Seattle Art Fair

Seattle Art Fair Scene 2 Milan at Seattle Art Fair Yan Li at Seattle Art Fair Seattle Art Fair Scene 1

“I’ve been going to the Venice Biennale for at least a decade and always enjoy the stimulation of seeing the work of new and up-and-coming artists” … “In 2013 I started thinking, ‘what’s keeping us from doing this in Seattle?’”

-Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft)


Spent part of this past weekend with Yan Li and Seattle-based Chinese artist ZZ Wei at Seattle Art Fair.

Question, as Jen Graves observes in her piece in the Stranger on the subject from over 6 months ago, is whether or not this event is “of and for Seattle,” or, to put it her way, is this a “mother ship” landing for four days in late summer and then just evaporating like the prospect of real rain on the West coast? (to use a regional metaphor).

The answer remains to be seen, I suppose, particularly in terms of impact on the many local galleries and art outfits that were not actually involved in the event. Meantime, many art writers seem to take the position that even the fact that it happened here at all matters. One important note is that some major dealers (referred to as the “triumvirate” Gagosian, Pace, and David Zwirner) have selected Seattle over other notable cities who have had art fairs running now for the better part of a decade (Los Angeles, Dallas, for instance). Seattle has drawn attention as a worthy endeavor, which is a mark of accomplishment of sorts.







Frye Museum Exhibition



Stranger Recommended

Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930

Tues–Sun. Through May 25.   |   FreeFrye Art Museum, 704 Terry Ave, 206-622-9250
Isamu Noguchi image

Isamu Noguchi image


Now on at Frye Museum is a pair of exhibitions, one smaller, the other more ambitious, the two collectively an important because uncommonly deep meditation on artistic influence.

The first, larger exhibition is

Isamu Noguchi and Qi Baishi: Beijing 1930

is an intimate glimpse into a ½ year-long artistic tête-à-tête which had lasting impact on Noguchi’s work in particular.  Noguchi, Japanese American artist, sculptor, designer, was at the time in his late twenties when he found himself waylaid in Beijing. Making the best of his circumstances, he decided to pursue the study of ink painting with well-established artist and, in time, 20th century master Qi Baishi. The resulting images are arresting in their simplicity, particularly when paired with Qi Baishi’s paintings.

Jen Graves (side note, Seattle’s own art critic finalist for a Pulitzer award–way to go Jen!) comments on the exhibition in The Stranger with typical cogency. Among other things, she notes the one image that I’m guessing didn’t need much prompting from Qi Baishi, approaching, as Graves observes, erotica:


Isamu Noguchi



A striking work, to be sure.



Mark Tobey, Untitled

Mark Tobey, Untitled

The other exhibition,

Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai

forms an important complement. Tobey’s words on traditional Chinese art: “Chinese painters, like the Futurists, don’t paint birds, they paint the flight”. The Frye description:


February 22 – May 25, 2014

Mark Tobey and Teng Baiye: Seattle/Shanghai is the first exhibition in the United States to explore artistic and intellectual exchanges between Chinese artist Teng Baiye (1900–1980) and his American contemporary Mark Tobey (1890–1976). The two first met in the 1920s, when Teng moved to Seattle to study sculpture and complete a master’s degree at the University of Washington. During this period, Tobey studied calligraphy with Teng, and the two artists formed a deep personal friendship. In 1934, Tobey visited Teng in Shanghai and soon thereafter embarked on his seminal “white writing” paintings, works considered by Western critics to be indebted to his study of calligraphy, ink painting, and the Bahá’í faith.
The present exhibitionconsiders Teng’s influence as both a cultural interpreter and an artistic practitioner on the development of Tobey’s distinctive artistic practice and—through Tobey—on the discourse on abstraction in midcentury American art. Whether Tobey’s work had remained “American” or become “oriental” was a subject of debate among contemporary observers in the United States. Merrill Rueppel, the director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, wrote in 1968 that Tobey was “never for one moment anything but an American,” explaining that he had “taken the calligraphy of the orient and made it the foundation of his own art without becoming oriental.” Similarly, William Seitz, curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, wrote that in Tobey’s work “the Eastern dragon had been harnessed to Western dynamism.”
In China, similar questions regarding the extent of foreign influence on the work of Teng Baiye were raised. Scholar David Clarke notes that Teng’s “sojourn in the Pacific Northwest and his sophistication in handling both Western and Chinese cultural knowledge gave him valuable resources with which to contribute to the task of assimilating lessons from elsewhere while building a national culture [in China in the 1930s].” Nevertheless, after 1949, and especially during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76), Teng’s paintings were denounced as spiritual pollution. He was condemned to manual labor and few of his paintings survived.
At the time of these debates on national identity in the United States and China, Mark Tobey reflected on “the art of the future,” writing that it “cannot germinate in antagonism and national rivalry but will spring forth with a renewed growth if man in general will grow to the stature of universal citizenship.” The present exhibition provides audiences in the twenty-first century with the opportunity to consider and compare the mature work of both Teng and Tobey and to reexamine twentieth-century debates on their artistic endeavors beyond the ideological inflections and Cold War rhetoric of their day. 


David Clarke, in 2011, had written on the subject, though in the case of this exhibition its pairing with the Noguchi/Qi images is particularly powerful. Certainly worth a visit.




Zhong Biao at Elliott Bay on Ai Weiwei and Freedom of Expression

As part of Zhong Biao’s visit, we organized a small panel discussion at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.  Speaking were Zhong Biao and Jen Graves, visual arts editorial writer for Seattle paper The Stranger.  I served as translator, as best I could.

The event was very well attended, given the short notice, and the conversation wide ranging.  Sooner or later (later, as it turns out), the topic almost inevitably turns to Ai Weiwei.  I was pleased, though, to have the opportunity to mouth-piece an alternative view to the one that is frequently expressed in Western press.  Zhong’s response to the Ai Weiwei question–if we might frame it simply as such–focused entirely on the idea of freedom.  In Zhong’s view, an abstract “freedom” is not something we possess, or even “fight for,” and certainly not something handed to us like a trophy.  Freedom is defined in contrast to (and therefore limited by) what constrains it.  Like jumping up and down. One strives for the freedom that is above us, the clear sky.  If, though, we were to actually get there, it becomes a very different story. The feeling of freedom we get with our leaping to higher elevation is actually provided by the force that pushes us down—gravity.  Minus gravity, we’re just adrift.  Ai Weiwei (in grass horse/fuck your mother images) can be seen leaping literally against this gravity. His power to do so figuratively, which in Ai’s case is all-important, is defined by the authoritarian gravity which he challenges day in and day out.

But back to Zhong’s comments.  The discussion about freedom led abruptly to Zhong’s view about Chinese artists (and intellectuals) generally. In typically definitive fashion, he identifies two types of artist/intellectual: the destructive and constructive.  Both types are necessary to advance artistic progress, which I might add seems to be taken by Zhong as essentially necessary.  Ai Weiwei is an exemplar of the destructive type. Ai stakes out this position vis a vis existing power structures. Having clearly identified this target, he then endeavors to blow them up.  If he does his work well–and it seems  in Zhong’s estimate that he does–he can bring down the entire structure.  Meantime, the other side working on building things up.  These two are mutually dependent as one would be meaningless without the other.

This dichotomy aside, Zhong and Ai strike me as having an interesting common element, namely the powerful consistency between what they believe and what they do as artists and as people.  For both there is hardly any daylight between their lives as artists and as people, for lack of a better world.  Ai’s case is well documented.  Zhong, though, shares in this perhaps more than one would imagine.  His photorealism, his abstraction, his symbols, and his opinions are all part of an integrated whole.  Hence, while Ai Weiwei is challenging the limits of politically acceptable speech, Zhong is exploring gravities of other sorts.


Schoolyard Daredevil