is the edgiest of the three. He works in a variety of styles, mainly using black paint against a white background with the odd colour accent.

His works range from cartoonish sketches of animals and people, to traditional Asian motifs such as dragons in motion, and primitive, aggressive human nudes reminiscent of Jean-Michel Basquiat.

The trio represented a daring debut for the programme, and a sharp break with the gallery's historic taste. But it got people's attention, attracting close to 100 to the opening.

Whether they liked what they saw is a different question; in the end, none of the artists was able to secure a sale. Still, Kwok and the artists say that wasn't the point. They argue the programme offers more than a chance to sell paintings.

The first benefit is social. Through the exhibition the artists have been able to meet more fellow artists, collectors, and art lovers.

For Tse, who is too young to have met many fellow artists, the opportunity to get to know like-minded people was a gift: "I actually made new art friends from it - artists and people who are interested in art," she says, excitedly.

For the more established Ohkubo and Chao, who work as freelance artists, the chance to expand their networks and meet potential clients was invaluable. In fact, the exhibition brought Ohkubo to the attention of Greenpeace, which has since commissioned him to undertake a large project about the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

The most valuable aspect of the programme for the artists was that it taught them how to put on a show. Because the gallery takes a hands-off approach, the artists are forced to handle every aspect of their presentation, from curating their works around a coherent theme, and marketing themselves, to advertising the exhibition.

"They taught me how to build a show, which I had never done before," says Tse.

Not only did she have to develop a theme for her show, but she also had to produce a whole series of new works; the spaces at the gallery were so large that her small paintings seemed dwarfed.

Ohkubo also believes the experience was a great "teacher" for him - "I learned important skills" - although he laughingly concedes, "we need to do more marketing next time."

A few bumps are to be expected at a debut gallery show, but when the next big exhibition comes along, the artists reckon they will be ready.