For Art Basel Hong Kong, This Gallery’s Approach is Old Meets New

On a recent springlike afternoon in the Hannam-dong neighborhood, amid the embassies and art galleries that stretch along the hilly streets near the Han River, the Korean artist Heemin Chung had a few thoughts about a wet marigold.

“As an artist, I try to reimagine objects or scenery, and I encountered this flower in the rain one day and I thought it was vivid,” Ms. Chung said in an interview at the Thaddaeus Ropac Seoul gallery describing the inspiration for her 2023 painting “Marigold in June.” “I wanted to represent this wet marigold but not in a way that is typical. It was vivid in a different way to me. I felt a sense of distance.”

That painting will be one of several pieces on display at the Thaddaeus Ropac booth at Art Basel Hong Kong, March 28-30, this year along with the works of the Korean Canadian artist Zadie Xa (and more than 15 other artists). There will also be a sculpture by a Swiss artist who the gallery feels is ripe for discovery in Asia more than a decade after his death.

Bringing works by Ms. Chung and Ms. Xa to Art Basel Hong Kong seems fitting, given its global reputation for championing Asian artists, but the announcement this month that the gallery will represent the estate of the sculptor, Hans Josephsohn, is a chance to introduce a piece of history to the Asian market, according to gallery executives. Mr. Josephsohn, who died in 2012 at 92, is known in some European art circles but is considered virtually unknown in Asia.

That juxtaposition of old meets new, Europe meets Asia, is an exciting proposition for the Thaddaeus Ropac group, which opened its Seoul gallery in 2021 (joining others in London, New York and Salzburg, Austria). And for Ms. Chung, who often focuses on bridging the gap between the technological world and the natural world, the wet marigold seems ideally suited to the moment.

“By capturing moments like this, and by creating this multilayered image, I tried to depict the distant feeling I seized in the moment, like a gap or rupture that exists in the world,” she explained.

“Marigold in June” was featured in a solo exhibition in the fall of 2023 at the Doosan Arts Center in Seoul titled “Receivers.” Ms. Chung, 36, will have another solo exhibition tentatively titled “Umbra” from June 19 to July 31 at the Ropac gallery in London, which will have 10 to 15 paintings all loosely related to death, she said. “Marigold in June,” which is acrylic, oil and inkjet transferred gel on canvas, was inspired, like much of Ms. Chung’s works, by the simplest of things.

“I get inspiration from nature, from reading, from many mediums, and this process is really important to me as an artist and as a human being,” she said. “It’s not really about the impression, but how I convey what I see and feel.”

This approach also informs the works of Ms. Xa, 40, in ways that she would never have imagined growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia (she has lived in London since 2012). The painting “Grandmother Mountain,” which will travel to Hong Kong, has roots squarely in Asia and was created for an exhibition of her works at the Space K gallery in Seoul last year. It’s an homage to her ancestral roots in the Korean Peninsula.

“For the past seven years I’ve been really interested in grandmother figures or elderly women, particularly because I kind of stumbled upon this forgotten creation myth in Korea about Mago or Grandmother Mago,” Ms. Xa said in a recent video interview from her London studio. “It’s a story of a giant goddess who created the land formations and fortresses and rivers in East Asia.”

Her oil-on-canvas painting depicts such a goddess, surrounded by a patchwork of colors, mountains and clouds, with a tiger and birdlike images. “The Grandmother Mago figure is venerated, and there are still shrines within Korea and the mountains where people go and make offerings to and pray to,” Ms. Xa said. “One of the things that I found interesting is in Korean mythology a lot of creation myth stories center around male deities. This was a way to venerate and try to in some ways pay homage to the Grandmother Mago figure.”

Alongside that figure, in a swirl of background imagery, are characters equally compelling to her as an artist and observer of nature. The tiger keeps company with less exotic animals in the painting, such as a sea gull.

“I’m quite interested in urban animals that are downtrodden and maligned within society, which is I think why I’ve always really loved sea gulls,” said Ms. Xa, who will have a solo exhibition titled “Rough Hands Weave a Knife” at the Ropac gallery’s Paris space from April 12 to May 26. “Sea gulls have a connection to the supernatural. Sailors would often pay attention to the way they behaved to understand what will be happening with the weather.”

That philosophy could certainly apply to the works of Mr. Josephsohn. The gallery hopes to demonstrate the power of his artistry and lift the veil on his obscurity among modern art collectors. One of his brass sculptures, “Untitled (Lola),” from 2002, will go to Hong Kong.

“For me he is the most overlooked sculptor of the 20th century,” Arne Ehmann, an art historian and the executive director of the Thaddaeus Ropac gallery in Salzburg, said in a recent phone interview from Los Angeles, where he was attending the Frieze Los Angeles fair. “People really don’t know him, even in Europe. It will be interesting to see how the Asian audience responds to this introduction to his work.”

Mr. Ehmann also pointed to what he sees as a growing interest in Asia for sculptures of the human form. The abstract bodies by the German painter and sculptor Georg Baselitz, whom the gallery also represents, have sold extremely well in Asia in recent years, he said. In fact, the sculpture by Mr. Josephsohn will be paired with “Blaue Küste” (2020), a painting by Mr. Baselitz, at Art Basel Hong Kong to capture the stylistic kinship between the two artists.

“The broken heroes that Baselitz painted in the ’60s are similar to what Josephsohn does in his sculptures, so it’s a perfect match to show them at the same time,” Mr. Ehmann said. “I saw Josephsohn’s sculptures for the first time 10 years ago, and I was fascinated by their prehistoric appearance. He’s deeply rooted in the tradition of European sculpture that was inspired by Giacometti.”

Born in East Prussia in 1920, Mr. Josephsohn studied art in Florence before having to flee Italy in 1938 because he was Jewish. He settled in Zurich, where he lived, quietly and without seeking fame, until his death in 2012. Now, 12 years later, Mr. Ehmann said he felt as if Mr. Josephsohn’s time had come. He cited a large exhibit that is scheduled to open in October at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris.

“He was never part of an artist movement, and he was a pure sculptor without any esoteric goals or with an overloaded conceptual background,” Mr. Ehmann said. “We’re not doing this because it’s a zeitgeist phenomenon. Josephsohn’s work is timeless.”

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