On Friday afternoon I was walking around the French Concession with my friend HY, researching a walking tour of that area's art galleries. We stopped in at the James Cohan Gallery located near the corner of Yueyang Road and Yongjia Road. Surrounded by capacious mansions that once housed wealthy Chinese capitalists and gang bosses, this neighborhood is one of the most picturesque in the city. The James Cohan Gallery, which was started in New York and is still headquartered there, opened here a few years ago and is one of the leading contemporary art galleries in Shanghai. Upon our entry we were greeted with this vision of metallic sculptures looking very spidery and spindly, which immediately reminded me of Giacometti. But HY remarked that the sculptures resembled ancient Chinese characters.
We moved into the next room, with a beautiful semi-circular alcove fully exposed to the outdoors by the bay windows with their Deco iron grillwork. A Chinese man with long hair tied up in a bund, classical style, who we immediately identified as the artist, was busy filling in the shadows of another piece hanging from the ceiling that looked like an ancient pyramid hanging upside down. Below it was pure white sand, and he was marking the shadows projected by the piece in black sand. This was Wang Xieda. He immediately rose and greeted us with a smile, like an old friend, or 一见如故 as the Chinese say.
We spoke briefly about his artworks and remarked on their resemblance to ancient signs and symbols, which was apparently his intention. He is fascinated by fourth century calligraphy of the period of Wang Xizhi (who isn't?) but also ancient symbolism and the universal quest to communicate meaning through symbols that led to all of the writing systems in world history. For the hanging sculpture, he used rattan. Upon the walls of the gallery hung some of his artworks, abstract ink paintings resembling calligraphy in some respects but not making up any particular characters, just lines and splotches that could be read like Rorschach tests. We left the artist to his work and wandered into the stairwell, where another sculpture was hanging that resembled (in my opinion at least) a crane-like bird with a stout body and long neck.
At that point, the gallery operater, Arthur Solway, stepped out of his office and engaged us in a discussion of the artist, inviting us to attend the opening event on the following day. We had stumbled in on a sneak preview, but they were very obliging about our intrusion. Arthur gave us a brief historical rundown of the building, telling us how he'd found it and who occupied it previously (a story that I will let him tell you if you visit there yourself). The slogan appearing above the entrance to the gallery might reveal a clue as to who the previous occupants were.
The Qing style imperial ceiling of the main gallery room and the Chinese rock garden with rocks dredged from Lake Tai (Taihu) suggest that the pre-Liberation occupants styled themselves Orientalists.
The vantage point of another Wang Xieda installation outside in the courtyard garden area affords a nice view of the building housing the gallery and is very nicely placed among circular brickwork of the garden.
For contemporary art lovers in Shanghai, this is an exhibition not to be missed.