Breaking Into the Big Leagues

Although the Asian art and antiques auction market has been rather depressed in general since the 2012 bubble crisis, the contemporary art sector, however, has managed to rack up the sluggish status quo and steadily increase. In this rapidly changing era, what speaks for avant-garde art in Asia today? Furthermore, who will be shaking up the marketplace tomorrow? Facts about the artists are listed below to give us clues.

Some have turned their heads at recent art fairs or have had their solo debut at blue-chip galleries. Others have just entered the plushy evening sales, and others have already broken the US$1 million mark with a single artwork. In the past 3 years, these Asian artists have solidified their place among the art market’s great, but they have also been putting aside the uniformly beautiful numbers. Each individual has a different story to tell.


b. 1979

Dandong, China


Jia Aili,The Wasteland,oil on canvas, 2007, 267×200cm. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Jia Aili’s story is a post-apocalyptic sci-fi. One of the prototypes in hisepic tableauxis a gas mask-clad figure, roaming in the middle of an immense wasteland. This image resembles either the relics after a nuclear tragedy or an abandoned biochemical plant. The main character in this artwork seems to be forever looking away from the audience. Besides him, there are the futuristic geometric objects stabbing toward the viewer’s eyes. These objects are a shocking, yet dynamic composition of lines and coloring that display a sense of collapse and mortality. These two images together create an epic tragedy of the contemporary era.In his oeuvre, the artist constantly reflects on the dramatic modernization of society and the proliferation of technology while probing the vulnerabilities of the existential human condition.His anger and unease fully and lucidly inhere to a supremely expressive brushwork.

Following Zeng Fanzhi, who currently holds the record auction price for contemporary Asian artists, Jia Aili has been the second Chinese artist who has been represented by Gagosian since 2017. Four months ago, the artist had his first solo show in New York: “Combustion” at Gagosian. This May, the 40-year-old artist became the Chinese artist born after 1970 to have the most expensive artwork sold at auction. The triumph came after his 2007 oil paintingThe Wastelandfetched HK$15 million (US$1,911,014) at Christie’s “ICONOLAST” evening sale in Hong Kong.


b. 1983

Chengdu, China


Hao Liang,AnAnecdote from The Grove,2011,ink and color on silk, 234 x 140 cm. ©Hao Liang

Another rising star from China, Hao Liang started to catch wide attention in the international art scene after his oeuvres were exhibited at the Venice Biennale, the Met, and Centre Pompidou Parisin 2017.The 36-year-old artist intends to reinvent ink-wash painting by using a traditional technique known asguóhuà,but he has his own unique take on it. Hao spent years studying the old Chinese calligraphy and painting masters, and he reproduced ancient classical works when he was younger. His recent experimental practices imbue a contemporary perception into this traditional visual language.In his meticulous portraits and landscape paintings, a new meaning seems to merge out of the interweaving of Hao’s superb ink on silk skillsso that the viewer can seedisparate historical and cultural contexts.

Jia Aili saw his strong presence in the west boost his market in 2018. Thus, he has constantly been renewing his auction record throughout the recent years.Last May, Hao’s debut exhibition in New York, “Portraits and Wonders”,sold out at Gagosian before it even opened. In the subsequent autumn auctions, two of his artworks made the significant jump over the magical threshold of US$1 million. One of these artworks is theShell(2010-2011), hammering at HK$12 million (US$1,533,108) at Sotheby’s. The other isThe Hunter and the Transformations of Hell(2011), going for HK$8.8 million (US$1,123,856) at Christie’s. Notably this spring, another of his ink-wash works calledAnAnecdote from The Grove(2011) sold at Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale in Hong Kong for a hammering HK$12.5 million (1,592,350). With this, hereacheda personal new height.


b. 1886, d. 1968

Tokyo, Japan


Léonard Tsuguharu Foujita,Self-portrait with a cat, 1927, Fondation Foujita/Adagp, Paris/Archives artistiques

Tsuguharu Foujita was one of the earliest artists who applied Japanese ink techniques to oil painting. Inspired by Ukiyoe, Foujita wielded shell-white pigment to depict the flawless fair complexion of nude women. In the 1920s, the appealingly mysterious yet breathtakingly innocent female portraits went sensational in Paris. Another early series that helped the artist achieve great fame in the West was theBook of Cat, which includes a variety of delicate etchings of the artist’s closest companions - cats. However, by 1933, Foujita’s exquisite artistic style changed abruptly when the Japanese authorities summoned him to return to his homeland where he became a producer of militaristic propaganda during the war. After World War II ended, the artist was blamed by his own people for his work with the Japanese Nazi forces. He then left for Paris. However, the artist was somewhat marginalized in the French art circle for the same reasons until his death.

Although Tsuguharu Foujita has passed the $1 million threshold for a single work in London since 1987, his long-forgotten name was only re-recognized in Asia recently as Kōhei Oguri’s 2015 biological film,Foujita, brought the artist to life. The following 3 years saw Foujita’s artworks in hot demand. In the year 2018, he ranked 73 in the Artprice’s global artist database with an annual turnover of US$26,729,571. His 1949 oil painting,La fête d’anniversaire, sold at £6.1 million (US$8,051,688) in 2018 at Bonhams’s impressionist and modern art evening sale in London- a record price for the artist.


b. 1977

Xi’an China


Liang Yuanwei,APiece of Life,2006-2008,oil on canvas, 28 × 24 cm. Courtesy of Boers-Li Gallery.

The Xi’an born female artist Liang Yuanwei has made a name for herself with a minimalist painting style that is patterned with palm trees, flora, and other decorative images borrowed from fabric designs, although her artistic practices are not limited to the canvas. The artist intends to elevate the daily manifestation of culture that she values the most to the realm of art by elaborately and rhythmically repeating its key elements while removing everything that distracts herself from it. As art historian Lee Ambrazy has said, what looks at first glance to be a conventional approach to feminine beauty becomes more complex as one nears the canvas, where her rigorous painterly approach to self-cultivation and strict explorations of form come into focus.

The 2011 Ullens Collection Sale at Sotheby’s Hong Kong witnessed the auction debut of Liang’s artwork. From 2011 to 2015, her auction price was stable at a humble bracket of US$15,000-37,000. The year 2016 was a turning point for her. Two of her artworks from theA Piece of Lifeseries tripled the early record. The record was broken three more times from 2017 to 2019. One of them wasUntitled, which sold for HK$2 million (US$256,000) at Sotheby’s Hong Kong in autumn 2017. A year and a half later, a larger painting of the same motif calledUntitled 2013.17fetched a record HK$4.2 million (US$535,084) at the 2019 ICONOLAST sale at Christie’s Hong Kong.


b. 1963

Yun-lin, Taiwan


Li Chen,Golden Rain, 2015, Bronze,157 x 84 x 87 cm. Courtesy of Christie’s.

Li Chen’sartistic practice as a sculptor started from making traditional Buddhist statues for local shrines. He spent years studying ancient Chinese philosophical theories that included Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism, but he later freed himself from the restraints of the traditional canons while retaining a profound spirituality in his work. “I try to hide something unspeakable yet intriguing and appeasing in my works,” said Li. In effect, his art offers a psychological consolation for his contemporaries in this turbulent century - the bronze sculptures reach into the audience’s inner depths through elaborate metaphors and unique sarcasm, ultimately revealing reality to be just one caricature.

Last May, Li’s 2015 sculpture,Golden Rain, hammered at HK$8.2 million (US$1,266,951) at Christie’s Hong Kong Asian 20th Century & Contemporary Art evening sale – a record for the 56-year-old artist. The hotly demanded piece was a feature in the 2009 exhibition,Mind.Body.Spirit., at Singapore Art Museum. The director of this exhibition, Kwok Kian Chow, explained how Li’s dynamic compositions both emerged from and challenged Taoist aesthetics. Traditionally, Zen is structured around the tension between vanity and significance. It intends to reach a balance between self and transcendence. However, the same theory does not apply to Li’s works, which are always in harmonious and peaceful presence, without demonstrating the aforementioned “tension”. He only touch the audience’s hearts and provoke an enchanted beating.