By JENNIFER S. LI, JULY 2014
Amy Li Projects: The new kid on the block arrives with a bang
Amy Li curated her very first exhibition in September of 2013, presenting a group show including gun collages from bad-boy artist Alfredo Martinez—one of his gun drawings can be found in MOMA’s permanent collection, though his claim to infamy lies in being sentenced to 3 years of jail time for counterfeiting drawings by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Mounted in the front room of her father’s button shop in New York City’s Chinatown, the show was only meant to be a one-shot deal, but what resulted was rapid fire. Martinez’s work sold-out completely. The press, including PRI, BBC and CCTV, China’s largest television network, came calling. Visitors from around the nation were streaming through the gallery doors. Spurred on by success and buoyed by the attention, Li continued to curate further exhibitions. The initial buzz centered around the fact that her “alternative” (a term that Li wishes to transcend, as it is overly broad, with possible negative connotations) gallery space was housed in a Chinatown button store, baring the sign “He Zhen Snap Button Co,” but her schedule of upcoming shows will secure a more solid reputation for this nascent gallerist. Li focuses not on the de rigueur young emerging artist, but on bringing attention to older, under-recognized artists of the gritty 1990s; artists that are twice or three times Li’s age, whose work first earned attention when she was only an unaware preteen. Why do they show with her?: “They trust me. People think I have good taste,” she says sanguinely.
Soft-spoken, reserved and young, Li is hardly the obvious candidate to spearhead the much-buzzed about, new “underground” gallery in New York City’s art scene. After graduating with a BA from Hunter College and dabbling in retail, Li decided that she would have to go back to school and earn her master’s if she had any hope of attaining her dream career in the arts. Once she graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design with a degree in arts administration in 2012, she found that her hard-earned degree was not an automatic entrée into the art world. Unpaid or poorly-compensated internships glutted her unfruitful job searches. When she sought to create her own opportunities by starting a gallery, she was confronted with rents ranging anywhere from $4,000-$10,000, if not more, for a simple storefront space—an unfathomably high cost for someone on a paltry post-graduation budget. As is the new standard with other millennials that have come before her, she would have to be resourceful—and/or move in with her parents.
Li did both, sort of. She asked her father if she could stage her first exhibition in the front room of his button store in Chinatown, which he has occupied since 1986, the year of Li’s birth. Mr. Li, skeptical but supportive of his daughter’s quixotic new venture, consented, and thus was born Amy Li Projects. Li is quick to note that she has done everything herself. It took her weeks to clear out the detritus and dirt from the front of the store. A fresh coat of white paint christened the new gallery space. She approached Alfredo Martinez, whose work she admired, through Facebook, and he agreed to show with her: “he trusted me,” she says. He continues to be represented by Li, and sells work through her. The well-connected Martinez—he counts Ai WeiWei among his friends—introduced her to other art world figures, most notably Josh “Luvvy” Harris, the internet visionary notorious for debaucherous SoHo parties in the late 1990s. The former millionaire, who filed bankruptcy during the burst of the dot-com bubble of 2000, is famous for his 1999 social experiment, “Quiet: We Live in Public,” in which he gathered 100 people to live together in an underground bunker, observed at all times and in all corners—including the fridge and toilet—by broadcasting webcams. Although dating to 15 years ago, the project still remains prescient of our exhibitionistic “selfie” society, and it has gained new life in recent years through a Sundance Grand Jury Prize documentary from Ondi Timoner, “We Live in Public” (2009).
Li has coordinated her current and upcoming season of exhibitions around Harris, Timoner and their cohorts. In June, Li exhibited photographs of the voyeuristic basement quarters that Harris organized by acclaimed domestic abuse photojournalist and street photographer, Donna Ferrato. Shut down by Mayor Giuliani and gone unnoticed by the media, Ferrato was unable to sell these photographs to a publication at that time. Jeff Gompertz, in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, will also present his documentation of the 1999/2000 New Year’s Eve party in the bunker. Finally, Harris himself—the sun that this voyeuristic system is powered by and around which it orbits—will make an anticipated appearance in an interactive July exhibition. In relation to his start-up Net Band Command, a television network that enables the audience to watch and interact with each other, guests of the exhibition will be filmed in short videos that will be sent to their Facebook or Twitter.
This series of events, comprehensive in scope and so complete in its cast of larger-than-life players, is nothing short of a coup for someone like Li, who is only starting out in the vaunted art world and has no deeply embedded art world connections or patrons, beyond her button-brokering father. Her next goal, to bust out of the button shop and into a larger, “proper” gallery space, seems only imminent. WM
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Jennifer S. Li is the LA Desk Editor of ArtAsiaPacific and a regular contributor to Art in America. She is also the founder and curator of L'Art Projects: "view art differently."