Glass reviews multi-media artist Zhuang Hong Yi’s latest show Raw at Unit London

ONE MAY fear that a gallery presenting a show of the same name, by the same artist, and in the same space may have overcooked an idea.  For
the second time since opening their flagship space on Wardour Street, London in autumn of 2015,  the incipient Unit London gallery served visitors another
course of Chinese multi-media artist Zhuang Hong Yi’s Raw.  Surely in the ephemeral world of art exhibitions, a world defined by its ravenous appetite for change, such a decision would be the recipe for the disaster. The gallery’s move proved successful. This was immediately apparent at the opening last month.  Before sales figures are released and articles are written, assessing the turnout at an opening is the best way to quantify whether an idea has triumphed.

Once again, the founders Joe Kennedy and Johnny Burt  served those in the arts and interlopers with an interest in the gallery a spectacular night. For founders Joe Kennedy and Johnny Burt, the events that launch a show are as critical as the show itself.  Attracting what Kennedy described as, “a mix of collectors,  patrons, other artists and fans of the gallery,” the diverse range amongst people attending a Unit opening has become a hallmark of the gallery’s approach.


Unit London _ Zhuang Hong Yi_ RAW II _ Installation 3Installation view of Zhuang Hong Yi RAW II show at Unit London

Though their success is blatantly not hinged upon it,  branding  has propelled Unit from obscurity to being an attraction for people who would otherwise have no to link the art world. Their motto is, “We Exist for U,” and the letter U is the nexus of their savvy branding strategy. Weaving their initial in and out of slogans and taglines is a great way of constantly reminding their audience that they are “user-friendly”.

In a previous Glass interview with Johnny Burt, he described the already existing  blue-chip galleries in London as being “insular”. Hoping to still represent the higher end of the end of the market but allow for a more inclusive conversation about the work, the gallery launched with a clear manifesto directing it.

Zhuang Hong Yi - Purple Rain, 2017Zhuang Hong Yi, Purple Rain, 2017

Their drive to be accessible may seem in conflict with such luxurious flourishes as rolling out a red-carpet and velvet rope outside their events. Not only is this an inviting backdrop for partygoers to take photos but it creates a sideshow that the public interact with in both in person and on their social media. So many high-end galleries exist several floors up,  through buzzers and concierges that they cloister themselves and their exhibitions from a curious public who is as entitled to the art experience as those buying it.

Zhuang Hong Yi - Bed of Gold, 2016Zhuang Hong Yi, Bed of Gold, 2016

The show has been extended  until May to accommodate the throngs hoping see Zhuang Hong Yi’s work. Sales figures show that 75 per cent of the show was purchased. This unusually high sales statistic empirically cements the success of both the gallery and the artist. For a second run that is directed at the same core demographic as the first, the close to sold out figure shows the patrons have gone from investing in a Hong Yi to collecting them. In fact, the gallery even had a private collector’s viewing about a week after the opening to introduce the body of work to past and potential owners.

Zhuang Hong Yi - Oceanic, 2016Zhuang Hong Yi, Oceanic, 2016

All of the marketing genius in the world would go to waste if the painter being promoted was not worthy of the attention. Hong Yi, fortunately, has cemented his place as one of China’s most coveted contemporary artist and one contemporary art’s most significant rising artists. Yi has lived in Holland for more than two decades, where he has honed his style: a marriage of Eastern and Western concepts and techniques. Yi extracts some of the practice from his background in traditional Chinese artistry. Flowers are beloved by the Dutch (both presently in real life and during the Dutch Golden Age as a feature of paintings)
and are a key element in Chinese figurative work. Hong Yi uses representations of them in nearly all of the large-scale canvases that comprise his two shows at Unit.

Zhuang Hong Yi - In Bloom, 2017Zhuang Hong Yi, In Bloom, 2017

The current exhibition, Raw II, is a commentary on the abominable state of the environment in Hong Yi’s homeland. Urbanisation, the depopulation of rural areas, the ransacking of the environment and gratuitous of use of natural resources are all factors in Hong Yi’s lamentations about his motherland. The body work communicates a serious and ugly message in the most light and aesthetic pleasing manner possible. The contradiction between his cheerful colour palette and maudlin inspirations gives each work many layers – making the backstory and technique analogous. Using origami, twisted into the shape of flowers which are then buried under highly sculpted and gestural impasto, as well Western Impressionist painting styles. The gallery itself is a glossy black
and white space , thus these iridescent  and feminine canvases bathe viewers in polychromous brightness. The work is strong enough to , as
a collection, decorate a large edifice like a hotel. However, the pieces could stand alone as the centerpiece of an urban luxury space.

Zhuang Hong Yi - Eden, 2017Zhuang Hong Yi, Eden, 2017

Mirroring its list of collectors, the gallery boasts a list of artists  on its roster who commands sales and turnouts as significant as those garnered by Yi. The next show at Unit is the gallery’s  first solo exhibition of Will Martyr, whose  quirky sobriquet is already on tip of the tongue of the art world.  British painter Martyr, “has had a huge year of very important private commissions”, according the Kennedy. The gallery is also looking forward to hosting shows with household names like Peter Gronquist, Ryan Hewett, and Jake Wood-Evans. Unit seems to have decided on its flavour. While it may season its signature style with new trajectories, the gallery continues to promise a certain taste.

by Yasmin Bilbeisi

The show runs until May 5 (please note the gallery is not open over the Bank Holiday Weekend)


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