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Shanghai — When exploring a new city and delving into the contemporary art scene, it’s always best to look beyond the major players. Shanghai has lately played host to a number of museum openings and high profile exhibitions, but sometimes the real story is just around the corner. The city’s gallery scene isn’t quite as large as that in Beijing, but it is home to a significant body of artists, curators, and gallerists. Unfamiliar with Shanghai, it’s pretty easy to stumble across a gallery and be pleasantly surprised by the work on display. Rarer still is the opportunity to see something new and different; too often it’s the same Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Minjun faces.
Andrew James Fine Art is a contemporary art gallery in the heart of old Shanghai, an area that retains the alleyway houses and colonial architecture that other areas of the city have lost to development. The walk up to the space feels less like a jaunt in a Beijing factory neighborhood and more like a contemplative pause, a breath of fresh air amidst the trees, brick facades, and wide walk-ups. The gallery itself, an English-leaning parlor with high, dark wooden doorways and matching lofted ceilings, does a favor to the art on display, a calm environment more sanitized than an un-renovated warehouse and less oppressive than a pure white cube. The exhibition up now is an interesting match for the colonial space — a solo show for street artist Aiko, previously of artist collective Faile, and fresh off a month-long residency in Shanghai sponsored by the gallery.
Taking up a collage-remix style that’s a little too familiar to anyone who knows Faile’s work and forms a standard fall-back for many “urban” contemporary artists, Aiko grabs visual remnants of what she sees: propaganda posters, street signs, slogans, telephone sex ads, pretty much anything is fair game. Layering stencils upon spray paint upon screenprint, the artist’s work is clearly accomplished in its sense of rhythm and composition. Add garish colors, a dash of profanity, and some skin-mag nudity and you’ve got something fun and catchy, but stopping short of conceptually groundbreaking. Aiko covers canvases, paint cans and stickers with her tags; the stickers are the most interesting, appropriating the surface of a postal system address sticker, a common street art medium. Yet where this show gets more significant is in consideration of the greater context of the exhibition.
Aiko’s work in the exhibition was actually made entirely in Shanghai, while participating in the gallery’s residency program. This locality lends the work a different significance, a home-grown quality that’s reflected in the mix-in of Shanghai street signs and graphic elements. What we see is not so much a heroic, tragic artist struggling to produce a masterpiece, but a practicing artist reflecting the time and the place she occupies. It’s a blog post of an exhibition, an I-was-here travelogue and diary. As that, it packs a timely punch, and it retains its sense of visual and experiential fun. As a strong street art exhibition, it also occupies a unique niche in the Chinese contemporary art world. Aiko: Here’s Fun for Everyone puts an internationally significant street artist in a Chinese context, but without losing the courage it takes to frame strong street art as entirely worth the gallery space.
It’s a good reference point for Shanghai artists to take, whether they embrace the work on view or not, there are people standing up for street art with integrity. The story lays not entirely in the art itself, but with the continual shift of ideas and artists across borders and between art world communities, exchanges that we could only do well to increase. The more shows like Aiko’s there are, not deadly serious, not dryly academic, but with an ability to give people a quick view to a different place, or another person’s experience of the same old home base, the better.
Aiko’s Here’s Fun For Everyone exhibition continues at Andrew James Fine Art (39 North Moaming Road, Shanghai) until October 31.