29 January 2019

Art KL-itique 2018 Look Back

There were a dozen 2018 art exhibitions that I would have liked to write about in-depth. But the impetus to document observations about local visual arts has waned significantly, as my interest shifts (again) towards philosophy & aesthetics. It is fitting then, that this shift is triggered by a show itself – Games and Politics at Lostgens’ in May 2018. Organized by the Goethe-Institut, this interactive exhibition of political games, offered a level of visitor engagement that the typical contemporary artist can only yearn for. Its exhibition catalogue includes many insightful essays, which eventually led me to learn more about game mechanics & rules-modding, game designer Ian Bogost and media & cultural studies, then I ended up reading about object-oriented ontology, which then led me back to Plato’s forms, Hume’s copy, Schopenhauer's sublime, Deleuze’ differences… (my brain is fudgy now).

Screenshots of games [clockwise from top-left]: Dys4ia; Orwell; Killbox; Yellow Umbrella

Politics is a valid source of inspiration for art-making, yet it is expected that Malaysian artists’ response to the government change remains muted. The best solo exhibitions are accumulations of creations done over the past few years – as I recall beautiful paintings of faces (Tan Wei Kheng’s Forgotten Beauty), 40-years old expressions of feminist intent (Renee Kraal’s A-Ha Moments), wonderful layers of whimsical characters (Donald Abraham’s Yang Lain-Lain), and the endlessly thought-provoking set up of a triptych (Sean Lean’s 3, likely the best ‘painting’ exhibition in Kuala Lumpur recently). A special mention also to Juhari Said’s sculpture-installations included in Go Block, which wonderful individual qualities of his art-objects, appear extremely incongruent when displayed in the prosaic space of a Kelana Jaya commercial gallery.

Installation snapshots of Lith Ng Yee Leng - In Defence of Pleasure: [left] at In Defence of Poetry, Urban Culture rooftop; [right] at #reimaginekl, 2 Hang Kasturi

A+ WORKS of ART continues to be the most experimental, in terms of offering artists the opportunity to re-tool its gallery space, which Ahmad Fuad Osman and Chong Kim Chiew did so successfully in their respective solo exhibitions. Outside the conventional white cube, group shows In Defence of Poetry (July) and #reimaginekl (November) are notable for its wide variety of exhibits, that reflect also the diverse & overlapping group of participating artists and their art-making concerns. Sophia Kamal’s vivid paintings and Lith Ng Yee Leng’s translucent condom-shaped pieces starred in both exhibitions, and both artists are due solo presentations. Back at the institution, Patani Semasa and Latiff Mohidin: Pago-Pago are educational endeavours organized by ILHAM; The former is especially poignant when one reflects upon the proximity of conflict, and shared identities of people, in this region.

[left] Jehabdulloh Jensorhoh - The Beauty in the Dark Pattani 5; [right] detail

The National Art Gallery, which began 2018 with the lacklustre KL Biennale and a questionable series of exhibition partnerships with local galleries, ended the year on a high with several laudable presentations. Teh Tarik with the Flag (Wei-Ling Gallery) and Di Antara Itu dan Ini (Fergana Art) are two of the longer-running gallery presentations, and well worth multiple visits. The latter show features outstanding works by the likes of Sharmiza Abu Hassan and Lim Kok Teong, while one series of “dark” drawings by Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim recounts the artist's recovery from a stroke, that mesmerizes with its antagonistic narrative and sardonic humour. In Galeri Tun Razak downstairs, Sharmiza’s 1996 creation ‘Retrospect’ – a wall-hung series of compressed train carriages with impressions stuck on its surface – is among the fantastic sculptures shown at Minta Perhatian: Arca.

Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim - The Dark Drawings (2018): [left] 6. Urutan Pertama dan Jin Ahmar; [right] 5. Tersungkur 

While the “Minta Perhatian” shows offer a great introduction to non-painting works from the national collection, Tekad 6 Dekad presents itself as “sustaining a collective memory”. Notable sections in the latter exhibition include a room about Frank Sullivan, Loke Wan Tho, and the ‘pioneering spirit’, snippets about H.N. Ridley & the rubber industry, thematic presentations about ‘social contexts’ & ‘Reformasi’, and a final room commemorating ‘The Skin Trilogy’ and art performances. Most of the shows I enjoyed in 2018, were not popular within the established art world, as I continue to question the motivations of local art enthusiasts. The raving support for Pangrok Sulap, for example, is rooted in a made-belief perception of the group as defying censorship, but less attention is given to the group’s DIY activist tactics in engaging & sustaining rural communities.

Chan Teck Heng - Bust of Frank Sullivan

For what it’s worth, I sense an increased interest in local art, evident from seeing more people during gallery visits, and the emergence of Art Seni, who runs paid gallery-hopping tours around town. Local media covering exhibitions have turned up a notch, thanks to Sharaad Kuttan who now interviews artists on Astro Awani, and BFM’s Sharmilla Ganesan who started a program called Everyone’s A Critic. Given the dearth of writings, I created an Instagram account for this blog to document my reading, which also exposed myself to how images & news travel within the local art scene. It remains unfathomable personally, how people can buy or judge art via Instagram, and how many artists seem intent to use it as a marketing tool. Nonetheless, as a new beginning beckons, writing about art seems like a luxury, but it is perhaps a luxury worth striving for.

[left] Sharmiza Abu Hassan - Retrospect (1996); [right] detail

09 December 2018

Snippets: November 2018 (Downstairs, Upstairs, Abstracts)

Cult Gallery organized “Halal Haram”, a fundraising show that features a stellar line-up of 26 Malaysian artists. Many exhibits resonate with the chosen theme – from Umibaizurah Mahir Ismail’s ceramic cake adorned with a skull and flowers, to Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s faceless portrait of one in heels & kebaya holding a whip, to Chong Siew Ying’s delightful painting ‘Ceci Nest Pas Un Rambutan’ – each work effectively draws upon a familiar image as a starting point, thereby visually triggering viewers to contemplate on social norms. Striking also is ‘Kipas’ by Yee I-Lann, a bamboo weave made together with Julitah binti Kulinting, that features a cultural motif, paired with a flat black silhouette. One imagines the lively yet serious atmosphere while the weaving is worked on, underneath the breeze of a creaking ceiling fan, where the winds of change follows the rhythm of community. A rump in the lull, hah…

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After visiting a basement filled with neon lights, then a gallery display filled with busy installations, the walk from Medan Pasar to Jalan Sultan feels like a calm visual breeze. Clouds shield one from the blazing sun, as the coolness continues in Lostgens’ upstairs shophouse gallery. Ceiling fans blow at coloured papers, the hissing sound accompanying occasional photographs of Kuala Lumpur hung on the wall. “Can / Cannot” is an outcome from Maike Häusling’s three-months long residency, and offers a lo-fi yet effective record of the urban cityscape. “Stick colour paper on the wall cannot be called art la…” “Can la, already on the fan mah, got Goh Lee Kwang soundtrack somemore…”

Installation snapshot at “Can / Cannot”

One assumes that more visitors will step foot into an art gallery, located in the lobby of Malaysia’s largest commercial bank headquarters. Yet the weekday lunchtime crowd is oblivious to its presence. Or is it because the exhibition title is too obscure? Most words in “PURE Painting: An Exposition of Non Figurative Art” is incomprehensible to the corporate worker; “UNTITLED: Abstract Paintings” is perhaps a more inviting title. Most exhibits are predictable non-figurative expressions, i.e. colourful all-over paintings with gestural brushstrokes, or geometric compositions. Memorable displays include Lyne Ismail’s immersive “Birth” diptych, and the flat and quirky works of Liew Sze Lin. Despite a marked difference in the application of paints, depicted forms by both artists appear to be abstract shapes, and a synthesis of personal moments transmuted onto a two-dimensional canvas.

Liew Sze Lin – SR135/WPKL/18/AP1 (2018)

Another upstairs shophouse gallery Wicket Art Space hosts “MY[MORY]”, a group exhibition organized by Studio Mekar, featuring 12 artists, and performances from Jalan Dalam scheduled daily. Among the paintings, videos by Chua Kay Lynn screening on small television sets catch one’s attention. In ‘A Childish Bath’, the artist (I presume) covers her face in a round mirror while donning a bodysuit with large dots. The set-up recalls voyeuristic horror, an element markedly different had the performance was done in front of an audience. As a son and a father, the idea of seeing oneself in a child is poignant, thereby surfacing an unbearable truth where actions and thoughts are embodied within the other. What is learning, if knowledge is determined by adults only?

Installation snapshot of Chua Kay Lynn – A Childish Bath (2018)

Having ascended one flight of stairs, the visitor is greeted by a small video recording of a car drive, taken from a dashboard camera. There is nothing much to see, of course, but it is worth considering where Liu Hsin-Ying gets her inspiration from. Drawings & paintings cover the gallery, the purposeful forms and bold colours illustrating (what the artist calls) “…allusions to forms of primitive power, such as caves, forests, mountains, lakes, dwellings, paths, women and red triangles.” A raw sense of urgency, makes up for several works lacking in visual coherence. Most captivating is the “Landscapes”, where green, pink, and yellow lines, draw rich terrains of abstract forms. These pictures pulse with vibrant energy, where shades of hues coalesce with thick lines and deep points. As the artist writes in her exhibition statement/ poem, “(t)o fill is an act of painting, direct, touching, and substantiating”.

Liu Hsin-Ying – Landscape I (2018)

26 November 2018

TUGU|UGUT @ PAM Centre

Stepping foot into PAM Centre’s lobby, one encounters broken bricks painted in black, where few pieces stand upon pedestals among its dense arrangement. The horizontal layout denotes a building plan (or an urban sprawl), while its vertical structures raise the visitor’s eyes to a background with two monochromatic paintings hanging on a concrete wall, where square apertures function as windows. For those unfamiliar with Ajim Juxta, the exhibition title states explicitly the artist’s concerns. “TUGU|UGUT” illustrates a disdain for built monuments and dominance hierarchies, yet its wordplay denotes too the conceptual limits of the artist’s expressions. Looking at charcoal-like objects clustered on the floor level, I imagined a thumping bassline to accompany these impressions of detritus, and wondered if moss would grow on these bricks as time passes. 

Installation snapshot on the ground floor: (2018) [foreground] Datar; [background, l-r] Tugu: Kubu; Tugu: Menara

It is a surprising coincidence to read in an interview then, that Ajim thought to explore the inclusion of audio elements in this exhibition, but ultimately did not do so due to resource constraints. With works hung across seven stories, this is already an ambitious show; Riskier still are the artistic collaborations Ajim undertakes with fellow artists, poets, and designers. Curator Sharmin Parameswaran describes this element of collaborations, as the artist “passing on his work for it to progress and change in the mind or hands of other artists and collaborators, which inevitably gives or feeds back to him (or not). An experience that also questions of how we relate to each other, the give and take of relationships.” This knowledge exchange results in writings and poems included in the exhibition publication, and formal manipulation of art mediums displayed at the show’s top floor. 

Snapshot of jotting with anagrams

The magnificent venue invites visitors to use the staircase, and the hanging of Ajim’s works follow this recommended walking path. Works from the “London Series” – done when he participated in the Khazanah Residency Programme late 2017 – are presented along the stairwell of the first two floors. Ajim’s ink drawings are particularly attractive, where built structures are fused with skulls and living postures. The imagined Babylonia of ‘Sometimes I Kneel’. The gleaming towers in ‘Tugu & Cerombong’. The resting forms of ‘Hunger Strike’. The posed mannequins in ‘Patung-Patung’. The grand curved roof of ‘Worship’. There appears to be a recognition that architecture can inspire awe, yet we need to equally acknowledge the human costs attached during its construction, and its inevitable decay… and fade to black (which visually transmutes to Ajim’s paintings).

Hunger Strike (2017)

While the idea of exhibiting art criticising monuments, in an architectural headquarters is a subversive one, the displays and building features complement each other aesthetically. When appreciating two “Raksasa” portraits, its reddish blood stains are accentuated via the ochre walls visible through windows. The same square openings let in sunlight, which gleaming brilliance is juxtaposed against Ajim’s white or black paintings, inducing visitors to step up to the hung works for a closer view. For the entire length of the fifth-floor corridor, small colourful paintings (‘Asas-Asas’) line its concrete walls, thereby infusing forms and colours into one robust but basic aesthetic. At this point, seeing a painting with red shades (‘Tugu: Tanah Merah’) displayed on a red brick wall, and above an ochre (modernist!) architectural model, feels like an inside joke. 

Installation snapshot on the second floor: (2018) [foreground, l-r] Harap; Kelam; Gelap

Jottings of anagrams are interspersed among exhibits; Notwithstanding philosophical inquiries into signs and language, anagrams offer a simple alternative lens both for the creative artist, and for the receptive audience. Several exhibits have titles that allow flexible interpretations, most notably the second-floor paintings – ‘Harap’ /parah, ‘Kelam’ /lemak, ‘Gelap’ /pegal, and ‘Rangka Pegal’ /karang gelap. Critically serious hope? Gloomy & fat? Stiffness in the dark? Such witty titles offer audiences entry points into Ajim’s abstract representations, where straight white lines cut through typically dark canvases, pointing to the presence and wilful annihilation of constructed structures. Collage is sometimes present, colours are overpainted in black, and painterly gestures & effects appear relatively muted. Some large paintings stand out for its visual power, among them ‘Penghuni Distopia: Anak’.

Monomania: Ugut (2018)

This spectral picture, with nearby exhibits consisting of the artist’s stuff in glass jars, result in a fifth-floor display that signposts the show’s walkthrough. Starting from the ground level, one follows an ascending path that builds upon the monumental theme – walking past sketches, drawings, abstract/wordplay, onto metaphorical demons and ruinous phantasms, then an introspective volte-face with “strong fundamentals” (small paintings titled ‘Asas’ /sasa), and the culminative undertaking of collaborations exhibited at the highest floor. The overall presentation resonates superbly with the artist’s intent of neutralizing dominance hierarchies, where the individual ego is intentionally let go at the figurative summit of art creation. That all collaborative pieces refer to the ground and its enduring quality – Syahbandi Samat’s “Tanah Pecah”, for example – contributes to the thematic coherence.

Installation snapshot on the fifth floor: (2018) [middle, foreground] Khazanah Siapa?; [middle, background] Penghuni Distopia: Anak

‘Penghuni Distopia: Rakus’ – one short, wide depiction of tangled bodies – hangs over “Batu Nisan” /ubat insan, the latter a series of works done collaboratively with Sliz. Sprayed graphics and stuck prisms adorn concrete slabs, the assemblages presenting a light-hearted jab at (digital) death, and the act of erecting a monument to memorialize death. “All bodies expire like cities. /Tombstones are the only way…”, begins Afi Noor in her poem After the Myth. Returning, and remembrance, are the concluding thoughts of a conceptual engagement that begins with monument, and threat. In one BFM interview, Ajim remarks, that “…whatever we do now, will end up in a museum…” Here, the monument is the creative act, and the threat, is the forgetting of the construction that makes up the monument. LUPA\PULA

Installation snapshot on the sixth floor: (2018) [top] Penghuni Distopia: Rakus; [bottom] Batu Nisan (x Sliz)

27 October 2018

3 @ Wei-Ling Contemporary

For his third solo exhibition, Sean Lean utilizes a presentation format – the triptych – as a starting point to explore subject matters in painting. The exhibition statement describes the triptych as “a pictorial convention within the Christian tradition where a central panel is adjoined by two subsidiary but associated ones…” In a concise and descriptive essay, Line Dalile writes that the artist “…sought to challenge and disrupt its inherent symmetry. Size, style, and treatment of individual panels vary in attempt to create a space of tension and ambiguity, yet still maintain a unifying line of thought, both visually and conceptually, between the three panels in each triptych. Tension is inherently built into the format of the triptych, with each individual panel vying for attention or complementing and illuminating the other, if not both.”

3 (2018)

Case in point: ‘3’, with its left panel a trippy combination of overlapping pink, blue, and yellow circles; the alphabets ‘T’ and ‘W’ seemingly etched on a rusted rectangular centrepiece; and a shortened right panel – approximating the golden ratio – depicting a facsimile of the Googled definition of triptych.  The images read from left to right like a visual sobering process – from high saturation pop, to a mundane wash of brown, to language described on a desktop screen. Another form of sobering – to plunge into the depths of dark water – takes place further down the same wall. ‘carpe diem’ pairs one scene of a splashing good time, with a Scorpène-class submarine underwater. Seizing the day, has never meant more to voting Malaysians accustomed to financial scandals and corrupt politicians.

carpe diem (2018)

Sean’s playful takes continue with ‘Prosperity’, the diamond-shaped centrepiece flanked by two scroll-like accompaniments, presenting a crossover of visual cues from Western painting and Chinese tradition. Instead of an antithetical couplet, the pair features paintings of a chubby kid riding a merry-go-round, and sumptuously-painted pig heads hung on a skewer. Is prosperity signified by children, mechanical horses, or abundant food? Is the cost of prosperity, the freedom to capture scenes representing absurdities in modern life? Pleasant live human and gruesome dead animal are not equated or juxtaposed, but act as a visual counterpoint around the title concept. As indicated by the yellow and pink colours in the 福 panel, positive and negative spaces are equally filled in a titular word, and it is up to the reader's interpretation for making individual meaning.

Prosperity (2018)

Confidence & determination, and the opposite traits of doubt & deliberateness, are on full view in ‘Self-Portrait’. Sandwiching all-black and all-white portraits of the artist’s father and himself, is a painting-sized vitrine of certificates and awards. Both portraits appropriate mugshots, as the artist depicts both individuals as equally responsible and guilty, for this relationship gulf. Are achievements on paper good enough to bridge human relationships? Personal desolation turns to news-worthy outrage in ‘BANG BANG’, which depicts a monk holding a rifle, and ready to shoot at a gallery of sitting Tibetan monks. Separating the shooter from his target is a quote from the Theravāda Buddhist scripture Vinaya Pitaka, where choice letters are highlighted in red to visually connect the gun-shaped triptych. The face-off marks a moment of silence, and questions what it means to practice one’s religion.

BANG BANG (2018)

Sean also customizes the “3” format to approximate his subject in ‘The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’, that dominates the opposite wall. The effectiveness of this formal play is maximized in this floor-to-ceiling work, which towering scale recalls too the origins of the triptych in Western religious painting. A stunning profile painting of a golden seated buddha forms the base, while its head’s silhouette is rendered via a pattern mimicking the buddha’s coiled hair. William Blake’s proverb completes the middle, yet the work’s fuzzy top and visually-appealing bottom, betrays its own sage-like quote. Will the abundance of iconography inspire a reflective viewer, or has stylistic clichés occupied the overzealous mind? This thought persists in the interpretation of ‘Copies’ hung nearby, which three panels feature a print, a painting of the print, then a scan of the painting.

Installation snapshot of The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom (2018)

While the artist is obviously broaching questions of authorship in ‘Copies’ – recall Gan Siong King’s “The Horror, The Horror” project which the artist painted 12 instances of Alan Turing’s portrait – the subject matter here makes for more compelling contemplation. The identical image in all 3 panels, is a portrait-sized cut-out of a video snapshot, taken from Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev. Played by Anatoly Solonitsyn, the great medieval Russian orthodox icon painter (whose most famous work is ‘Trinity’!) is characterized as a single-minded artist confronting his social reality of chaos & repression. The independent will and to do what one desires, seem to describe Sean too, whose autobiographical imprints are evident in his oeuvre. When an image has been transmuted across multiple mediums, what is left of it? When a painter paints a world divorced from his reality, is he a responsible artist?

Copies (2018)

In retrospect, “3” ranks among the top painting exhibitions I have seen to-date in 2018. Sean’s paintings always project a luscious tone – which colourful underpainting can be seen in work-in-progress snapshots on the artist’s Instagram – while its glossy flatness denote Ivan Lam’s influence. Displaying only eight triptych works, the attractive aesthetic and experimental verve coalesce into a brilliant exhibition, where a variety of themes from East-West dichotomies to political events, can be read more simply as painted structures and formal arrangements. Working exclusively with Wei-Ling gallery only, the artist has not made a splash in the Malaysian art scene, but he deserves far more recognition. After “3”, one wonders what will be the theme for Sean Lean’s fourth solo exhibition – perhaps death (‘4 死’ in mandarin)?

Self-Portrait (2018)

19 October 2018

Mid-October 2018: Malaysian Art Week?

Who needs a Gallery Weekend, when the Kuala Lumpur art scene can self-organize a string of exhibitions and events in a couple of weeks, that highlight Malaysian art? Centred around the annual Art Expo Malaysia, this year’s art fair features a distinct layout, more schoolchildren, and some high-profile regional artists & private collections. Visitors pay RM 10 to enter – a cheap fare for a pop-up Instagram-friendly show, complete with neon signs of local political slogans – and are immediately treated upon entrance to Chen Wei Meng’s subtly beautiful local landscapes of dirt & plains. Tarpaulin maps by Chong Kim Chiew and old paintings by Chin Kong Yee make up the remaining displays at Wei-Ling Gallery, whose inaugural participation in this local event literally occupies both its entry and exit points. 

Stewart Macfarlane - Lady Bay (2018)

The Brickfields gallery’s outpost at The Gardens Mall compels visitors with an intriguing ‘bipolar’ showcase by two international artists, where one first admires Stewart Macfarlane’s vivid and superbly-composed paintings, then pass through a dark curtain to ponder upon Dadang Christanto’s grave portraits memorializing victims of a 1965 massacre in Central Java. At art mall Publika, Segaris Art Centre organizes a huge group exhibition with the opportunistic theme “Malaysia: Rebirth”, while its own gallery hosts a tiresome collection of new works by Tajuddin Ismail. Walking past the glut of Malaysia Baru-inspired art, The Sliz’ ‘Mindsweeper’ proves to be the exception and only outstanding work. The rules of the game remain the same, we can choose to restart the game, or exit the game altogether. Click, click, click… boom!

The Sliz - HRÐİ_01_mïNd$W€Ép3R (2018)

Segaris stages a booth at Art Expo featuring four senior artists who are former and current UiTM lecturers, all whom recently had solo exhibitions except for Zulkifli Yusoff. Between Jalaini Abu Hassan’s bitumen applied on canvas, and Ramlan Abdullah’s joints in vertical constructs, there is a sense that the full potential of materials utilized is not realized. A better exposition of art mediums can be found at the short-duration and misleadingly-titled Shah Alam Biennale 2018; Better and nearer, one can visit excellent sculptural and installation art at the “Minta Perhatian” exhibition in the National Art Gallery, while captivating new works by Malaysian artists are displayed in the third floor galleries, via the institution’s collaboration with Wei-Ling Gallery and Fergana, respectively

Installation snapshot at Segaris Art Centre booth at Art Expo Malaysia 2018

At “Tekad Enam Dekad” in Balai’s Galeri 2B, visitors are treated to more artwork gems from the National Collection, in one winding display that looks back at the collection’s own roots and becoming. There was no shortage of art on show during this extended week, if one knows where to go. For those with art-world connections, private collections were open for viewing, be it in Shah Alam or Ampang. Adventurous photography enthusiasts can travel to Petaling Jaya for a look at Nirmala Karuppiah’s black & white snapshots, or head downtown to 2 Hang Kasturi for a preview of Kenny Loh’s “Born In Malaysia” portraits. Interested persons are spoilt for choice, at a time when landmark museum exhibitions are also held at ILHAM ("Pago-Pago") and Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery ("Seni Cetakan: Lasting Impressions"). 

Samsudin Wahab - Pohon Kehidupan (2018)

The latter show features prints by Pangrok Sulap, whose solo exhibition at A+ Works of Art includes two large works that embroiled its makers in a (self-)censorship debacle 19 months ago. The Sabah-based collective is rightfully celebrated for its community engagement initiatives, and one could learn much from tuning into two BFM interviews, to understand their views aligning village life with punk rock philosophy (!!). Unfortunately, Kuala Lumpur viewers have unwittingly cast Pangrok Sulap as figures representing anti-censorship in the arts, where the gallery too is guilty in emphasizing this point in its marketing efforts. Aesthetically, the new works with snakes and ladders motifs is kitschy (perhaps denoting that many collective members had a hand in it), as compared to the striking images in the “Ma=Fil=Indo” series shown adjacent. 

Installation snapshot of Pangrok Sulap - Sabah Tanah Airku (2017)

The Sentul gallery also represents Chang Fee Ming, whose high-priced paintings hang (and sell well) at its Art Expo booth with a curious cross-shaped layout. Richard Koh Fine Art's booth nearby features scroll paintings on copper by Seah Zelin, which colour palette resembles Dun Huang cave murals. The visual feast turns up a notch at its Bangsar gallery showing Hasanul Isyraf Idris’ third instalment of his “HOL (Higher Order Love)” series, which is less serious than its previous iteration. Symbols taken from video games, food stuff, fine art, and toys coalesce with mesmerising patterns, which wacky result culminates in the wonderfully irreverent aluminium sculpture of one vertical slice of salmon… That is a lot of Malaysian art to see over a weekend (plus some), in the capital city. Who needs the government or a private gallery, to organize a ‘Malaysian Art Week’? 

Hasanul Isyraf Idris - Offshore Bar (2018)

24 September 2018

Sensory Photography @ RUANG by Think City

Billed as “Malaysia’s first photography exhibition by the visually impaired”, the second-floor space features snapshots by seven individuals with differing severities of low vision. How does one who is visually impaired, makes use of the photographic medium to capture an image? What is captured, if composition and technical qualities are put aside, and for what purpose? After the first walkthrough, it is apparent that most pictures possess an oddball quality absent from a typical show featuring amateur photographers. The angle of snapshots taken is lower. Things appear off-centre, yet the focus is intentional. Perhaps most surprising is that photographs do not display dramatic contrasts, a relatively simple approach towards creating visually attractive pictures.

(clockwise from left) Snapshots of Ahar bin Tabe - "Cycle", tactile photography exhibits, "Journey"

What triggered my reflections about photography as a medium, are the displays placed along the windows. 3-dimensional collages made with different textures – hair, rubber, plastic, leaves, etc. – represent the photo exhibits, while visitors blindfold themselves and listen to instructions via a portable set of headphones. When was the last time I looked at a picture of a cat, and thought of the softness of its fur? Or the sharp edges and risk of bleeding, when glancing a picture with rusted nails? Or seeing a picture of a road, a tree and its fallen leaves, that rekindle a memory of a pitstop at a rural town, complete with humid air and light blue sky?

(from l to r) Snapshots of Rashidi bin Abdullah - tactile photography exhibit, "Refleksi"

Organizer Ken Goh, representing the social enterprise Plus Community Partnership, was on hand to brief me about the 10-weeks program undergone by exhibition participants. The lessons – taught by David Lok – dispensed with the history & technical aspects of photography and went straight to cues which participants could learn immediately. A course about light & shadow talks about feeling heat and temperature differences, to deduce the lighting source and which direction is it shining from. Another course relates emotions to music, while identifying textures in making snapshots become a practical task. Understanding this background gave me the A-Ha moment, when marvelling at Jamaliah Mohd Yasin’s (a 60-years old who lost her vision completely) poetic captures taken at the recent KL Marathon. 

Ahar bin Tabe - "Kembar"

Collectively, this exhibition provides a fascinating insight, into the potential of the photographic image, beyond its formal or atomic characteristics. What is captured in a photograph, beyond reflected light atoms on a rectangular surface? Beyond its physical subject matter, its cropped compositions, and its colour filters? In contemporary art, photographs typically function as symbolic containers or narrative devices, which formal aspects are utilized for visual appeal. In this age where everybody wields a mobile camera, the idea of photographs capturing a moment in time, seems romantic. In this exercise, one wants to take a good photograph, without considering the formal elements typically associated to a good photograph. What kind of seeing, is believing?

(clockwise from left) Snapshots of Vivian Kuek Chu Lan - "Chinese Art", "Drama Hari Ini", tactile photography exhibits

21 September 2018

Yang Lain-Lain @ Suma Orientalis

The gallery’s publicity statement for “Yang Lain-Lain” touts Donald Abraham as a Sabah-born street artist, pointing out the artist’s lack of formal training, and “YAK” graffiti tag as his signature. Most exhibits are acrylic paintings on canvas or board, some with collaged snippets, effectively marking this a typical gallery showcase. In an interview with the local newspapers, the artist admits, that “(i)t’s a daunting challenge to go down the gallery path. But it’s a natural career progression”. Visitors are greeted by ‘The Green Monster’, its arrangement of cynical symbols indicative of the literal and boring characteristics, that typify Malaysian paintings making political commentary. Fortunately, this is the only poor example, in this exhibition of fantastic works. 

Drifting (2016)

For one with a signature style – his murals within Publika’s indoor walkways are immediately recognizable – there is an amazing diversity in Donald’s drawings of people & things. Numerous characters populate his canvases, and just looking at the depicted heads & faces is sufficient to sustain one’s visual interest for a considerable time. Some are depicted as looking at the viewer, some are in profile, some are from the top, some are turned away. No box heads, animal heads, or rocket heads, are the same. Pursed lips or teeth-baring mouths, are attached to hooked noses or nostrils pointing upwards, while a variety of eyes bear the expressions of shock, calm, detached, alert. A significant feature is the size of drawn figures, which make the works as easy to see as a comic strip, and the symbols utilized are seldom too vague or too specific. 

3 Scenario (2014)

The comic strip is used as an illustrative narrative device in ‘Drama’, an approach also seen in one exhibit currently on show at Menara Maybank. “Yang Lain-Lain” includes Donald’s output from 2012 to 2018, which provides the viewer an insight into the artist’s aesthetic experiments. From ‘3 Scenario’ (2014) – a depiction of “childhood, adolescence and adulthood” – to works completed in 2015, its characters adopt a fleshy pink-orange hue and leave more empty space between them, as compared to other exhibits. Perhaps, the artist’s young child was born during this period? White parallel lines reappear in ‘Chop Suey’ (2018), a dense picture where every figurative motif and expressive motive is cramped onto a single canvas. Brick walls & sculpted waves are apparent also in newer works, and the white fill-ins in ‘Street Workers’ present a fresh scheme for colouring figures.

Street Workers (2018)

Such observations are made possible, when contrasted against the three large and bright works completed in 2012. Donald’s approach is described in a recent interview, where he “…imagined what he wanted to paint before putting the base colours in first. He completed the painting by accentuating the characters with black outlines.” This simple statement betrays the multiple layers of design that cover each work, which injects Donald’s work its characteristic style and aesthetic appeal. ‘Untitled (Pompodon)’ is a good example of this approach, where faded neon colours draw connections or patterns in the background, while in the foreground of outlandish figures are illustrated in dark outlines. The immediacy of images recalls a mural quality and its association with street art, yet the inherent contrasts in tone attract the viewer to linger then roam visually in front of the paintings.

Untitled (Pompodon) (2012)

‘Playground’ (2017) presents an evolving and maturing approach, where visual depth is crafted via diagonal planes, and the relatively fewer figures are balanced by a more focused and purposeful depiction. Who is asleep, and who is awake? What do the dark blue and dark green characters (including a Ninja Turtle and a bearded sage) represent? Why is only half the yellow face shown, and where is the handheld revolver pointing at? Motifs with corresponding scale & colour present surface layers, that clusters characters & things into an interconnected whole, which the viewer can then freely interpret. Despite its landscape format and numerous subject, one does not get overwhelmed by what is presented, as there is order in the chaos.

Playground (2017)

My favourite works in this exhibition, are unquestionably the square paintings from 2016-2017. In ‘Drifting’, luminous heads – including a Trump-like profile – surround a bald figure with a paper ship on his head. Alert eyes dart in different directions, yet a sense of melancholy pervades as the spectral character drifts among the crowd. A similar sense of finding one’s way appears in ‘100s of Line’, where a pink character surfs through a larger crowd on a #skatedog, the apparent bravado also projecting an outsider detached from one’s surroundings. This approach reaches its zenith in ‘Running Boy’, where the crowd of figures are densely packed and seem to join and form out of each other. Donald’s design is organic yet forceful, which style approaches a continuous line of stream-of-consciousness drawing. Stress-inducing expectations are a feature of modern urban life, and there is no running away.

Running Boy (2017)

Donald’s images do not nullify, but complement each other with its symbolism and formal properties, a mean feat which many Malaysian artists strive for but do not attain. In a response to a journalist’s question about his personal favourite work, the artist states, “I don’t have a favourite. I love them all. My art contorts reality as I express my subjects spontaneously. This world is vast. And my repertoire is to sing along, capturing its beauty, funny moments and hard facts onto my canvas. But I’m no soothsayer. I just love what I’m doing.” Vivid & colourful, intricately layered, full of character, and well-drawn motifs – there is plenty to enjoy and like in Donald Abraham’s art. By promoting it as street art, the gallery has sold these works short. In short, this is good art, whenever it is shown, and wherever the artist hails from. 

Detail snapshots