Avant Asia

It's not your old-fashioned chinoiserie, jade Buddhas and the like: In the European and Asian art markets, cutting-edge contemporary art from mainland China is the hottest thing on wheels -- or oxcart. From the galleries of Beijing and Shanghai to the hallowed halls of Sotheby's, this art -- which may include traditional elements yet is anything but traditional -- has shot up in value in the last ten or so years and is slowly finding its way into America's art hubs.

Denver, says local art collector Michael Micketti, hasn't quite caught on, but he's doing his part by occasionally showing work out of his home under the shingle of Soaring Dragon Gallery. Now he'll put up a portion of his private collection for sale in a show opening Friday at Indigos, a local venue specializing in art from Asia.

Micketti fell into collecting the Chinese art by proximity: He worked in the hotel industry in Hong Kong in the late '80s, where one contact led to another. He traveled to Shanghai, where he met a handful of struggling artists; through networking, his contacts mushroomed. "In 1989, you could still buy nice pieces from relatively unknown artists," he says. "When I first started collecting, some of these artists were really poor. I thought, 'I'm gonna help these guys out. And if I make my plane fare home, that's okay, too.'"

The self-taught Micketti began amassing the reasonably priced works of then-unknown artists: large oils and acrylics picked up for a song, and a mixed bag of pieces combining distinctly Chinese elements with western trends. "Most of the artists I bought then I can't buy now," says Micketti, whose collecting bug is strictly a luxurious sideline. Though he's based in Denver, he continues to search out the up-and-coming, affordable Chinese artists, traveling to the mainland in pursuit of discoveries.

And while he's loath to part with most of his collection, Micketti will offer up a cross-section at Indigos: works that range from abstract to figurative, from pop imagery to modern calligraphy. Perhaps he wants to make room for more. But mostly, he notes, "I do it for the adventure."