Great blazes

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Coates and Scarry, as a gallery and as a team, is a labour of love. “Did you know that Chippy is my life-partner?”  Richard Scarry asks. He is sitting in the sunny Bristol apartment he shares with his partner in love and in art, Chippy Coates, an apartment which walls are hung with the likes of Shepherd Fairey, Ray Caeser, Buff Monster, D*FACE, Bigfoot, and Takashi Murakami. To the uninitiated, these names may sound like so many Lucha Libre aliases, but Coates and Scarry know better. These are the names of street art’s avant-gardes.

Chippy Coates and Richard Scarry, who met in Los Angeles before relocating to the home of celebrity street artist, Banksy, have made a career of promoting the kind of colourful, irreverent contemporary art known variously as street art, post-graffiti, neo-pop, and lowbrow. In a characteristically modern manner, Coates and Scarry began by guest-blogging on a number of major art outlets, including Juxtapose, Arrested Motion, Daily du Jour, Huffington Post. Scarry says, “We eventually realised, instead of writing for everybody, why don’t we just write for Coates and Scarry?”

They launched their eponymous blog in 2009 and it quickly exploded, reaping 180,000 followers a year. Coates and Scarry used the platform to share art that appealed to them and interview contemporary art luminaries. The duo saw themselves not as salesmen, nor as critics, nor even curators, but as sort of evangelists for art. “We were there to spread the word,” Scarry says.

In 2009, Coates and Scarry covered the Jeff Koons show at the Serpentine Gallery in London. No photos were allowed, but they used their wiles. “We had people pretending to touch the sculptures, so security would run over to the other side of the room. We shot the entire show that way. They didn’t catch on. Before we put the post up, we sent it to Koons, and he completely loved it. We said, ‘Jeff, this is going out, it’s going to go viral, we loved the work, and this is how we did it.’ And he didn’t even slam the Serpentine for having bad security. Which they didn’t! But I hate the idea of people not being able to shoot shows, because so many people around the world never get to see these things. [The restriction] keeps art very elitist, and I don’t think it should be that way. I think art should have a language that translates and translates and informs people’s lives and elevates people’s lives. That’s our ethos.”

Eventually, the Coates and Scarry blog transitioned to a physical space. (Scarry shrugs, “We had to start being grown-ups.”) Working on the blog, they’d developed intimate, trusting relationships with some of the art world’s contemporary greats, which made for a smooth transition to curating. “Because we’d interviewed a lot of these guys,” Scarry says, “They felt that we were coming from the right place, and that we weren’t just trying to make a lot of money off them.”

Contemporary curating is an inherently collaborative business, and Coates and Scarry are focused on finding partners that share their true passion for pop art and its various tentacles. Scarry explains, “We know that we are championing the artists we work with for the right reasons, and we want other people to be on board for those same reasons. It’s all a bit hippy dippy, but if everyone is in the room for the right reasons, it can’t go wrong.” What are the ‘right reasons’? A genuine appreciation of the art, a will to collaborate, and a desire to bring that appreciation to the public.

Their most recent collaboration is with Above Second, an hip art gallery in Hong Kong’s fashionable Sai Ying Pun neighborhood. The show is called Trailblazers, a title chosen because it represents the show’s ethos, and because it translates well into Cantonese. “If you look at the definition of trailblazers,” Scarry says, “that is the mission of the show. People who are taking risks, doing their own thing, and cutting a path for others to follow.”

The show features all new works from contemporary artists with a wide range of styles and perspectives – from Pure Evil’s graphic, literal pop images, to Nigel Cox’s pensive realism, to Carlo Cane’s floating architecture, to a pair of menacing guinea pigs by Angela Lizon. No two artists occupy the same niche. Still, the show is knit together by a common sense of dark whimsy. Many of the pieces feel at once sinister and childlike.

“We live in dark times,” Scarry agrees. “Many of these artists grew up with gaming, animation, video, the Internet—a bombardment of images and sources that informs their perspective. What would have been seen as dark or disturbing ten years ago just isn’t anymore. I love the Japanese sensibility that a child’s toy, essentially a piece of plastic, can be seen as high art.”

In theory, Scarry’s description evokes the ubiquitous “my child could do that” school of contemporary art, but in practice, the painstaking craft evident across the show undermines such a dismissal. Some may not relate to the sometimes kitschy, sometimes sentimental pieces in Trailblazers, but the artists’ meticulous abilities command respect, if not adulation, and demand to be taken seriously.

Coates and Scarry are well aware of this. In choosing artists, the pair looks to be inspired and surprised, but they also demand artists who demonstrate exceptional skill. “We want them to have an edge, to have their own voice, because great art isn’t really how it’s painted, it’s the impression it leaves on you. But high-quality work, even if it’s not your thing, is respected. So we lean towards young artists who are really engrossed in questions of craft and style.”

Many of the artists deliberately oriented their exclusive works’ relevance towards Hong Kong and China. Pure Evil paints Zhang Ziyi, Nick Walker stencils a Hong Kong street scene, and Sas Christian embeds the Hong Kong skyline in a portrait. And there are pops of sharp red throughout the show: on the dress of Nick Walker’s vandal child, in the pheasant piece by Rose Anderson.

Scarry says, “These artists know that red is auspicious and represents China, and they wanted to come over, in a respectful way, and honor that. They all really thought about what they were doing, and how to bring it to Hong Kong, without being trite or losing their own voices. ”

Like the father of pop art, Roy Lichtenstein, these artists are rejecting the implied emotions of abstract expressionism and working with literal images and popular symbols. In the world of lowbrow, street art, and neo-pop, pop culture is more than entertainment. It becomes a language of shared reference that the artists play with and often subvert. To some, this may seem lowbrow in the literal sense. To others, it may read as kitschy and cheap. But those who love it insist that neo-pop is about challenging traditional notions of what constitutes art and beauty, and forging an emotional connection with the viewer.

“We like art that challenges,” Scarry affirms.“Some people think the pieces are too literal, some too ethereal. We like art that stands for itself. Some of the stuff we work with, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but that’s okay. I’d rather people walk away with an opinion than walk away blankly, forgetting everything that was on the walls.”

Coates and Scarry may be selling paintings like the proverbial hotcakes, but they still sees themselves as evangelists for a new generation. “In the art world, people who run and own galleries can sometimes get a little confused about their roles. Our role is just to be custodians. The art never belongs to us,” Scarry insists. “We are given the art to help get it seen and into new homes. And I think if we stay within that equation, we are doing the right thing.”

by Madeline Gressel

Coates and Scarrys show Trailblazers runs at Above Second Gallery, Hong Kong until March 30