Raman Frey and Wendi Norris of Frey Norris Gallery, San Francisco discuss what to expect at Art Dubai this year

As told to Reem Fekri

Raman Frey: “The Middle East and the U.A.E in particular combine all the elements necessary for the visual arts to flourish.  Art Dubai, the Sharjah Biennial and the construction of so many important museums are manifestations of an underlying set of priorities.  Wealth does not necessarily lead to connoisseurship.  Those who have wealth first must discover in individual ways how the questioning nature of art can enrich their lives.  These benefits have more to do with time and reflection than disposable income. 

There are traditions of art making here that pre-date recorded history, so the region has often been conducive to the flourishing of art.  A wonderful example are the artists Attiya Shaukat and Mudassar Manzoor, from the National College of Art in Lahore, Pakistan, two artists continuing a historic tradition of miniaturist painting, while also reinventing the subject matter in a contemporary vein.  We’re proud to be the first gallery to exhibit their art in North America, creating a cultural exchange in a historical context where such communication is particularly needed.  Their exhibition is installed in our San Francisco gallery through March 29th.”

Wendi Norris: “The confluence of political, cultural, and economic factors in the Middle East provide rich material for all types of artists to draw inspiration from.  Given the current state of the world (and I don’t mean just economically), I believe art can be a powerful bridge building tool between the Middle East and other parts of the world.”

RF: “I wish I could say for certain that our artists would do well (at Art Dubai).  Knowing the future would be so helpful.  We have spoken with a number of friends who are familiar with Art Dubai and the interests of collectors in the region, and we have made an educated guess as to which artists would be best served by exposure at the fair.  We review the work they propose in detail and also consider how our booth is curated, the ramifications of aesthetic and conceptual dialogues between artworks in the same space.  All our exhibiting artists have created new art for the fair.

I would draw particular attention to recent work by San Francisco based artist Rodney Ewing.  We will have three new pieces by him at the fair, Vestibules and Alleys, Where-House? and Passport.  Ewing doesn’t shy from politically charged subject matter; like Alfredo Jaar and other artists who have influenced him, Ewing approaches cycles of oppression, exploitation and violence without devolving into polemics or blame.  The finished works on paper are beautiful and seductive, the content veiled but unflinching.  His ability to draw attention to the things we’d rather avoid is extraordinary, and the nuanced ways he conjures questions on these topics is an important role for art, and a particular strength of art produced in California in the last 50 years.

Kate Eric have contributed work from their Bug War Over Two Blue Mountain series, acrylic works on paper, a large painting on canvas and some wall mounted sculptures.  Tomokazu Matsuyama contributes a large painting incorporating traditional Japanese motifs with western contemporary graphic elements.  Inkie Whang, who represented Korea at the 2003 Venice Biennial, meditates on a Korean temple scene in his signature binary acrylic on gridded canvases.  Hisashi Tenmyouya shares two surgically precise small paintings from his series, “Illustrated Scroll of Defiant Satire.”  And Koh Myung Keun has given us one of his sublime photo-sculptures, this one constructed of curving images of a red maple in autumn at the palace near his home in Seoul.

There is certainly a growing confidence on the part of contemporary artists in the Middle Eastern region to set their own criteria by which their work is understood and evaluated.  This is immensely healthy and opens dialogues and possibilities for artists all over the world.  Many of these artists simply cannot be defined by their cultural roots – they are globally aware and globally savvy – though many make use of art historical precedent from non-western sources.  A wide range of artists come to mind:  Ai Weiwei, Shen Shaomin and Cai Guoqiang for their ability to explode what has been possible in China and in a new kind of Chinese cultural diaspora, Tenmyouya Hisashi, Takashi Murakami, Chiho Aoshima, Tomokazu Matsuyama, Inkie Whang, Yoo Seung Ho,  Subodh Gupta, Thukral and Tagra, Surendran Nair, Imran Qureshi, Saira Wasim, Hayv Kahraman and many others.  These are only some of my favorites, artists who continue to provoke and intrigue me, and I am still in the process of learning. 

Wendi and I both have a lot of education ahead of us, coming to know all the fascinating a promising artists in the region, but we continue to do our best to pioneer, to travel to where the artists are and to take that leap of faith which means the expense, time and energy involved in offering them their first exhibition in the United States.

When comparing the art market to that of ten years ago, the first word that comes to mind is “healthier.”  I think I can speak with many gallerists in saying that we didn’t choose this vocation for the money.  Conversations with people who evaluated art by name, price history and size were often unpleasant and impersonal.  Though we may not be selling as much, I’m enjoying the conversations so much more these days.  They are about meaning, about the experiential value of important works rather than the probabilities that the work will appreciate economically.  Of course the irony is that this is a buyer’s market, that the galleries and artists left standing at the end of this global recession will be well placed to become the most influential cultural vanguard of my lifetime.  Bad economic times are historically those when many great masterpieces are made.”

WN: “The art market is definitely global today versus ten years ago, largely due to technological advances that enable instant access to information.  We are all more susceptible to fluctuations in international markets, not just national or regional ones.  The art industry will continue to involve with auction houses, art fairs and perhaps new business models finding a way into what will become the next art wave.

 As one of the few gallerists with an economics background, I am happy to see things “normalize” and believe that the best works, best artists and best galleries will persevere and innovation will result in a more trying time.”

RF: “It’s impossible to beat a recession and I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t admit that the quantity of sales has been affected.  That said, the quality has improved.  The most interesting collectors are coming out of the woodwork, the people who sat by and shook their heads while the market spiraled into the stratosphere.  They are taking their time and considering options, which I appreciate.  I think the best collectors now are enjoying a bonanza of choice and are valuing more each acquisition.  In the best scenario, each will reach old age having lived with the equivalent of their own personally curated private museum – I can think of nothing more inspirational, though I think I’d want a collection of books to match.”

WN: “I am hoping that consumers, as they begin to “deleverage” and buy less (e.g., televisions, cars, frivolous items), will take stock in what leads to a better quality of life.  Good and healthy food and original works of art can inspire and enhance one’s overall quality of life in a deeper, more meaningful manner.  I think galleries may need to re-educate their clients and be open to developing new collectors who may not have the ambitions of a Cohen or a Broad but have the desire of a better life.  That is how we can all work together to grow the art market—by appealing to a broader base and making it a more emotional sale”

RF: This is our first year participating at Art Dubai, but I expect it will reflect the unique cultural perspective and preferences of the region, even as it draws the rest of the world into a dialogue with that regionalism.  I would hope that patrons and visitors would be eager to experience art that pushes them a bit outside of their comfort zone, art that has the power to catalyze their thinking on the most fundamental aspects of living.  In the grand scheme of things, this is the greatest value the fair and its surrounding events can bring to the people who live here.  And of course there’s all the sophisticated humor, viewing pleasure and straight-forward fun that is part of any well assembled art fair.”



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