Stepping into the world of Asian art on the Cape

Reading Cynthia Freedland’s “But is it art?” with its insights into some of the most controversial pieces produced in recent years (Damien Hirst’s dead shark and Serrano’s Piss Christ among them) has made me wonder: who are today’s top-ranking contemporary artists, and is all their work equally…bizarre and unconventional?

The answer I found surprised me: according to the 2008 (not nearly as current a source as I’d like but one of the most accessible ones), of the world’s top 10 money-making artists, only the first four are Western (Jeff Koons, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, and Richard Prince). The rest are Asian. And yes, they do a lot of breaking with convention, though not, for the most part, in a Hirst sort of way.

Having recently fallen hard for Zao Wou-Ki‘s prints after a friend and art dealer introduced his work, I wanted to know more about some of his contemporaries – and the new generation of Asian painters. I got lucky on a trip to Provincetown, MA, where I got a small glimpse into that diverse, sprawling new Asian universe.

That knowledge that Asian artists are topping, if not dominating, the charts made a recent visit to the Tao Water Gallery even more interesting. Bao Lede, owner and painter-in-residence, hails from China. So do the other excellent painters he represents – painters whose work spans the gamut from thoroughly classical Asian and European to Zao Wou-Ki-inspired to ultra-modern with edgy messaging and sociopolitical undertones.

Bao Lede, “Dawn Shining over the Lake I.” Oil on canvas. 68″ x 35″

Lede’s paintings are a dreamy, emotive blend of Western and Asian influences. He says that people will often think that a painting of a landscape in China is of Provincetown and vice versa – an unexpected confusion of what you’d think are very different locations that makes his process and inspirations even more intriguing.

When I asked how the economic situation had affected his gallery, he seemed surprised, as if the crisis hadn’t reached the outer Cape – and had to think about it before answering, “not much.” The artists he represents, Bao Lede explained, are doing very well. One is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Another at PS1. Another in Seattle museum. And several were features in the latest show at the new Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston.

Bao Lede, “Pilgrim Lake I.” Oil on canvas. 36″ x 36″

I asked how he got to know the painters who show in his galleries, and it turned out that they have a long history that goes back to their days in China in the 80s. At that time, Lede says, there were only 7 art schools in China and each year, only 30 or so students were admitted. The artists knew each other – and clearly still support each other on their way up the ranks.

Bao originally came to NYC, but it was difficult to find your direction there, he said. If you weren’t established and didn’t know people, it was nearly impenetrable. So he opened his own gallery on the Cape. Now he has two, one in Provincetown and one in West Barnstable. All signs indicate that he made the right choice.

If you’re interested in a thorough introduction to who’s who in the modern Chinese art world, you’re in luck: Bao’s wife, Dian Tong, is the author of China! New Art & Artists.

Tao Water Gallery I is located at 1989 Route 6A (on the Cape), and Tao Water Gallery II at 352 Commercial Street, Provincetown, MA.

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