Most galleries have closed their doors for the summer, leaving a more unconventional venue as the surprising site of one of the most exciting shows on view right now: a 50-year-old mainstay for Asian imports in SoHo.
In the backroom of Pearl River Mart, the exhibition “Just Between Us: From the Archives of Arlan Huang” is showcasing a selection of artworks and ephemera from the collection of Arlan Huang. An artist and founder of the framing business Squid Frames, Huang was involved in two key Asian American art collectives: Basement Workshop in the 1970s and ’80s and Godzilla Asian American Arts Network in the ’90s.
“The mission of the gallery is to show work that matters to the Asian American community,” Joanne Kwong, the company’s president, said in an interview. Staging “Just Between Us” was one way to meet that goal.
The daughter-in-law of Pearl River Mart founders Ming Yi and Ching Yeh Chen, Kwong began the store’s exhibition program in 2016. To visit the gallery requires walking through the retail displays of paper fans, tea, sweets, and other sundries. “It is always open to people who are in the retail shop, so you catch different eyeballs than you would at a traditional gallery,” Kwong said.
“Just Between Us” is no traditional art exhibition. Alongside artworks that more obviously read as artworks—prints, paintings, and more—there are artifacts meant to chronicle Huang’s life.
“The earliest objects in the show are my grandfather’s restaurant menu from his Chi/Am restaurant called the Pekin dated 1926 and my grandmother’s irons from Bangor, Maine,” Huang told ARTnews.
The collection progresses from these family mementos to small works in a variety of mediums: Hoty Soohoo’s black-and-white photographs of Huang and other members at Basement Workshop in 1971, a calendar page from 1991 designed by Martin Wong for the Lower East Side Printshop, Byron Kim’s contribution to the print portfolio From Basement to Godzilla from 1999, and Danielle Wu’s acrylic still life Arlan’s Oranges (2020).
Wu is a co-curator of the show with Howie Chen. She attributes the genesis of the exhibition with the downfall of another: the canceled 2021 Godzilla retrospective at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in 2021.
“It was going to be a group show unifying all works by members of Godzilla for the first time. But local activists had uncovered [MOCA’s] involvement with building local jails and receiving concession money,” she said. “Arlan was one of the first artists who withdrew.”
Arlan and Wu connected in their efforts to encourage the museum to invite community discussions about the impact of the jail on neighborhood businesses and culture. While those efforts didn’t progress, their friendship did.
“I was really taken with his story about how the frame shop was a way that he made friends in the art world and built this alternate economy outside the art market,” Wu said. “It really goes to show you that through friendship and not through accumulation of capital, you can still access art and have your own collection.”
A counter-show to MOCA in both concept and scale, the exhibition at Pearl River celebrates this scrappy, hand-to-hand form of collection-building. The hang of the works—in a tight line, at eye level, looping around the walls—points to this connectivity.
“This show probably produced more emails than any other show I’ve ever worked on,” Chen told ARTnews.
Having held posts at the Whitney Museum and MoMA PS1 before becoming the director of 80WSE at New York University, Chen said he was unused to the process of representing a personal rather than an institutional collection. Wu and Chen let Arlan have almost full authority over the checklist, as they whittled down the selection from his storage.
“We did give a little bit of guidance in terms of suggesting some key anchor points,” Wu says. “I thought it was really important to have Sol Lewitt in the show—he was one of his most important clients, and art historically, it is a fascinating encounter.”
Wu was referring to an illustrated postcard sent to Huang by the late Minimalist and Conceptualist, who was a loyal customer of Squid Frames. The curators argued to include it, as it suggests Huang’s network in the city—the artists he befriended, whose work he helped produce, and Huang’s impact on them and vice-versa. But, Wu admitted, “Arlan could care less.”
Wu, Chen, and Huang offered their distinct perspectives while forming the show, which brought to light their generational differences.
“It was really interesting to go into Arlan’s archives, which provide one perspective on what it was like pre-internet,” Wu said. “You realize that artists really relied on print material and large-scale posters in order to stay connected.”
Huang’s activism from the 1970s features in the exhibition with printed posters from 1977 for African Liberation Day and May Day protests, the latter in Spanish. These were produced at Basement Workshop, which offered printing resources to downtown artists and activists at the time. The ephemera also speaks to the solidarity that existed between Asian Americans and other communities.
This interconnectedness even extends to Pearl River Mart itself. According to Kwong, intergenerational collaboration is core to the store’s identity. Her mother- and father-in-law, who are in their late 70s and 80s, still work the register. When they ran Pearl River in the 1970s, it was in the same building as Basement Workshop on Elizabeth Street, so they have decades-long relationships with Huang, Corky Lee, and others involved in the show.
Artists such as these have formerly been the subject of research by Chen, who published an anthology about Godzilla through Primary Information in 2021 and will return to the group in 2024 for an 80WSE show called “Legacies,” which will also focus on Basement Workshop and the Asian American Art Center. And, with Wu and Huang, Chen published a catalogue for the Pearl River show, so the archive can be accessible long after the show is de-installed on September 10. It’s all part of a curatorial effort Chen describes as way to find “new ways of representing histories that don’t feel detached from the people who were there.”
For Wu, the legacy of the exhibition is also personal. “Arlan is a role model for me, as somebody who abstained from the blue-chip art world, but has made it in my eyes, reaching an audience and living the kind of moral and ethical life that many will call idealistic or impossible,” she said. “He showed me that it’s possible.”