Home is where the art is

Peggy Stephen searches for space for her collection of Asian art

Elizabeth Miller | Boulder Weekly

Selling art out of your house has certain virtues. Art in a gallery can look distant and cool, far too impressive for living room walls. But bring paintings home and they seem to change shape, take on greater intimacy, join the family and get comfortable on the furniture.

Peggy Stephen just watched that happen with a 57-inch painting of a woman looking over her scorpion-tattooed shoulder, Bolit Antara’s “Bali Bukan Bali 3” — which is currently for sale out of a bedroom in Stephen’s house.

“In the gallery it looks good, but it wasn’t that compelling,” Stephen says. In the bedroom, “the lighting, it just changes the piece altogether.”

That’s a bit of a metaphor for taking Asian art out of Asia — the pieces change. They both look surprisingly comfortable in their new setting, and they need a little bit of interpretation to understand them. It’s been Stephen’s goal to provide the education and exposure. After eight years of working in the art business, running galleries around Southeast Asia, China and the Middle East, she’s decided to open a gallery in the United States, and has targeted Boulder’s Pearl Street for a new location. But it’s been a bit of a struggle. She’s had two temporary locations and a near miss for a lease on a permanent space.

This weekend, she’ll just skip the formalities and have clients over to her house for a meal she’ll prepare and a chance to peek in on that Antara painting in a fresh setting.

Stephen has a personal relationship with these artists and has been nurturing her connections and their work for the duration of her career — which started in marketing and with the expectation she’d work with language, not paintings. Then she began to get to know the artists.

“Most of the things I’ve learned, I’ve learned through the artists themselves,” she says.

Her appreciation for the artwork grew through learning the artists’ stories. Many of them come from countries with tumultuous histories, were born into situations like Vietnam during the Vietnam War, and have labored through decades of limited expression.

“So when they do express, it’s very rich,” Stephen says. “Each stroke is not just oil on canvas. It’s an accumulation of history.”

It’s also the first whiffs of changes coming into these countries — and here’s where the education comes into play. Knowing, for example, that smoking is taboo for women in Asia makes Liu Baojun’s painterly images of full-figured Chinese women with long pipes, blissfully exhaling smoke while draping their curvaceous limbs over the furniture, pearly cleavage nearly bursting out, all the more provocative.

“I love the way they’re so unapologetic,” Stephen says. “Not just Chinese women but all Asian women are taught to behave a certain way, meant to be demur. What Baojun does is show the reversal of these norms. They’re voluptuous, sensual. They’re smoking their opium pipes in a way that says, really, ‘I don’t give a fuck.’” They’re stunning even without a translation.

And Stephen says business has been good, even since the doors closed on her last physical gallery space, the former Ku Cha Tea House location on 13th Street, on Dec. 24. Before that, she had an exhibit at 915 Pearl St. in October. She had a tentative deal lined up for a split-use space on Pearl Street and might have opened doors this month, but it fell through.

“I don’t think I’m fazed by the challenges,” she says. “Not to have the space is actually a good challenge to have. It means that the market is doing well.”

But selling out of her home isn’t a permanent solution.

“It’s just impossible to run the kind of scale which I want to run,” she says.

A gallery space in a pedestrian-heavy zone will let people come in and learn a little bit about the art, even if they’re not buying a painting to take home.

“It’s supposed to be more than just coming into a gallery and buying art. It’s supposed to be a whole experience,” Stephen says. “You build relationships with everyone who walks into the gallery. … It’s not just offering a product.”

Eventually, she’d like to host educational events with artists, lectures and workshops, and host solo exhibits from some of the popular Asian artists. She also aims to acquire some of the higher-risk pieces from Asian artists, like pieces by Chen Wenling, the Chinese sculptor whose politically charged works include “What You See Might Not Be Real,” which depicts the Wall Street bull smashing Bernie Madoff against a wall. Ten years ago, his works sold for $8,000. Now, just to display them, a gallery has to purchase the paintings, and they sell now for more like $38,000.

Does Boulder have the market for that? Stephen says she wasn’t originally sure, but has been persuaded. One of the Vietnamese artists she’s working with, Pham Thanh Van, paints impressionistic landscapes with a single color field — all yellow, all blue, all green skies and bodies of water surrounding trees laid in with thick swipes of paint that dwarf the neighboring small red-roofed houses. Her work has been so popular that her paintings, which sell for thousands of dollars, have been tough to keep on the gallery walls. With a gallery space, Stephen says, she could organize a solo exhibit of Thanh Van’s work.

“Our hope is to have a space where people will come in and leave understanding a little more,” Stephen says.

“This is a passion, not a business.”

Stephen can be reached via her art consultancy business, Artist’s Proof Art Consultancy, at www.apartconsultancy.com and at 303-359-8543.

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