06/06/2012 08:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

MutualArt Watchlist: Chinese Contemporary Artists

Navigating the rapidly developing contemporary art scene in China is no easy task. Few museums or independent critics exist to verify leading contemporary artists, and many of the avant-garde are restricted by the government -- Ai Weiwei being the notorious example.

Yet even with China's cooling economy, Hong Kong has emerged as the world's third largest art auction center after New York and London. Not coincidentally, China was ranked third in the world in 2011 (following the U.S. and Japan) for its number of millionaires, and the newly rich cannot get enough of contemporary art.

While Christie's and Sotheby's are not permitted to host auctions on the mainland, Hong Kong established itself as an art market hub: Art Basel announced takeover of Hong Kong's International Art Fair beginning next year, Sotheby's opened a new space only a few weeks ago, and other galleries from the People's Republic are flocking to the scene.

All of this excitement is for good reason, as Christie's Hong Kong just wrapped up its spring auctions reporting $352 million in sales (including other objects such as wine and jewelry). Although results were mixed, high totals for 20th century and Contemporary art sales confirmed strong popularity in Asia, with Christie's evening sale scoring 91 percent of the lots sold by volume and 96 percent by value.

An incredible revolution is taking place in the art market, previously dominated by the U.S. and Europe; yet the difficult climate for contemporary art in mainland China makes us wonder, who are the artists to know? MutualArt tells you four Chinese contemporary artists to keep on your radar.

Zhang Xiaogang

Born in 1958, Zhang Xiaogang is one of the top-selling living artists, not only in China but around the entire world. Xiaogang is best known for the series he began in 1993 based on family photographs -- Bloodline: Big Family -- which critics claim pointed Chinese contemporary art in a completely new direction through its fusion of charcoal-like portraiture and modern pop art. Exploring notions of identity, perception and otherness while inspired by the Cultural Revolution period, his iconic paintings starred at auctions in past years. Most recently, at Ravenel Auction House in Hong Kong, Childhood No. 1 (pictured left) from his increasingly scarce Bloodline: Big Family series hammered down at $1.1 million on May 28th, and Family No.2 (pictured at top) painted in 1993, sold for $6.7 million at Christie's, doubling its pre-sale estimate.

Yue Minjun

Yue Minjun's paintings are simultaneously humorous and horrific; like Xiaogang, he created an iconic style of portraiture satirizing modern existence. Born in 1962, his exaggerated figures are actually self-portraits, red-faced and constantly laughing, taunting the passing-by viewer (pictured left). Sometimes attributed to the Cynical Realism period which emerged in post-1989 China, his work reflects a loss of idealism felt by Chinese today. This series performed strongly at Christie's Hong Kong Day Sale on May 27, totaling $646,284.

Wang Guangyi

Appropriating symbolic images of commercial culture, such as Coca-Cola and Marlboro logos, Wang Guangyi combines these well-known motifs with propaganda images and Pop Art (pictured right). Also commenting on the aftermath of Tiananmen Square, this artist born in 1957 is fascinated by the visual transmission of the socialist messages he encountered throughout his early-life and hopes to influence younger generations to explore Chinese history. Guangyi's Great Criticism - Materialist's Art sold for $304,096 at Christie's Hong Kong recent Evening sale, and Great Criticism: Kodak sold at their day sale on May 27 for $103,083.  

Wang Qingsong

While painting has traditionally been the highest regarded art form in China, photography is on the rise with this new generation of contemporary artists. One notable Chinese photographer -- Wang Qingsong -- began his career as a painter and transitioned into large-scale photographs and performance-based video. Qingsong, born in 1966 at the start of the Cultural Revolution, uses his artwork as an outlet to reflect upon the rapid changes in Chinese modern society. His work is currently on view in a group show at Williams College, and most significantly, his first US solo show last year at New York's International Center of Photography earned raving reviews. Qingsong's chromogenic print Dormitory (above right) sold for a remarkable $38,656 at Christie's Hong Kong May 27 Asian Contemporary Art Day Sale. Be sure to follow these artists and more on to learn the most up-to-date information on exhibitions and auctions.

Written by MutualArt's Christine Bednarz

How will China's economic situation affect the art sales?  Has Hong Kong's art market peaked?  Which Chinese contemporary artists do you like?