Surrounded by mountainous inclines and narrow harbors, Hong Kong is most famous for its towering skyscrapers, clamoring ever higher towards the clouds to house its eight million-strong population. Meanwhile, 11,642 kilometers across the Pacific Ocean, with its sprawling suburbias to palm tree-lined boulevards, Los Angeles is on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.
Side by side, the two cities share little similarities. But an ongoing exhibition at Hong Kong’s K11 MUSEA takes on an intriguing curatorial attempt to draw parallels between the former British colony with the West Coast through its art.
“Hot Concrete: LA to HK”, running from October 21 to November 13 at the harborside cultural-retail complex, is a group presentation spotlighting works by 30 Angeleno artists that span multiple disciplines and generations. From the legendary Memphis Group artist Peter Shire, to younger names including Zoé Blue M, Tidawhitney Lek, Alfonso Gonzalez Jr, and Pedro Pedro, each artist contributes their unique perspective on the multi-faceted cityscape of Los Angeles, interrogating topics ranging from gender, race and identity, to alternative subcultures such as skateboarding, surfing, lowriding, and graffiti.
The show was curated by artist Greg Ito and his wife Karen Galloway, founders of Los Angeles-based gallery Sow & Tailor, alongside the couple’s good friend, Kevin Poon, founder of Woaw Gallery. The Hong Kong exhibition is the second iteration of the Sow & Tailor inaugural show of the same name, which was held a little over a year ago at the gallery’s refurbished cut-and-sew shop location in LA.
“What we wanted to do, since the quarantine was lifted in Los Angeles [back then], we wanted to bring [the LA art community] back together so we focused on bringing our friends and family into that show to kind of reunite everybody.” explained Ito, who traveled to Hong Kong to attend the show’s opening and also spoke at a panel discussion co-organized by Artazine. Incidentally, the opening of “Hot Concrete” happened just weeks after Hong Kong officially lifted quarantine measures for inbound travelers after more than two years in isolation, so in a way, the show’s display of camaraderie came rather timely.
Similar to its previous iteration, the Hong Kong show features an all Los Angeles-native line-up, most of whom come from multicultural backgrounds. "Having grown up between Hong Kong and LA, I just really wanted to show people artists that I had admired for many years. I have always been inspired by this east-meets-west dynamic," says Poon on his intention behind staging an LA-focused art exhibition in his hometown.
A project that has been more than a year in the making, “Hot Concrete” draws on the four major principles of ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement, as its point of departure. “That was the main structure of how the show is composed,” says Ito, “For us each artist [is] a specific flower. Every flower is their own unique self, and then all of them contribute to create one amazing, beautiful arrangement. We wanted to make sure that everyone had equal representation.”
Almost all of the 55 works on view are newly commissioned for this show, spanning an eclectic mix of mediums such as paintings, silkscreen prints, a video installation, textiles, sculpture, and even furniture. Ito, a fourth-generation Japanese American Angeleno, contributed The Last Serenade (2022), which was painted on a mammoth five-meter-wide, oblong-shaped panel — the biggest work he’s ever done.
From afar, the painting looks like a richly hued mountain landscape scattered with gingko leaves, seen within the frames of a washitsu window. However upon closer inspection, it would reveal a more daunting detail of cataclysm,where the peaceful setting is seen engulfed in flames that rips apart the delicate shoji screens. Somehow, this iconography brings to mind the catastrophic wildfires that wreak seasonal havoc in California, a phenomenon that is only exacerbated by the ongoing climate crisis. Rendered in his signature visually flat, cinematic aesthetic, Ito’s colorful composition is a tasteful balance of harmony and chaos emblematic of the zeitgeist of our time.
The notion of home and belonging anchors the narrative of “Hot Concrete”, and is palpable in various aspects of the show. First of all, the layout of the exhibition makes it feel like you’re invited into a giant living room of an LA-based collector, with a playlist of hip hop tunes from Gucci Mane, Juice WRLD, and DDG blasting off in the background. A set of patchworked lounge chairs and ottomans fashioned out of vintage Dickies, Levis and old towels by creative couple Candice and Darren Romanelli, occupy the center of the exhibition. The set is joined by other furniture items, including an auto-painted blue poplar Nipomo lamp by Ryan Preciado, who is of Mexican and Chumash heritage, and behind it, the unusual form of Peter Shire’s Seggiolino del Soraz chair from 2008 reflects the postmodern, radical approach of the Memphis Group co-founder.
Some of the works on display tackle deeply personal histories and lived experiences as minorities and children of diaspora. Tidawhitney Lek’s Almost Everything Burned (2022) is rooted in her identity as a first-generation female American born to Cambodian parents who emigrated to escape the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. The large-scale triptych depicts a conflicting imagery of a multigenerational Asian household set against the backdrop of palm tree-lined California, its warped vision making it hard to differentiate between the interior and exterior, liminal and reality.
The highly autobiographical paintings of Veronica Fernandez take on a similar direction, capturing her family’s struggles and persistence through referencing photographs passed down from her grandmother. Her sprawling canvas Paradise (2022), elicits a fever-dream-like quality loaded with references, among them is a group of children clamoring to climb over a fence to reach an amusement park.
Of course, there is no shortage of references to California’s own vernacular cultures in the show. Alfonso Gonzalez Jnr’s 4th Street Carcineria (2022) encapsulates the grittiness of public spaces and facades of the city in his landscape art. While Michael Alvarez’s A Trip Down Valley Boulevard (From LA to the SGV) paints an animated portrait of the city’s livelihood informed by his time spent cruising the streets on his skateboard and writing graffiti.
In fact, the title of the show, “Hot Concrete”, as explained by Ito, is not only a nod to Los Angeles’ urbanscape, but also to its characteristic blazing summers. “For a lot of us that grew up in LA, we all have [had] PE (Physical Education) classes sitting on asphalt that's about 200 degrees [Farenheit]. [“Hot Concrete”] is also about an energy, how concrete is the energy that in Los Angeles just shines so brightly.”
Overall, “Hot Concrete” was a delightful mix of voices offering a fresh perspective into the West Coast art scene for Hong Kong audiences. With cross-cultural events are once again a possibility in the city, a presentation like “Hot Concrete” — one that not only offer a brand new angle into another culture, but is also openly accessible — goes a long way in reassuring the public role of art in community building, the very premise that prompted the first edition of “Hot Concrete” a year ago.
However, an obvious shortcoming lies in the heavy Los Angeles-tilt in the overall curatorial direction. For a show presented in one of the busiest retail destinations in Hong Kong, it seemed a missed opportunity not to have involved some local artists for cross-community narratives as a point of entry to the exhibition. To novices of the Los-Angeles cultural sphere, the overall selection lacks a bit of context as well as resonance, even if expertly chosen. While it is uncertain whether “Hot Concrete” manages to lead its audiences to a deeper understanding of the Los Angeles art scene, it certainly scratched beyond the surface of typical Hollywood-slash-influencer glamor to reveal deeper insight and nuances of the city’s social fabric, and more importantly, opened doors for viewers to explore a truly diverse group of artists, which should be acknowledged as a feat in its own right.
Hot Concrete: LA to HK
October 21 – November 13
18 Salisbury Rd, Tsim Sha Tsui