Opera Gallery’s SHAR­LANE FOO tells STEPHEN SHORT how she’s bring­ing buzz into the art space and ex­hibit­ing the dark avant-garde through the bad boys of French art

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T“THE TASTE OF Opera Gallery is eclec­tic, maybe even funky some­times,” says the gallery’s Hong Kong-based direc­tor, Shar­lane Foo, as­sess­ing the art space on 52 Wyn­d­ham Street, which main­tains 13 gal­leries glob­ally. “We cater to peo­ple who travel, who are on the move. We’re very ac­ces­si­ble. You can come in for a chat, have a cof­fee, talk to our gallery peo­ple.

It’s a lifestyle. Some gal­leries are in­tim­i­dat­ing, but not ours. We’re more invit­ing.”

Foo, a Sin­ga­porean with a wealth of gallery ex­pe­ri­ence across Asia, joined Opera last year, and has a rep­u­ta­tion as an in­no­va­tive art curator and con­sul­tant, with spe­cial­ist ex­pe­ri­ence in cre­at­ing vi­brant and di­verse con­tem­po­rary pro­grammes. She has held po­si­tions at the Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art at Loewen in Sin­ga­pore, Linda Gallery in Sin­ga­pore and Bei­jing, and Over the In­flu­ence in Hong Kong.

Foo’s mis­sions are sev­eral-fold; she will strengthen col­lab­o­ra­tions with artists while bring­ing an ever-greater tai­lored ap­proach to col­lec­tors in Hong Kong, thus cre­at­ing a new chap­ter for the gallery. She will also tar­get a more ex­per­i­men­tal, bolder vi­sion for Opera’s pro­grammes. Wit­ness Opera’s March show with Ger­man hy­per­real artist Mike Var­gas. “It was fun; he’s young and it was his first ex­hi­bi­tion in Asia, and it went very, very well,” re­calls Foo, not­ing the al­ti­tude of Hong Kong’s gallery art world com­pared to Sin­ga­pore’s. “I think Sin­ga­pore has in­ter­est­ing mu­se­ums that do well, but in the com­mer­cial mar­ket, not so much. Hong Kong’s the op­po­site end of the spectrum – very high-pro­file com­mer­cial gal­leries, but per­haps the mu­se­ums need to com­bine to make a more con­certed pro­mo­tional ef­fort.”

The choice of Var­gas was also a re­sponse to the dig­i­tally driven world of art, with its in­creas­ing reach and younger au­di­ence.

“Peo­ple came to that show who fol­low Var­gas on In­sta­gram,” says Foo. “We see that a lot when peo­ple come into the gallery. They fol­low some­one who has been hash­tag­ging Opera or an art­work, or they know some­one at the open­ing events or par­ties from fol­low­ing them on In­sta­gram.”

Proof that Opera runs the gamut of artis­tic prove­nance from the old masters to post-pop is ev­i­dent at French Maze, show­ing un­til June 30. The ex­hi­bi­tion con­venes an eclec­tic group of

French artists who span dif­fer­ent styles and move­ments, from post-war and his­toric clas­sics such as Marc Cha­gall, An­dré Lan­skoy and Ge­orges Mathieu to con­tem­po­rary masters such as Pierre Soulages, Chu Teh-Chun and Robert Com­bas.

“We wanted to show the bad boys of French art, in a way, at a time when every­body was do­ing their own thing,” notes Foo. None more so than proto-pop artist Bernard Buf­fet, “dis­cov­ered” and loved by the late in­dus­tri­al­ist Pierre Bergé, who lived with him for seven years and then left Buf­fet to launch, and love, Yves Saint Lau­rent. Buf­fet had his first art show as a 20-year-old, was a mil­lion­aire by the age of 28, com­mit­ted sui­cide in the 1990s and was at one time con­sid­ered the post-war star of the French art world. “The way he signs his name is so in­ter­est­ing,” says Foo.

“It has arach­nid qual­i­ties, like a spi­der, and be­comes such a strik­ing com­po­nent of his can­vases.” It’s an art and cul­tural ed­u­ca­tion just see­ing Buf­fet alone at French Maze, who Andy Warhol de­scribed as “the last fa­mous painter”.

Then there’s Jean Dubuf­fet, best known for his de­vel­op­ment of art brut (“raw art”), whose pieces, un­fet­tered by cul­tural in­flu­ences and re­stric­tions, em­brace a more au­then­tic and hu­man­is­tic ex­pres­sion. And con­tem­po­rary artist An­dré Brasilier’s work is a blend of ab­strac­tion, ex­pres­sion­ism and some­thing dis­tinctly his own, typ­i­fied by a whim­si­cal and breezy lyri­cism. He mostly paints horses, women and na­ture, with del­i­cate com­po­si­tions and har­monies of colour. No­table too, is Chu Teh-Chun, a Chi­nese ab­stract painter who moved to Paris in 1955 and quickly be­came one of the masters of ac­tion paint­ing. His works are ex­pres­sive, evok­ing spon­ta­neous strokes that mir­ror the artist’s men­tal land­scapes and are nour­ished by his syn­the­sis of tra­di­tional Chi­nese tech­nique with the stylis­tic free­dom of West­ern ab­stract art. In this re­spect, he’s re­garded as a pi­o­neer of the genre. And the dis­cov­er­ies con­tinue.

Look­ing to the fu­ture, Foo’s for­ward­think­ing mind­set will man­i­fest in a se­ries of plans for Opera – and she says col­lab­o­ra­tions are the way for­ward. Which th­ese days of­ten means fash­ion. Foo’s tick­ing that box, too.

“We like fash­ion in art,” she says, then elab­o­rates. “I’m a big fan of Thierry Chow, the young feng shui mas­ter. She’s work­ing on a fur­ni­ture line, but she’s also work­ing on a fash­ion line that in­cor­po­rates feng shui into cloth­ing. I’m work­ing to­gether with her to host an event, that’s re­ally all about lifestyle. It should hap­pen in au­tumn.” Foo plans to show Chow’s fur­ni­ture, art­works and her wear­able feng shui art-meets-fash­ion. “It’s like feng shui for ev­ery­day liv­ing,” she ex­plains.

And where there’s fash­ion and col­lab­o­ra­tion in the art ecosys­tem, di­a­logue and work­shops fol­low close be­hind. Opera Gallery is an un­usual space. Stacked on four lev­els with floor-to­ceil­ing glass win­dows, it fea­tures a cen­tral lift in the mid­dle of the ground floor gallery that ser­vices all floors, each of which has dis­tinct char­ac­ter­is­tics and decor for dif­fer­ent sorts of work. Foo en­vis­ages open­ing up the top floor as a work­shop space, or for more dig­i­tal and ex­per­i­men­tal pur­suits.

“We do want younger peo­ple, work­shops and talks for artists,” she says. “And at the week­ends, that could even mean some­thing like pho­tog­ra­phy. We’ve had a talk with Thierry and feng shui as a sort of test. It was in­ter­est­ing what ques­tions peo­ple raised. A lot of peo­ple have ques­tions, but no idea who to talk to. In Hong Kong now, it seems the cul­ture of co-work­ing spa­ces and learn­ing from each other has be­come the fash­ion.”

From in­cu­ba­tor to artcu­ba­tor, go im­merse thy­self in some brave, eclec­tic and wide-rang­ing cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences at Opera Gallery.

Clock­wise from be­low: Shar­lane Foo, the Hong Kong-based direc­tor of Opera Gallery; An­dré Lan­skoy, Com­po­si­tion Sur Fond Noir; Chu Teh-Chun,Com­po­si­tion

Above: Shar­lane Foo with Marc Cha­gall’s Fleurs et Cor­beille de Fruits, 1949.Left: Bernard Buf­fet, Na­ture Morte à la Casse­role Rouge, 1982

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