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  • SunHe Hong

Looking Back: An Artist's Reflection

Updated: Jan 8


This year the Art Expo New York 2018 will be held at Pier 94 from April 19-22. With this being my second year exhibiting at this international art fair, I would like to take a moment to reflect on my journey of self-discovery as an artist in this magical city. It has been truly amazing. Over the last 9 years I have had so many incredible moments, from finally sharing my art to the world and connecting with so many creative souls who have motivated and inspired me to keep making art and moving forward a step closer to my dreams. They were like puzzle pieces coming together to mold me into the artist that I am today.

One of the moment was meeting Jeffrey Deitch, who happens to be one of the most prominent figures of the contemporary art world today. He would end up visiting my studio in 2010, and then once more in January of 2017.

Eight years ago in late February of 2010 we had met for the first time at an art opening in Soho. Earlier that same day, I was on an elliptical reading an Art News article about how the MOCA,The Museum of Contemporary Art in La, just hired a private art dealer from New York to be their new museum director. His name was Jeffrey Deitch. Later that evening, I went out with some friends to an Art opening at Soho, the Brucennial 2010, an enormous contemporary exhibition in downtown NYC that featured over 150 artists from all over the world.

At the event Jeffrey greeted me then asked if I was exhibiting at the show. I said no, but that I was an artist myself, from which point he exclaimed “why isn’t your work being displayed?” Then he asked for my card. I was nervous and reluctant to give it to him because he was such a big man in the art world, but he insisted so I gave it to him.

Shortly after, in March of 2010, he visited my very first studio in Hell's Kitchen while he was in the middle of moving to LA for his new job. I was surprised that he was taking the time to visit me because he must have been so busy at the time. Until his visit, my studio was often chaos with artwork all over the floor. To impress him I made do with the little space I had and started to install my work everywhere. In a short time the walls were completely covered with my artwork. During his visit, he commented how he liked the works I had done on paper between 2008 and 2009.

Another incredible moment in my career was when I met and befriended Italian curator Alberto Dambruoso in December of 2008 at a Chelsea gallery opening. It was his last day in NYC, but when he returned to Rome, he checked out my

i-web gallery. It was a very amateur website, as it was the first one I had created, but it didn’t matter to him. Dambruoso sent me a very touching email of his impression about my art. I was touched by his words and humbled to hear him describe my work as the best he’d seen on his trip to NYC. The letter was written beautifully in Italian and one of his friends translated a version in English to go along with it. One of my Italian friends told me it was even more beautiful in its original language. With his permission, I added his writing to my site and would keep it on their for the next seven years.

Here I am again in front of this blank page, this time to devote some impression of mine, some critical comments of mine on the work of a very talented American artist that I have had the pleasure to meet during my last stay in NY. I immediately will say that since the first artwork that I have been able to admire. I have recognized the elegance, the talent and the poetic-existential position of SunHe Hong, these elements fuse together and as a result the art and the artist become one.

At this point in time one understands better where the artists images of women are born. Portraits and sketches of models are light and ephemeral as the butterflies that are on them and at the same time sensual and vital as it is the spirit that has created them.

SunHe has crossed with this series, one of the classical themes of the artistic production from half the XIX century and for the first half of the XX century, which are life drawing and the portrait in the studio. Conferring to it a personal sense of lyricism with a perturbing sensuality in the posing and in the attitudes that come together to vibrate the whole composition.

Here lies the beauty of the models and the butterflies which are their symbols becoming a pretext for the artist foreshadowing the souls. In conclusion an absorbed dimension emerges between the contemplative, the dreamer and the spectator. This allows both to be captivated and allows them to dream with their eyes open.

By Alberto Dambruoso, Art Critic & curator, Rome, Italy Jan., 2009

In our email conversations he urged me to create a more professional website and to get a studio. He told me that in the art business, everything begins at the artist’s studio. He was right, Jeffrey Deitch came to my studio within nine months after getting one. Per his advice I found a live-in studio in Hell’s Kitchen May 2009. It was walking distance to the Art Student’s League, where I had access to many models to draw or paint at little cost. Plus, rent was cheaper at the time.

In 2009, when Dambruoso revisited NYC for his art business. He was able to visit my studio right after I had moved in. The place was empty with nothing except piles of my artwork, but he was finally able to view my work in person. We got to hang out a bit after our initial brief meeting at a another opening in Chelsea. We visited other well known artists like Peter Reginato, a prominent sculptor in his studio in downtown. He and I have a picture together with Peter, in front of one of his metal sculptures.

I’ve always been a painter but mainly just to express my inner-self. I wasn’t showing my work yet, but I was often hanging out with other artists and networking at art events. I didn’t know how to become an established artist in the city yet, but I was finding my way.

In June of 2013, one of my new friends checked out the work on my website and invited me to be featured in his Art and Fashion magazine called Hartiska. The magazine editor chose to publish Dambruoso’s writing as a part of my bio, along with some of my paintings that he selected.

Two years later, another friend invited me to exhibit my work with another emerging artist in midtown, at a pop art show. This was my very first time exhibiting paintings in the city. Even if it was just for the evening, I truly loved it and was astounded by the reactions I had received. It was surreal to feel the emotions of viewers as they allowed thelves to resonate deeply through my art. Now I felt I was ready to share my work with the public. By then I’d had more than a hundred pieces of my art was sitting in my studio, waiting to showcase them whenever I would get the chance.

Later on, in March of 2016, a few weeks before the NY Armory Art Fair, Thierry Alet, the former founder of the Pool Art Fair NY, came to visit me at my studio. Despite the fact I had a very bad flu at the time, he came over and told me that I had so many beautiful artworks in my studio and that must be shared with the public. Then he hand picked seven paintings and convinced me to show my work at the Clio International Art fair in March of 2016. And so I took his advice and showed my work in a much grander scale than before.

Then in June of 2016 I had a big break. I would have my first Solo Exhibition in NYC showcasing 55 of my works over the next 6 months. The pieces explored a progression of my styles as an artist over the span of eight years. The show was titled “AWAKENING” and it was held at the PEPELA, a chic Georgian Restaurant and event space in midtown. It was one of the most romantic, elegant, and stylish places in the city. My paintings were across the entire venue, covering two floors of open space and brimming the establishment’s high ceilings until New Year’s Eve of 2016.

My Russian friend, Janetta is to thank for this occurrence. One day in 2015, she invited me to Pepela after a night out at an event. As soon as I entered the space I immediately felt a sense of comfort, a hidden sense of belonging. From the butterflies and roses on the walls to the contemporary horse sculptures hanging from the ceiling I fell in love with the place. And for the first time in my life, I felt my paintings belonged somewhere other than my modest studio. I spoke with the owner, Gabriel Boter, and told him I am a romantic painter, that my works include themes consistent with those which filled his place.

I explained what inspired my work over the last eight years. I talked about how I included butterflies in so many different ways in my work and how that butterfly became my signature; they served as a metaphor for the growth and changes in my life and how they symbolize the beauteous free spirit. I often used female models with butterflies, roses and doves to project my own feelings and moods to manifest my soul.

After viewing my site and following up with a studio visit he fell in love with my art and offered me the entire space to exhibit my work. At a certain point Gabriel and I said to each other that my art and Pepela were meant to be, as Pepela happens to mean butterfly in Georgian.

One evening, before my work was showing at Pepela we were hanging out and he took out a big art book about Jeff Koons. The book was gifted to Gabriel by the artist himself at one of Koons’ art exhibitions on madison avenue. He said passionately, “this is not art, yours is!” I was humbled by his kind words, and left speechless; I could tell he truly loved my art, and it was amazing to work with someone who really believed in my work. He genuinely wanted to help me be discovered. Gabriel’s confidence in my work empowered me to continue to follow my passions. Over the years, Pepela was frequently visited by many celebrity figures, including former president Bill Clinton, Alec Baldwin, sport icons and even art icons like Jeff Koon. In September of 2016 Bill de Blasio, the mayor of New York City, would host an event at the Pepela surrounded by my 55 pieces. I moved to this city after college with a dream that one day I would be recognized for my art. I am forever thankful to Gabriel for not only supporting my work, but for giving me such a wonderful opportunity.

About a week before I had started my solo exhibition, on Memorial weekend of 2016. I was busy in my studio sending out letter of invitations to opening. I sent one to Deitch, as he had moved back to NYC and was back in art galleries business again. In the email I explained to him what I had been doing since his last visit to my studio back in 2010. I talked about the different art exhibitions I had shown at and shared some pictures of the 55 paintings that was already installed at Pepela. Unexpectedly, he responded immediately, inviting me to meet with him at his gallery on Grand Street. I was so excited but at the sametime I was a bit nervous too, as it had been quite some time since our last encounter. We talked about what I had been up to for the past six years in terms of art and traveling. At the conclusion of our meeting we got to talking about my style of art and as he walked me out of his gallery, he said to me “I am interested in intellectual art.” Hearing his tone and the way he said these words I could tell he was not interested in showing my work. I was devastated, torn as I felt he’d insulted my entire body of work in just one phrase. After I left his office, I wrote to one of my friend, who I respect but also held a high position in the LA art world, Michael Masucci, Chair of Santa Monica public Art Committee about how I was so upset that he insulted my artwork. His words were kind, and he took the time to explain the meaning behind Jeffrey’s words. He clarified what the term intellectual art meant, conceptual art and certain types of abstractions only. What he wrote is below.

“I think what some people call Intellectual Art is usually a certain type of abstract expressionism and conceptual art, popular with art critics and curators after 1950. This is still the most exhibited type of art in contemporary art museums. The belief is that this type of art forces the viewer to think in different ways, or see behind the facade of culture or traditional. But I think there is room for every kind of art both abstract as well as figurative. I know a lot of people who think that only abstract art matters today. I disagree. But we both must realize that many powerful people in the art world don't believe what we believe. Your work expresses the human spirit and its passions, desires and therefore is as important as any other kind of art, because it is really about what it is to be alive and to be human.”

He told me not to let this ruin my upcoming art opening and that my work expresses the meaning of life and human spirit therefore it should be included and valued as “high art” in today’s contemporary art world.

To give some background on what the words “intellectual art” meant, they referred to the works that Deitch and other contemporaries were exhibiting. Mainly, these pieces came from classic art movements that have prevailed dominantly over the past century. Conceptual Art Movement started little before 1917 with Duchamp’s “Fountain: the porcelain urinal which was controversially defined as art, In 1950’s American Abstract expressionism movement was born with Pollock's drip paintings, and then with Warhol’s return to Conceptualism with ready made object art in 1960’s during the industrial age. All these movements made sense to exhibit in contemporary museums back then, but how can we consider it to still apply half a century later when times have changed so much?

Does it make sense that the contemporary Art world of today still holds onto these antiquated art movements and uses them as archaic standards to define great art today? Does it make sense to exclude art that is inspired by life and its emotions? I found it too hard to swallow as an artist who refuses to conform to these standards! Look at the way other art industries, like in music and film have changed so much over the last decade, while the visual art industry has remained stagnant past 60 years. Why should what is referred to as “high art” continue to be exhibited in contemporary museums if it does not correctly reflect the present times.

While all these thoughts were still fervent in my mind, on October 14, 2016, four months after meeting with Jeffery at his gallery, I wrote a long email to him and shared my brutally honest opinions of what could be defined as intellectual artwork.

It made me sad that although the world had changed so much in past half a century, my kind of art that is inspired by life and the human spirit, seemed to be constrained from being appreciated at a high level by current standards.

I wrote that the powerful people in the art world are brainwashing the newer generation of art curators, critics and collectors, misleading and miseducating them about what is “high art.”

The younger generation attempts to start their careers in art with genuine ideas of what they think is authentic and great art, but after working in the industry these young curator/critic adapts their higher up beliefs what is great art and continue to promote only these types of art.

Sadly this is how art buffs control the contemporary art market. For the younger generation trying to stay afloat in the business they must conform or quit all together. High end collectors probably want to maintain the value of their works that capture great moments in art history, but at what cost? If we can only consider these works and styles from the past to be in the top tier of art, we prohibit so many forms of inspiration from entering the high end art world. In a way, these standards are preventing the growth of the art culture as a whole. I find it ironic that the very movements that were instigated in order to break the social norms and constructs of what was deemed professional artwork have now become guidelines themselves. This is why year after year, the kind of art we see at all high end art fairs is so similar or same.

We live in the digital age of the internet where we are constantly bombarded with immediate gratification. However, in this environment we have ironically become more isolated, impersonal and disconnected from one another. With the touch of a finger we can access whatever content we seek instantly. Dating apps allow us to quickly find partners without building any kind of relationship. Even sex has become so casual in this generation, no longer requiring the emotional and special connection it once had. In this high tech society, emotionally, we are lost. I think that now, more than ever, we are in need of art that connects us with the world we live in. We not only need art that makes us think outside of box, but art that puts us back in touch with ourselves and to each other.

I further explained to him what my art is. I said “I express the human spirit and its emotions, all that comes with life, both its energies and its essences.” I talked about the way my work resonated with people and inspired them to tap into their own creativities. Musicians and poets who had came to my studio would improvise music and poetry as they felted overwhelming emotions from being surrounded by all my paintings. Even abstract artists wanted to collaborate with me because of the way my art sparked an emotion that rang within them and took them to a place in their soul where they truly felt alive. I told him that high art should include art of the human spirit. It expresses the intangible things in the human life and the emotions that course through us from our passions to our pains, our infatuations to our melancholies, from our inevitable longing for fantasy. That my art is poetry and soul music; R&B in colors and shape.

I thought this would be my last letter to him when I wrote it. Surprisingly he responded to my letter immediately, but without any mention of what I had said about the importance of human spirited art and the standards of intellectual art. I had said in my letter to him that his voice matters a lot in the art world today and I was so glad he read it and was not angry about what I had said.

A few months after my long letter, in December of 2016, Jeffrey Deitch and Larry Gagosian would put together an erotic art exhibition titled Desire at Art Basel Miami. Here is a quote from the exhibit: "Eroticism reinvents itself with every subsequent generation. Today, for example, the promiscuous overexposure of nude bodies on the Internet and television has forever altered the very notion of erotic representation." and on Dec 1, 2016 he was quoted again from the Miami Herald: “Why an erotic show? “Because it is the essential subject of the artist,” Deitch said Thursday afternoon at the Moore space. “Go back to the ancient world. Greek sculptures and vases. Baroque paintings. Matisse, Picasso. It’s one of the great subjects of art. I asked Jeff Koons, and he said ‘this is what life’s all about.’”

Architect Kulapat Yantrasast, sweeping by on his way out, confirmed that conclusion. “It’s great,” he told Deitch. “It gives you hope for humanity. This is the perfect time for this.”

We stayed in touch after our email conversations and eventually he came to visit my studio again in Jan 2017. This time he seemed genuinely touched by my work and seemed to understood it at a deeper level than he had seven years prior. I had never asked him if I could have him pose for a picture in my studio, but this time I took more than 10 photographs of him around my studio.

Amid his visit, he told me I was a very good artist and said that I just needed to find the right buyers. I was taken aback; his words in 2016 brought me to tears, but now he was responding to my kind of art. I was shocked, could this really be happening? When I had wrote that letter to him I assumed he would ignore it and it would be my last message to him, but it was just the opposite. Even later on, at the Armory show in March of 2017, I happened to notice that Deitch’s booth featuring a quite large size of painting of a nude woman.

The following April, on the 11th, I received an email from Michael Masucci, Chair of Santa Monica public Art Committee that linked to an article from artnet news. The article pictured Deitch posing in front of a nude painting announcing the opening of his new gallery in LA. It was funny to us, everyone seemed so shocked by the new directions he was taking in his career.

Of course the events and the follow up seemed to be no coincidence, but who is to say? Could it be that my work and beliefs had an effect on Jeffrey? Perhaps it was my art that inspired him to broaden his view, and to find an appreciation for the human spirit after all these years. It is something I will always wonder, but I will never know for sure.

-Artist of Today-

-SunHe-


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Copyright © 2019 by  SunHe Hong,  All rights reserved.

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