The veteran gallerist and connoisseur of contemporary Chinese art speaks to Prestige about upcoming exhibitions, a change in 3812’s business premises, and the galleries he’s looking forward to visiting this week.
As day 1 of Hong Kong’s major for-profit art fairs (namely Art Basel and Art Central) rolls to a close, we take a moment to chat briefly with Calvin Hui — the latest face in our curated series of art month interviews. An avowed expert in contemporary Chinese art (notably in the areas of ink and acrylic painting) Hui is celebrating 10 years this May of 3812, the gallery he co-founded with Mark Peaker that is present in Hong Kong and London.
To commemorate this significant milestone, the duo are presenting a two-part show, which opened earlier this week to a warm reception, until late June 2021. Entitled After Nature, the first chapter of the exhibition furthers 3812 Gallery’s perennial mission of “strengthening the connection between Eastern and Western artists”. Throughout, works by two major abstract artists (one Chinese, one European) have been selected — all presented in shimmery new digs on Wyndham Street. In this Q&A, Hui walks us (literally) through this important new show at 3812 Gallery; and gives his take on a medley of rich subject matter ranging from post-war Chinese art to the state of his industry in a socially distanced age.
We’ll start with an easy one: for those who aren’t necessarily familiar with Hong Kong’s gallery scene, would you mind briefly introducing yourself?
My name is Calvin Hui, I’m the co-founder of 3812 Gallery. Besides overseeing this business for the past 10 years, I also organise art fairs — including the first in Asia dedicated to ink artists — and am a curatorial consultant to MGM Cotai. In the latter capacity, I’ve helped to build the company’s ‘Chairman Collection’ in Macau, which is an ongoing project.
In the past decade, what are some of the most important shifts you’ve witnessed in the local and indeed regional art market?
Within the past decade, Hong Kong has gradually established itself as the art-trading centre of Asia. Alongside London and New York, it’s now definitively one of the most significant art markets in the world. We’ve also witnessed the continued rise of Asian collectors — most notably in Mainland China. That has instigated a number of exciting developments in the marketplace: most notably, an influx of international art, be it modern or contemporary, both here and in the wider Asia region.
There’s also the buying preferences in the local market here: over the last three to five years, I’ve observed a nascent interest in contemporary art that carried with it an ‘enriched’ Eastern aesthetic.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of 3812, you and your team moved the gallery to a new location on Wyndham Street – what aspect(s) of this space most excite you?
I suppose the most obvious benefit is the fact that we’re now very much in the middle of Central. We have a whole floor to ourselves, and we’ve converted it (almost entirely) to suit the particular requirements of 3812 Gallery. The impression of space and an abundance of natural daylight are, to me, some of the venue’s most charming features. And, being in a commercial high-rise, we’re fairly secure and possess a good amount of privacy — both essential to our clients.
Are there any really dramatic changes from the layout and viewing experience of your previous gallery in Sheung Wan?
From the curatorial perspective, the space offers us a number of opportunities to experiment with presentation — it’s a good deal more flexible in that regard than our previous location [in Sai Ying Pun]. In comparison, the additional wall space enables us to better meet the ‘international standard’ when it comes to contemporary galleries. I’d say that upon visiting, your first impression will be of how minimal, clean, yet layered the new space is.
Within the European art community, you’re well-known for being the first Hongkonger to open an outpost in London. Does the profile and taste of your Western clientele vary significantly from that in Hong Kong, or have we moved beyond such dichotomies in 2021?
The London gallery scene has been instrumental in establishing us as an ‘international’ name. This year, our outpost in St James’s has been an essential part of a new curatorial direction: there, we use the space to bring Hongkongese artists and contemporary Chinese artists to a global audience. When you see those works in the middle of London, the message is very much “we’re from Hong Kong, but very much on an international journey”.
In much the same vein, we’re also the exclusive representative of three modern British artists whom we’re excited to be bringing to Hong Kong later in the year. That’s just one of the ways in which we’re trying to generate fresh experiences for our existing collectors — many of whom (in Hong Kong) know and appreciate Chinese artists but are curious to have a comparative point of reference. When we position our Chinese and British artists together, side-by-side, within the same environment we can trigger our collectors’ imaginations — and that’s the kind of artistic exchange that I really enjoy.
You just concluded a solo show by the Chinese oil painter Liu Guofu earlier this month entitled In Praise of Blandness. What can you tell us about your next exhibition?
Our latest show, entitled After Nature, was organised to celebrate our 10th anniversary. In it, our central theme is the duality between British and Chinese artists — an acknowledgment that abstraction and landscape painting can go hand-in-hand. It doesn’t matter what their cultural background is: our artists are all inspired by their surroundings. So, in After Nature we’ve pulled together artists with these different heritages, in order to facilitate a dialogue through their respective works.
We always talk nowadays about globalisation, so why not put artists of differing backgrounds and nationalities together and allow them to freely discuss the differences and similarities of their own artistic practices? For example, appearing in this show, we have Raymond Fung — a leading Hong Kong ink artist. Fung’s landscapes are a reflection of how the artist perceives beauty in their surroundings: there’s a lot of personal sentiment in his works — visible through technique, colour, and composition.
That expresses itself differently from the style of, say, Albert Irvin, or even another [Mainland] Chinese artist like Li Lei, and so on. In Li Lei’s case, he’s very clearly familiar with the fundamentals of abstract expressionism, but on top of that there’s a kind of eastern aesthetic twist — an exchange of philosophies apparent in how he portrays colour. So I wish to have all those elements within a single environment, so people will be moved to consider how they differ and how they’re similar. That curiosity is integral to the process of educating our clients and helping them develop a deeper appreciation for our artists.
As an ardent proponent of modern Chinese artists for well over a decade, who are some of the central figures in that movement whose work you’ve enjoyed collecting?
Hsiao Chin is the artist I feel I must mention. Now 86 years old, he’s a leading figure in the canon of abstract Chinese artists who came to prominence in the post-war period — he began his professional journey in the 1950s. Consequently, he settled in Italy and only returned to Asia (whilst still nominally living in Milan) around 30 years later. In the past few years, we’ve been fortunate to be his exclusive global representative — it’s been an amazing journey, getting to reintroduce his values and unique perspective to the international art community.
You know, it’s quite interesting: in this new cosmopolitan era, we’re constantly talking about the post-war artists of Britain, France, and America; and I often wonder aloud why we aren’t talking more about their Chinese contemporaries during the same era. Throughout the 20th century, Chinese society has been through so many great upheavals and produced some very major names in the art market. Painters like Zao Wou-ki, Zhu Dequn, and Sanyu moved to Europe to embark upon their own artistic adventures — and they brought with them China’s artistic traditions into the 20th century. Yes, they had a deep and very direct understanding of Chinese culture, but this allowed them to reinvent it through a process of reabsorption.
Are there any names from a subsequent generation of Chinese artists — living persons, bluntly put — whose work you’ve also supported and enjoyed?
Chloe Ho is a great example. She’s a contemporary ink painter who I often describe as being “locally international”: she is from Hong Kong, but her work has been increasingly well-received in London and New York. At home, enthusiasts know her through her projects with Rosewood and Martell. We started working with her in her mid-20s just after she’d finished school in the US — our gallery at that time was still in Wong Chuk Hang. In many ways we grew together: it’s about more than just business. Having that kind of friendship with your artists helps to clarify your shared values for art & culture.
In the style of an ‘elevator pitch’, what would you say the core elements of your business are at 3812 Gallery? What gives your team credibility?
So, I think the answer can be embodied in two differing extremes. Firstly, we specialise in art that is (to my mind) fine, high quality, collectible and which carries with it strong aesthetic values. When we present our artists to the market — doing what a PR person might refer to as ‘positioning’ — we focus on communication that meets a certain consistent, internally cogent standard. You can see that in the content we produce online: even when certain people think what we’re doing is a bit obtuse or uninteresting, it’s our responsibility to document our artists in the most exhaustive manner.
Secondly, we’re always trying to find new ways to make use of the amplifying power of new media in order to reach as many people as possible — collectors, enthusiasts, general audiences and so on. Our ongoing engagement online with SOAS University of London is one such example.
In light of this month’s Art Basel festivities, please share two or three other galleries with our readers that you’ll be visiting in the coming weeks. Any specific exhibitions that you’re excited about?
Oh certainly! On Hollywood Road, our good friend Arthur de Villepin is going to have a very interesting exhibition with the Korean artist Myonghi Kang. He and [his father] Dominic have excellent curatorial instincts — the presentation of their shows has always been seriously professional. And then (assuming your readers have time) they should consider a trip to K11 Musea: on the mall’s sixth floor, they’ve just opened Calligraphy Rhapsody — a new retrospective of the art informale pioneer Georges Mathieu’s work over the past 40 years.
Over the last 15-18 months, businesses in every industry have had to develop innovative new methods of interacting with their clients. What are some of the pandemic-era strategies you’ll be keeping?
We’ll continue to rely upon the digital engagements we’ve been doing all throughout the previous 12 months, whether that’s chairing a webinar with SOAS or expanding the fidelity of our online viewing rooms (“OVR”). Don’t forget that our collectors aren’t just based in London and Hong Kong: we have a number of clients throughout Asia for whom it’s still not safe to travel, so reaching out digitally is an extremely vital part of our service model. When difficult times arise and clients place their trust in us, it’s vital we maintain (as I’ve previously said) our professional standard. The art market is incredibly niche: I’d go so far as to say it’s the apex of the luxury market. That’s why we must always be attentive — especially when our clients can’t be with us in person.
Locally, we’ve also become quite fond of doing small-scale private appointments — we’re adopting a similar approach in London. I have to say it’s been effective: even flashing back to relatively ‘normal’ days you want your collectors to feel at ease and have sufficient privacy. Post-pandemic, we might go back to classic event set-ups involving ‘wining & dining’ and the occasional party but the existing small-scale approach continues to yield results.
‘After Nature: Part 1’ is now available for viewing (by appointment) until 16 June 2021. To learn more, visit 3812 Gallery online.