Art is an endless journey of exploration. Artists from different cultural backgrounds respond to and interpret their personal and social experiences in different ways. Contemporary Asian art has developed for years in a fully globalised environment, under which the new generation of artists begin to acquire a radically different vision from their predecessors. They have turned away from artistic languages informed by a strong regional identity, such as Political Pop and manga/anime, to purely pictorial concerns. Abandoning ideological pursuits and struggles, these artists have essentially returned to the fundamentals of visual art, exploring expressive possibilities within composition and brushwork. Rather than reflect explicitly on society, art now returns to the experiences and intrinsic emotions of the human subject. For this autumn sale, Sotheby’s gathers works by young artists from Greater China, Japan, and Korea to present a new face of contemporary Asian art. Let us forego any stereotypical notions of Chinese Political Pop and Japanese kawaii aesthetics, and be moved by the pure experience of art itself.

In the history of contemporary art in the West, the return to pure pictoriality occurred already in post-war West Germany in the form of the wellknown German Neo-Expressionism. One of its most important proponents, Georg Baselitz rose to prominence in the 1960s. Baselitz believed in returning to pre-war Germany’s Expressionist legacy; and against photography, conceptual art, and Pop, he advocated reconstructing German art from painting. Thus, to “return to painting” became a trend in Germany in the 70s. Unfolding across the Atlantic at the same time, American New Image Painting was likewise turning away from ideology towards the bare aesthetics and mechanics of painting, as a reaction against the popular currents of Minimalism, Performance Art, and Conceptual Art at the time.

From the 1980s onwards, Chinese paintings underwent the phases and trends of Scar Art, Nativist Painting, Political Pop, Cynical Realism, and Gaudy Art, which became the standard images of contemporary Chinese art in the popular imagination. They corresponded to certain impressions and interpretations of contemporary Chinese art, especially fantasies of the Cultural Revolution. Some of these trends questioned the representativeness of painting, the medium’s history and intercultural possibilities; others treated painting as an object of debate. The artists represented in this sale are different. They withhold commentary on sociopolitical topics and grand historical narratives, and instead focus their attention on the canvas and the brush. Never dramatising their cultural identity, they prefer to engage unabashedly in a global dialogue in and of painting, breaking out of Chinese artists’ predicaments of being mere sideshows or suppliers of “local flavour” in the Western art world.

A similar situation can be observed in Japanese artists. Takashi Murakami’s notion of the Superflat has dominated Western approaches in viewing contemporary Japanese art for many years, and manga and anime have furnished its stereotypical images. Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, Makoto Aida, and Tetsuya Ishida have similarly been obligatory presences. A new generation of Japanese artists, much like their Chinese counterparts, have elected to return to pure pictoriality.

The return to pure pictoriality symbolises Asian artists’ further emphasis on their individuality and stylistic distinctiveness. Refusing to serve as tokens of regional identity or rehearsing established styles, they boldly and directly reach out to the global art world. 

Contemporary Asian Art

6 October 2013 | HONG KONG