Los Angeles Gallery Various Small Fires Expands to Seoul, Citing a Growing Appetite for Western Art in Korea

The gallery will launch in April with a show of work by legendary Los Angeles artists Billy Al Bengston and Ed Ruscha.

Esther Kim Varet. Photo: Mark Hanauer, courtesy Various Small Fires, Los Angeles.

Six years after opening in Los Angeles, the gallery Various Small Fires is preparing to expand to Asia. The gallery will open a space in Seoul, Korea, in April.

The outfit is the latest Western gallery looking to capitalize on the promise of a booming Asian art market. Although most galleries have focused their energies on Hong Kong (and, to a lesser extent, Shanghai and Beijing), several businesses, including Pace and Perrotin, have opened spaces in Seoul in recent years. But the venture is uniquely personal to VSF proprietor Esther Kim Varet, a bilingual first-generation Korean-American who has maintained a strong relationship to her ancestral home.

“We’re trying to figure out what the next five, 10 years, and 15 years of growth looks like,” she tells artnet News. “I realized that many American artists we work with have a huge desire to show in Asia, but don’t really know how to access it. From the perspective of the West, it’s very difficult to penetrate these homogenous cultures and I think I have a certain number of advantages, so it made a lot of sense for me to be a bridge.”

Kim Varet says she expects her program to resonate with the city’s vibrant cultural scene and sophisticated audience. “Seoul is the cultural capital of Asia,” she says. “It has the highest ratio of collectors in Asia, and Korean collectors tend to be very evolved in the way they think about the art market, and the Western art market in particular.” The gallery, located in Hannam-dong near the city center, will continue to focus primarily on Western artists with a couple of exceptions, such as the Seoul-based photographer Nikki S. Lee, who is already represented by the gallery. 

In keeping with this strategy, the first show at VSF Seoul will be a two-person exhibition featuring legendary Los Angeles artists Billy Al Bengston and Ed Ruscha titled “Three Modern Masters Reunited.” The show is a re-staging of a 1969 exhibition at Reese Palley Gallery in San Francisco titled “Three Modern Masters.” That exhibition was mounted inside a Frank Lloyd Wright building—so Bengston and Ruscha credited the architect as the “third master.” Since there is no Frank Lloyd Wright-designed building in the Korean capital, VSF’s show will be accompanied by Frank Lloyd Wright furniture instead.

“The Seoul show explores the very special relationship between these two guys over the decades,” Kim Varet says. “They’ve collaborated on projects together since the ’70s and there’s so much history between them that hasn’t been explored yet.”

Following the Bengston and Ruscha double-header, VSF will mount debut solo shows in Asia of American artists Joshua Nathanson, Math Bass, and Josh Kline.

“There is high interest in Western artists in Korea,” Kim Varet says. “I can tell by the collector interest that has already started coming my way—we’ll be serving a globalized community.”

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