In January 2016, Zhangbolong Liu became an apprentice at Cloud Gallery, a framing shop in Tribeca (full disclosure: his connection to the framing shop was through me). After graduating from School of Visual Arts with an M.F.A. in photography last year, the young artist from Beijing has been busy exploring possibilities outside the scope of fine art photography. In addition to preparing for exhibitions in both Beijing and New York, he writes for photography publications in China and helps a New York based creative studio with video production. Liu, who studied material science as an undergraduate at Tsinghua University, has long been interested in the basic elements that compose the daily objects in our lives and craftsmanship. His enjoyment from making things by hand motivated him to learn framing. Recently, he curated a show in the framing shop that focused on the most important element in the workspace: wood. For this exhibition, simply titled Woods, Liu invited 14 Chinese artists, mostly his friends, to interpret the theme and submit related works, and for each work, Liu himself custom made a frame without charge.
Liu began learning woodworking and framing at Cloud Gallery with no previous experience in either area. Two days a week, he works in the back room of the framing shop, slicing glass panels, measuring works of art or anything that has been sent to be framed and precisely cutting lengths of moulding with a machine. Because the craft requires a lot of attention to detail and patience, the process partly reminded him of developing film. “When I started to take photos, I spent a lot of time sweating in a small darkroom at my school. There was no air conditioning in the summer, but I quite enjoyed it, since dedicating time and focusing on a single task made me feel accomplished, whether the final result was perfect or not.”
Although Cloud Gallery has occasionally placed framed works on its walls that passersby on West Broadway can see through their large storefront window, owner Tommy Chen and his business partner Mavis Wang are often too busy to come up with a themed exhibition for their space. As Cloud Gallery’s first artist-apprentice, Zhangbolong Liu’s idea of framing and exhibiting artist friends’ works earned full support from the shop, and both Chen and Wang consider it a perfect chance to showcase what Liu has learned about framing.
Liu’s invitation for works piqued his friends’ curiosities, and they submitted photographs, computer-generated images, drawings, paintings, and even a ceramic sculpture. Lu Zhang offered a flat ceramic sculpture with swirl patterns that resemble tree rings. Lyn Liu interpreted the theme in a more indirect way: her oil on wood panel painting plays with the patterns of the wood itself to create an enigmatic portrait that is faintly recognizable as writer Franz Kafka. Filmmaker and animation artist Tiger Chengliang Cai looked at the idea of wood from a much more abstract perspective: “Wood is the remains of living things, and it is also an organic construction material for buildings. Buildings are cold, stable and political, and the bacteriophage in my work is similar to that. It is a organic life form, but I set its appearance in the ideological context of architecture.” Like Cai, James Chan also works with computer-generated images. For his submission, Chan created a landscape with the virtual reality software Unity and used technical statistics of the image as its description. Other participating artists presented works that touch on the wood theme in personal ways, from capturing the beauty of forest through the camera lens to replicating the delicate structure of plants on paper. Zhangbolong Liu himself also participated, showing one photographic work from his ongoing series Laboratories, in which he explores processes of scientific experiments as an artist-spectator.
While the artists were excited for the opportunity to have their works to have their works custom framed, an expensive luxury, for free, they also wondered how Liu would interpret their works through his choices of frame and how their works would look on the wall of a cozy framing shop. It took Zhangbolong Liu almost a month to assemble and frame 17 works. Under the guidance of Mavis Wang, who taught him most of the framing techniques, Liu carefully chose the color, the material, and the style that he thought would complement each work. One of the participating artists Yuchen Chang submitted two drawings and came to the shop to look at the frames. Chang and Liu could not agree on a suitable framing choice until Chang accidentally found some old green mouldings hidden in the corner. The unusual color struck them immediately, and the outcome was unexpectedly perfect. Many who have seen the pair of drawings were impressed by the harmony between the color and the pencil lines.
Cloud Gallery was packed for the opening reception on March 30. The narrow space was filled with support from friends of the exhibiting artists, many who are active in the Chinese arts circle in New York and are gaining recognition in the New York City art scene as they participate in shows, open studios, panel talks, salons, and workshops. For Zhangbolong Liu, putting up a show for fellow artists not only serves as an opportunity to initiate conversations and to brainstorm ideas among both the artists and the audience, but also a chance for him to learn about writing press releases, formatting a price list, and social network promotion —essential skills critical to an artist’s survival today, especially in a competitive and expensive city like New York.
Tommy Chen stayed through the entire opening reception on and talked to a very different audience who otherwise might not visit the shop if not for the exhibition. He has sponsored several other shows in the city by providing free printing services for exhibition materials from his printing shop on W. 14th Street. “We are a small startup company that loves art,” Chen explained why he is sponsoring young artists’ shows, “and we hope to grow with emerging artists together. To help with their successes is also our success.” Chen is among those business owners who are willing to provide alternative spaces to exhibit art. Last year, New York based apartment gallery Fou Gallery organized a two-person show for Zhangbolong Liu and photographer Zhe Zhu at Carma, a West Village Asian tapas run by Chinese partners who are also interested in collaborating with artists in its rustic-modern space.
Artists like Liu also have been exploring alternative ways and spaces to show art to an expanded audience — no matter at a framing shop, an artsy restaurant, a cafe, or even a moving truck. They recognize the importance of not only creating but also showcasing their artistic works in an innovative way. As Marcel Duchamp said, without an audience to react to the art, the artistic is forever unfinished. The question today is not a lack of audience, but how to approach one that already exists.
Woods continues at Cloud Gallery (66 West Broadway) until May 14th, 2016. Participating artists: Tiger Chengliang Cai, James Chan, Yuchen Chang, Baoyang Chen, Qianfan + St.Jiu, Zhongsheng Gu, Xiaoyang Jin, Weizitong Kong, Lyn Liu, Zhangbolong Liu, Jiatong Lu, Qingshan Wang, Taole Zhu, Lu Zhang, and Liyue Zhu.