Curated by Lexing Zhang
Dragon is My Middle Name
17 January – 29 February 2024
Featuring Adam Handler (USA), Julio Linares (Spain), Mamali Shafahi (Iran), Claire Lindner (France), Tsherin Sherpa (Nepal), Mindflyer (Singapore) and Ryoko Kaneta (Japan)
Those who draw dragons have the secret of divine energy. The spirit is like mother and the form is like son.
-Dong Yu, Song Dynasty c.12th century China, "On Painting Dragons"
From Mesoamerica to Medieval Europe, ancient Persia to Japan, dragons have consistently featured prominently in diverse cultures’ distinct cosmologies and visual cultures. As we approach another Year of the Dragon, Paris-based curator Lexing Zhang found herself asking what exactly that could mean in 2024—what is it about this invisible creature that seems to inspire its apparition everywhere? What is its enduring, universal appeal? What would we ask of a dragon in 2024?
In Dragon is My Middle Name, LOY Contemporary Art Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, Zhang has posed these questions to an international group of artists—resulting in a collection of works that reflects both the universality and versatility of the dragon as a powerful muse. Coinciding with Art SG, Singapore’s premier contemporary art fair, the diverse exhibition appropriately reflects its host city’s role as a site of global exchange and crossroad of ideas.
Tshering Sherpa, the artist who represented Nepal at their first ever Venice Biennale pavilion in 2022, embraces and interrogates the idea of cultural osmosis and hybridization through his chimeric rug “This is not a Rorschach Test”.
“Through the lens of the Himalayan Diaspora, my work simultaneously deals with the preservation and transformation of a scattered culture, by bridging the sacred and secular, the past history and contemporary. As a nomadic people, over centuries, we've learned to harness the ability to adapt into many different environments. By observing this migration, my own experiences and cultural specificity are explored through depiction and re-appropriation of Tibetan traditional iconography.
As cultures intertwine with that of others, I'm curious how a unique essence can be maintained, celebrated, and shared while also integrating the benefits found within the surroundings of a new environment.”
The work of Julio Linares is a product of said cultural intertwining. The painter comes from seven generations of antiquity dealers in Toledo. Having grown up surrounded by Persian rugs, Chinese porcelains, and the European art canon, his points of reference are inspired by visual cultures spanning continents.
While organizing the exhibition, Zhang sent a text by Song Dynasty art critic Dong Yu, "On Painting Dragons” (reproduced in full below) to all of the invited artists. Linares was struck by Yu’s final thoughts: “The dragon turns its head, a thunderstorm produced on earth. When the painter sketches out the dragon’s eyes, it will soar straight into the ninth cloud. Only true masters’ brush strokes could command such effects…”
Linares was inspired to paint a dragon that reflected not only its fearsome power, but potential capacity for tenderness. In White Dragon with Bird, the dragon considers a bird that has perched on his leg, returning the smaller animal’s curious gaze.
Likewise, in Tehran-born, Paris-based Mamali Shafahi’s series of intricate flocked-enamel sculptures, viewers themselves come face to face with dragons’ ambiguous gazes. Are these threatening snarls? Mischievous grins? These interpretations are further complicated by the artist’s use of unconventional materials—synthesizing the expected hardness of a bas relief with a soft, inviting finish.
There’s a similar embrace of duality in the work of French ceramicist Claire Lindner’s glazed gres abstractions evocative of a dragon’s breath evaporating off a cloud or wave. She too has evoked something soft and ethereal through a hard medium.
“I find the allure of the unknown to be the most fascinating aspect in depicting the dragon,” explains American painter Adam Handler, “The idea that nobody truly knows what that dragon looks like leaves a lot of interpretation for the artist to explore. Much like my ghost and UFO works, I tend to work with subjects that are supernatural or creep in the shadows.” His colorful extrapolation of the dragon—drawing on Eastern and Precolumbian references—embraces the figure’s mutability with a pop sensibility.
The fact that no one has seen a dragon also inspired Singaporean artist Mindflyer, who will be debuting the newly commissioned video work Catch a Dragon Dancing in this exhibition, celebrating the significance of the dragon in local myth and ritual.
“Dragons exist in all cultures—they might just be called by different names,” Curator Lexing Zhang elaborates, “Dragons are essentially mediators between the world we know and the world we are curious to know.”
That curiosity extends beyond the gallery's walls with interactive and collaborative elements. Zhang invites viewers to respond in their own way to the prompt: “what skills would you like to teach a dragon in 2024?” Viewer’s replies will be rotated throughout the exhibition.
LOY Gallery has also facilitated a collaboration between the watchmaker Franck Muller and Japanese artist Ryoko Kaneta—presenting an exclusive Year of the Dragon watch. One that’s sure to help the wearer start the year off on the right foot, even if no one can agree on just how many feet a dragon is supposed to have.
“We are excited to contribute to Singapore’s thriving art landscape,” LOY Gallery founder Dennis Ouyang says, “Singapore is known as one of the four dragons in Asia, and it’s only appropriate for us to open our first exhibit of the Dragon year and welcome seven talented artists from around the world to share their contemporary visions on such an ancient symbol.”