At their Palm Beach home, Christine and Bill Aylward put modern Asian art in the spotlight.
A contemporary bronze Buddha by Taiwanese sculptor Li Chen in the driveway of Christine and Bill Aylward’s family home sets the scene for what awaits. Born and raised in China, Christine came to the United States in 1986; Bill is a Wisconsin native with Irish roots. As a result of the couple’s mixed heritage, their daughters, Casey and Caitlin, grew up among traditional treasures from both the East and the West. But over the years, it was contemporary and new wave Asian art that established itself as the focus of the family’s collection.
The Aylwards left Wisconsin for Palm Beach in 1999 and, a few years later, joined the Norton Museum of Art’s Contemporary and Modern Art Council as inaugural members. They credit CMAC with expanding their knowledge and giving them the confidence to pursue collecting. Through the Norton, Christine became acquainted with Melissa Chiu, director of the Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., when the museum asked her to host a cocktail party in Chiu’s honor. Chiu introduced Christine to the Asia Society Contemporary Art Council, and a whole new world opened up for her and Bill. After taking a trip to India with the society in 2010, they began focusing in earnest on Asian contemporary art.
Christine stresses that the collection has always been a family affair. Holidays were typically adventures to distant parts of the world, where mementos and joyful memories were collected. “We involve our girls in the process,” she says. “They can be very vocal, and we don’t always agree.”
In 2012, on a trip to Indonesia—at a time when Chinese contemporary art was exciting collectors—the Aylwards encountered and were impressed by the country’s top post–Suharto era artists, who were enjoying their newly found freedom of expression. A few weeks later, the couple purchased their first Nyoman Masriadi at Art Basel Hong Kong’s inaugural fair in 2013. After producing traditional Balinese paintings, Masriadi had an epiphany and painted the Grotesque Series, where he depicted cartoonish, short, muscular men frequently expressing anger or protest. Banana King (2002) was Masriadi’s first in the series. The piece is a favorite of Bill’s and now hangs in the Aylwards’ dining room. In the living room is the artist’s Mob Violence (2002), which shows men spouting boldly painted words, which, loosely translated from Indonesian, mean: What did you say?! and All you do is gang up on me! The paintings are a source of pride for Christine, who says Masriadi’s work is hard to come by. “He only does seven or eight paintings a year,” she notes.
Above a staircase in the Aylward home hangs a striking fuchsia silk-weave tapestry by Indonesian multimedia artist Eko Nugroho. Strange Head from Jakarta (2009) depicts a life-size outline of a man whose head is replaced by a gigantic ginger root. The piece is an example of Nugroho’s practice of juxtaposing unrelated elements. In one of the upstairs rooms is Kekerasaan 1 (2008) from the artist’s Violence Series. Several strange, rigid objects encase sets of eyes; a man’s head with piercing eyes looking out from behind a kind of diving mask symbolizes the enforcement of silence by violent means, while other objects resemble instruments of torture. Nearby is an acrylic digital-style piece by Chinese artist Li Shurui, known for her light-abstraction pieces. Lights No. 1 (2006), the first in Shurui’s Light Series, is a large-scale airbrushed work showing a shadowy human figure and the black shapes of an urban landscape against a red and purple sky. All are seen through a screen of dots of light that covers the entire canvas.
Photography by Jerry Rabinowitz
While contemporary Chinese art certainly has a significant place in the collection, the Aylwards are no strangers to history. At the entrance to the large drawing room is a magnificent symbol of the ancient Chinese world: a Gongshi (or scholars’ rock). For generations, Chinese literati have revered these naturally occurring rock formations, placing them in their studios to serve as inspiration from the natural world. In the Aylward home, the stone may represent the springboard from which the entire collection has transitioned.
Situated in the entryway is a 2006 oil painting by Chinese artist Feng Zhengjie. Twisted Necklace, reminiscent of a Warhol screen print, is from the artist’s Chinese Portrait Series and shows a woman with vacant eyes, a critique of the emptiness of commercialized beauty. Nearby, The Most Lovely People No. 6 (Crying Series, 2013), by Yin Jun, shows the heads of 12 sailors, their faces flush from sobbing. Christine notes that the shipment of this work was delayed—likely owing to politics (Chinese authorities not wanting to portray its sailors crying). The piece is a reminder to Christine of a cousin who had been in the Navy.
During the post–Mao era, a group of contemporary artists formed the Stars group (known also as Xingxing). Distinguished artists Ai Weiwei and Ma Desheng were among its founders who, like others in the group, suffered house arrest, imprisonment, and self-imposed exile—consequences of challenging government policies. Pillar of the Earth (2005), a large, abstract black and white acrylic by Ma Desheng (who now lives in Paris), hangs in the drawing room. The strong shapes piled on top of one another give the painting a three-dimensional appearance.
Among the works in the drawing room is a large chromogenic print, The Martyrdom (2007), by Chinese artist Miao Xiaochun. In the photograph, he recast Piero del Pollaiuolo’s The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian (1475), placing himself at the center of the image. Xiaochun is a major influence in China’s new-media scene and represented his country at the fifty-fifth Venice Biennale in 2013.
Across the room is a piece by South Korean artist Chul Hyun Ahn, who uses mirrors and lights to create illusions of infinite space. Void (2013) utilizes color-changing LEDs that draw the viewer into the work’s many layers, providing a space for contemplation. The piece was exhibited at Palazzo Bembo in Venice to coincide with the Biennale in 2013.
French windows lead from the drawing room onto the spacious patio, where Bill performs his regular tai chi routine. Going Forward (2006), a painted bronze sculpture by Jiang Shuo (the first female sculptor in China to complete a post-graduate art degree), provides inspiration for his practice. Shuo is known for her Red Guard Series, which highlights both her personal experience during the Cultural Revolution and, later, the irony of modern capitalist China. In these later works, guards of the Mao era are depicted eating Big Macs, drinking Coca-Cola, riding atop flashy cars, singing karaoke, and dancing. Acquiring this particular piece was really important to Christine. “These symbolic works mirror my childhood,” she says. “I grew up in China and later witnessed all of the changes that happened there. Bill and I felt we needed this piece for the historic sentiment, in addition to the artistic merits. We were determined to get this piece, no matter what.”
Back outside, sculpture has its place at the Aylward home. Here is where the West has its moment: On the side of the house sits an oversized head made of large bricks by American artist James Tyler, alternating bricks carved with the word please. An even larger version of the work sits in front of the couple’s home in Santa Fe, which houses most of their collection. “We have more outdoor sculpture there, including two works by British artist Sophie Ryder that were exhibited at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens last spring,” says Christine. “They fit perfectly against the New Mexico surroundings.”
In New Mexico, where they live part-time, Christine is a trustee of contemporary art museum SITE Santa Fe. Here in Palm Beach, she is a member of the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens Art Committee and served on the Norton Museum of Art’s board of trustees from 2002 to 2013. Both Christine and Bill are also members of Washington D.C.’s National Gallery of Art Collectors Committee and patrons of the city’s Hirschhorn Museum and Sculpture Gardens.
Aside from discovering treasures on their travels, the Aylwards find many of their pieces through Art Basel Hong Kong, whose arrival in 2012 gave Asian contemporary art a broader international spotlight, as well as through auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Christine is excited that young Chinese artists are now showing work that is edgy and global and maintains that Asian art has assimilated into the wider art world and thus good works will have longevity. However, that is not the purpose behind the family’s passion. “To us, it doesn’t matter whether an artist is ‘hot’ or not,” she says. “We simply indulge in being surrounded by the works we like.”