The following is one of several extended looks into figures and institutions selected for “The Deciders,” a list of art-world figures pointing the way forward developed by ARTnews and special guest editor Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean. See the full list in the Winter 2020 issue of the magazine and online here.
In 2012, when James Elaine first offered the Chinese artist Zhang Xinjun a show at Telescope, Elaine’s alternative space in Beijing, the artist turned him down. “I was left scratching my head,” Elaine said, “thinking, I’m a curator from the U.S., in a way I’m a doorway to the outside world, I don’t charge you anything, why would he say no?” Later, Zhang changed his mind and after his show opened, he told Elaine that when they first met he was suspicious of Elaine’s motives, and friends had warned him that a foreigner would only steal his money. But according to Elaine, after the show, the artist was ecstatic and said, “I realized this is where my work belongs in a nonprofit context and this is the most important thing I’ve ever done as an artist.”
With his crown of curly white hair and favored outfit of jeans and sneakers, Elaine stands out as a foreigner as he rides his bicycle into the heart of Caochangdi, the village-like neighborhood on the outskirts of Beijing where he opened Telescope seven years ago as an experimental gallery space catering to as-yet-unknown emerging artists. While other dealers moving in to Caochangdi built freestanding white cubes with cement floors, Elaine opted for a modest storefront that blends in with the area’s restaurants and fruit stands. He wanted to introduce Chinese audiences to the notion of an “alternative space,” a not-quite-not-for-profit that grants young Chinese artists the freedom to test new ideas. It’s a novel concept in a country that does not officially recognize nonprofit status and in an art scene dominated by commercial galleries and auction records.
Prior to moving to China, Elaine had decades of experience as a curator in the United States, first at the Drawing Center in New York and later at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Though he tends to avoid the word “discover,” in 2008 he was awarded the Ordway Prize for his lifetime curatorial work for doing just that, discovering artists by viewing hundreds upon hundreds of portfolios, following up with studio visits and offering first shows to those who would later become stars.
When he moved to China in 2008, Elaine was still affiliated with the Hammer, and was offering a young artist there, Sun Xun, a project space at the museum. During his time in Los Angeles, the artist practically lived at the Hammer, painting directly on the walls and ceiling. Sun Xun has gone on to show internationally, at places like London’s Hayward Gallery, and the Guggenheim Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Elaine’s interest in bringing Chinese artists wider exposure in the U.S. continued, and in 2011 he curated a group show, “In a Perfect World,” at the Meulensteen Gallery, introducing the likes of Qiu Xiaofei and Lu Yang to New York audiences. Pace Gallery and Société in Berlin, respectively, now represent the pair.
This past fall, Elaine brought his latest crop of young artists to New York in a show titled “A Composite Leviathan: 12 Emerging Artists from China” at Luhring Augustine Bushwick. It was named for the huge sculpture at the center of the show, a towering form made up of polyurethane replicas of facades of monuments and government buildings in China by the artist Yang Jian.
“I believe all these artists because of their optimism, their perseverance, and their resiliency are making work that is cracking the armor of this monolithic world, this state of globalization and nationalism wherever it is,” said Elaine. “As Leonard Cohen would say, this is how the light gets in. I call it ‘trickle up.’ ”