W ith Sotheby’s Hong Kong Contemporary Day Auction close at hand, we take a look at an enthralling line-up of artists. Many of them see the natural world in surprisingly new ways. As this selection shows, the contemporary can be a place where influences from the past meet compelling visions of the future.
Barcelona-born, Brooklyn-based Cristina BanBan’s (b. 1987) paintings glow with warmth, bonhomie and tenderness. La Costa Daurada (The Gold Coast) (2020) hums with the heat-shimmering, happy intensity of a day at Spain’s Gold Coast in Catalonian high summer. At nearly two metres tall and equally wide, the canvas can hardly hold in its subject matter. The carnival of beach visitors bursts at the seams, the acrylic paint revelling in a lavishly depicted sequence of multi-hued flesh. Reminiscent of Jenny Saville (b. 1970) and Lucian Freud (1922-2011), Cristina BanBan’s paintings explore the joyous warmth of the human body in its natural, un-airbrushed state. The power of the human form is depicted with firm, unhesitant brush strokes and expansive majesty.
Turin-born Guglielmo Castelli’s (b. 1987) paintings often portray human figures in a state of relaxation. His subjects appear to merge into their surrounding atmosphere in a serene, yet apparently somber, monochromatic colour scheme. He studied set design at Turin's Accademia di Belle Arti, and carefully arranged scenes and high drama are embedded into each concept he creates. Nightwatcher (2021) is a luminous work in yellow-green oil paint, setting a stage of gesture and melodrama, of sinewy acrobatics, and languorous figures in the foreground shushing an unseen audience. The painting radiates a sense of the clandestine, of expectation and late-night revelry in a crowded room, poised for new drama to begin. The title calls to mind Rembrandt’s (1606-1669) painting The Night Watch (1642) with which it shares a spirit of conspiratorial, nocturnal drama. An artist with a growing international following, he has had solo shows in New York and Dallas in 2023. He continues to live and work in his native Turin.
Polish artist Ewa Juszkiewicz (b. 1984) has a growing profile on the contemporary arts scene. She held her first solo show at Gagosian in 2020, followed by shows at Almine Rech in Paris and London. In Untitled 49 (2017), the artist explores the language of sculpture, a marble surface subtly subverted by the introduction of elements from nature. The female subject is inherent to this painting’s intentions and meaning. Having studied the history of Western portrait painting, the artist was struck by the passivity and lack of individuality among female sitters. She remarked in 2020: “I was driven by a desire to revitalise history, or rather, to create my own story on the basis of it.” This painting is based on a bust of Princess Elżbieta Izabela Lubomirska at the Wilanow Palace in Warsaw, Poland. Princess Lubomirska was politically active during the 18th century, renowned as a protector of peasants and founder of schools and hospitals. Ewa Juszkiewicz is influenced by Renaissance techniques but ultimately follows a language of her own; as she foretold in 2020: “I wish to tell a new tale and create my own language: ambiguous, dense, natural, and organic.”
New York-based multi-disciplinary artist Scott Kahn (b. 1946) is quoted as considering his work to be a visual diary of his life. However, his paintings often combine detailed landscapes with ruminations, imagination and elements of dreamlike fantasy. ASLEEP (1984) borders on surrealism, and has echoes of modernist painter Edouard Manet’s (1832-83) Le Déjeuner sur L’Herbe (1862-63) and Nicolas Poussin’s (1594-1665) Echo and Narcissus (1627). Stretched out across the foreground, an incongruously naked body forms parallel lines with the foliage and the horizon. The body simultaneously stands out from nature, and blends into it, nestled and cradled in the embrace of the natural world. A close friend of the late Canadian artist Matthew Wong (1984-2019), who was also self-taught, Kahn’s paintings offer a sense of freedom. As Kahn said in a 2021 interview, “I cherish life and cherish freedom more than anything.” The painting, in his preferred medium of oil and linen, is an exercise in liberty of thought and open interpretation.
Izumi Kato (b. 1969) is an artist whose practice embraces sculpture, painting and craftwork. His painting, created with his hands rather than with a brush, has an instinctive, raw quality which has been likened to cave paintings. Untitled (Diptych) (2015) features unsettlingly shaped figures ranging across an unformed landscape, darkly toned, seemingly eternal and futuristic all at once. The artist has a great interest in spirituality and cultural traditions, which have encompassed African totems and Jōmon period clay puppets. This painting is imbued with an essence of Shinto, believing that spiritual forces inhabit all living things. The artist hails from Shimane Prefecture in southwest Japan. Tourists travel there to visit Izumo-taisha (Izumo Grand Shrine), which many scholars and historians assert is the oldest Shinto temple in Japan. This eerie composition was exhibited at Kato’s acclaimed solo show at Perrotin New York in 2016.
Jersey City-born artistic phenomenon KAWS, whose real name is Brian Donnelly (b. 1974), has captured public attention as few artists have. Beginning with street art in his adopted home city of New York, he has gone on to reach a huge audience internationally through painting, sculpture and commercial tie-ins which are anchored in the popular iconography of the world of entertainment. UNTITLED (KIMPSONS 9), PACKAGE PAINTING SERIES (2001), executed in acrylic on canvas, leverages the enduringly popular Simpsons characters, made KAWS’ own by judiciously inserted X marks for eyes. The work was featured in a coveted limited publication by the artist: KAWSONE. The Kimpsons series has garnered both acclaim and collecting frenzy: in 2019, another Kimpsons painting, fusing the Simpsons with the Beatles, and titled The KAWS Album (2005), sold for HKD115.9 million (USD14.8 million) at Sotheby’s in Hong Kong—nearly 15 times the high estimate.
Swiss artist Nicolas Party (b. 1980) studied in Lausanne and Glasgow and now divides his time between New York City and Brussels. He worked for a decade as a 3D animator, which may have informed his unique style; his captivating pastel portrait paintings are both anchored in historical influences, and resolutely contemporary in their visual language. His portraits exude a deliberately flat quality, as if portraying individuals completely resistant to scrutiny and understanding. With extraneous details eradicated, his paintings explore the materiality of canvas, paper and pastels, rather than seeking likenesses of specific individuals. Portrait (2015) evidences his radical take on the world of portraiture, which has been compared to artists such as René Magritte, Giorgio de Chirico, Pablo Picasso, and Alex Katz, as well as to Greco-Roman busts, and to the late Egyptian sarcophaguses where portraits were painted on coffin exteriors. This is a rare chance to acquire a pastel canvas portrait by Party in the secondary market; this is only the fifth opportunity to do so to date.
American painter Joyce Pensato (1941-2019) was an artist with a vision to overturn the sunny, eternally optimistic persona of the cartoon character. Attacking cute images with ferocious brushwork, she returned frequently to portrayals of Homer Simpson, Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, as well as a character she called “The Juicer.” Four Donalds-3 (2017) is a signature work of her shrewd, gently cynical world view. Rather than her more typical black and silver-white palette, she instead created a black-on-gold composition in which layers of gold paint were thickly applied until the linen base took on a metallic appearance. Her work teased out hidden disquiet and unease in the unlikeliest places, thereby underscoring the inescapability of reality and the transience of our existence. Underneath that was a message of hope, and the need to challenge commonly held assumptions. Her paintings are in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Dallas Museum of Art, among others.
Created in painted stone, stainless steel and oil on canvas, Green Yellow Red Blue Mountain (2018) revels in the material possibilities of stone, not aiming to replicate or blend in with nature, but to form a shape and impression separate from and additive to it. As Swiss-born, New York-based Ugo Rondinone (b. 1964) said, “My work is built in duality. This dynamic feeds and develops it...the stone looks artificial. When you see the sculptures, you cannot tell if they’re plastic, styrofoam, or stone.” With echoes of Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids, the artist’s practice of placing rock on top of rock is central to the tensions he explores, such as between monumentality and precariousness, the eternal and temporal. Green Yellow Red Blue Mountain is part of his signature Mountains series, which formed its climax with the 30 feet high public art installation Seven Magic Mountains in the Nevada desert.
Hokei (1992), a post-Gutai period work by Kazuo Shiraga (1924-2008) is a work which balances the intense maelstrom of forces swirling on the canvas, with an elegance reminiscent of calligraphy. The artist first abandoned the paintbrush in 1954, opting to fasten himself to a rope and use his feet to spread paint in thick layers through gesture and movement. In Hokei, the sunny yellows, bloody reds and snowy whites stand out among his oeuvre from 1992, which was generally in single colours. The deliberate unevenness in the deployment of paint memorialises his own body movements across the canvas. The palpable tensions and whirlwind of forces at play evoke the struggles and violent clashes of the Chinese stories which Shiraga grew up with, such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms (14th century) and Tales of the Water Margin (12th century). Symbolic of the link between Shiraga and classical Chinese culture, he named this painting after the historically significant Chinese city of Baoji in Shaanxi Province – Hokei is Baoji in Japanese.
Huang Yuxing (b. 1975) graduated from the Department of Mural Painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in his native Beijing in 2000. Pine Spirits At Twilight (2019) is an example of an acclaimed visual language of iridescence and neo-fauvist hues, seeming to elevate and amplify the natural world. The viewer takes in the surroundings as if through fluorescent lenses. The sinuous, spiralling trees and peaks form a range of vertical focal points which simultaneously disrupt and harmonise with the artificial, other-worldly landscape. Throughout his career, whirlpools, trees, minerals, crystals and bodies of water have been among his preferred painterly landmarks and motifs. He is an artist who presents a world which is familiar and yet resolutely novel, a planet of frenzied and overlapping colours, a destination fizzing with futuristic energy and aspirational vim.