BAU-XI GALLERY celebrates 50 years of fine arts
2ND MAY 2015
Of the billions of brush strokes that have rasped across canvases in Vancouver these past 50 years, many of the greatest have echoed in the white-walled halls of Bau-Xi Gallery.
In fact, some of Canada’s most important artists – Jack Shadbolt, Gordon Smith, Roy Kiyooka, Ian Wallace – have exhibited at Bau-Xi Gallery, and it has quietly staked its claim as not only the longest-running contemporary art gallery in Vancouver, but the first West Coast gallery ever to expand east to Toronto.
And now, on May 7, 2015 it’s time to pause, reflect, and celebrate.
Founded in 1965 by Paul Bau-Xi Huang – a talented autodidact and émigré from China – Bau-Xi Gallery was created to fill a need. At the time of his arrival, Vancouver had only one contemporary art gallery, the New Design Gallery, founded by Alvin Balkind and Abraham Rogatnick in 1954.
The New Design Gallery was the anchor of Vancouver’s small yet vibrant creative community, but it was physically unable to keep up with demand, and emerging artists like Paul were starved for a second serious venue to show their work.
“Paul couldn’t get a show for himself at that gallery because there just wasn’t any space, for him or for all the others… So he opened his own gallery,” says Xisa Huang, Paul’s business partner and former wife. “He had no money and little English, but he had a wonderful eye for art, and the artists respected that and trusted it.”
The two met at an art show at the New Design Gallery in 1968, and it wasn’t long before Xisa (pronounced “Zeesa”) was taking part in the day-to-day of running of Bau-Xi.
In order to fulfill their mandate of supporting emerging and establish Canadian artists, however, the pace the duo had to set for the first 15 years was excruciating.
“He started out with a show every two weeks,” recalls Xisa. “Every second Monday morning, we’d take down the show, hang a new show, label it, light it, clean the floors, and have the opening that night. And then do it again.”
Meanwhile they were also starting a second gallery in Toronto, and hand-printing newsletters and invitations in the basement to keep their clientele across Canada informed.
“That’s unheard of,” clarifies Riko Nakasone, sitting next to Xisa in the solo gallery upstairs.
Riko has served as director and curator of the South Granville location since 1999, when Xisa finally took a step back at age 60.
“I don’t know how you did it,” whispers Riko.
“I don’t know how I did it!” counters Xisa with an incredulous laugh.
After the gallery moved from its original location of 555 Hamilton in 1972, it made a brief stop on ‘Gallery Row’ at 3003 Granville before moving into a temporary space on First Avenue while Paul finished building the current location at 3045 Granville in 1979. Now a bustling row of shops and galleries, South Granville was considered a risky choice at the time, with the retail landscape consisting mostly of laundromats and camera repair shops.
Amidst it all, the Huangs’ three young children joined the mix, literally growing up underfoot in the galleries.
It’s a scene artist Sylvia Tait remembers fondly.
“They had three babies,” says Tait, “ and I can remember them, at that first gallery, being in the play pen downstairs. The babies were always part of the whole scene, which was just so great.
“Hippiedom…” she adds, with a chuckle.
(Those babies, Tien, Phen, and Lieng Huang, are now all involved in affiliate gallery affairs, be it running Bau-Xi’s Toronto operations, or managing the 2002 Foster/White Gallery acquisition in Seattle, while Paul spends most of his time now in China pursuing his art and lecturing.)
Tait, an abstract artist, has been represented by Bau-Xi since 1977, back when she was still doing “bizarre” wooden cut-outs and hard-edge colour studies. For her, the gallery has long represented a safe space for her to explore and evolve, without having to leave the comfort of her North Shore studio.
“They’re a mediatory. Where else do you get that?” says Tait. “It’s absolutely important for me, because I’m not a meeter and greeter. To have them as an interim – to get the client together with the artist – is just something I could never do myself.”
Tait also credits Riko and her team with helping guide her direction: giving valuable feedback and allowing her to see her work hung on the gallery wall from a new perspective.
“Riko has such a good eye, and she’s so sensitive,” says Tait. “She’s like an orchestra conductor! She dreams about how she’s going to hang paintings.”
It’s a sentiment Tom Burrows shares.
“Riko is very good at what she does,” says Burrows. “It’s a treat to have her hang my work.”
Burrows, who resisted gallery representation for much of his career, joined the roster at Bau-Xi in 1995. He met Paul long before that, however – before Bau-Xi Gallery existed even – shortly after Paul first arrived in Vancouver.
“I wasn’t an artist myself at the time,” explains Burrows. “I met him hanging around [artist] Toni Onley’s studio, couch surfer that I was, as a guy from China who didn’t have much English, who seemed to have a really positive attitude, and people were respecting it.”
After the gallery opened, Burrows says it served as his classroom.
“In the beginning years I would go by there and get a real education as a young artist,” says Burrows. “It was a much more contained art scene back then, and they had all the big guns at one time.
“A city needs more than one gallery and it needs a dialogue,” he adds, “and the Bau-Xi presented that.”
Burrows is just one of the many artists whose career highlights will be showcased in the 50th anniversary celebrations, starting next week.
On the main floor will be works by current Bau-Xi artists. For example, acclaimed landscape painter Ken Wallace recently dropped off a piece made specifically for this show.
Meanwhile, the second-floor gallery will host a retrospective featuring works from Xisa and Paul’s personal collections, as well as from select artists’ archives, comparing then and now. For the past few weeks, Riko has been going to the artists’ homes and pulling pieces – in some cases right off the walls.
As the gallery slows down to look back, though, it has an equally exciting future to behold, currently representing some of the country’s most sought-after talent, like Drew Burnham, Bobbie Burgers, Cori Creed, and Lisa Birke.
But 50 years doesn’t happen easily, and it doesn’t happen for everyone. Riko says Bau-Xi has survived in a cutthroat and competitive industry by prioritizing relationships, and building a loyal, stable group of artists and clients.
“I think Xisa and Paul have laid a very strong foundation of integrity, in terms of dealing with the clients respectfully and honestly,” she says, while admitting with a laugh that a client once offered her a hefty bribe in a failed attempt to buy a painting that had already sold.
“And the artists know that they will be paid for the painting in a timely manner, and exactly what was agreed upon.” (Something many artists point out is hard to find and much-appreciated in the industry.)
“I think that if you last this long, you have to have that kind of reputation,” she concludes. “That’s the foundation that the gallery is built on, and that’s why we’re still here.”
Bau-Xi’s 50th Anniversary Celebration runs May 7-30, 2015. Opening reception Thursday, May 7, 2015 from 7-9pm. Guided tour and talk Sunday, May 24, 2015 at 2pm.
More info at bau-xi.com
Bau-Xi director Riko Nakasone (left) and owner Xisa Huang (right) prepare for the art gallery’s highly anticipated 50-year retrospective. — Photo: Rob Newell