31 December 2013

Sandhini Poddar @ SGFA Vision Culture Lecture

A major contemporary art museum and its recent move of introducing Asian artists to its Western audience, is among the topics covered by Guggenheim Museum associate curator Sandhini Poddar, at her recent visit to Shalini Ganendra's. The low turn-out can be attributed to rain and an art auction, as one ponders the sorry state of affairs if indeed local curators chose to attend the charity sale over this experience sharing. Tracing the development of Guggenheim exhibitions from 2008 to the present, a logical approach sees one blockbuster show leading to significant individual retrospectives, then onto region-specific surveys. This macro-to-microscopic progression implies a visionary curatorial strategy, but each iteration is still susceptible to certain pressing questions. The intention of Western museums to extend coverage of Asian art will always be suspect, especially for the Guggenheim as it builds its largest outpost in Abu Dhabi.

Installation view of Cai Guo-Qiang - Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf: The Ark of Genghis Khan (1996)

Cai Guo-Qiang's impressive "I Want to Believe" drew crowds in with nine white cars hanging from the ceiling, but the interested observer would notice the references to Chinese idioms and history in other works like 'Cry Dragon/Cry Wolf' and 'Borrowing Your Enemy's Arrows'. The large three-sided 'Memory' by Anish Kapoor was then installed in the iconic New York City gallery, a superficial attempt to promote cross-cultural understanding since Anish is based in London and Berlin. I am fortunate to have attended Mono-Ha founder Lee Ufan's thematic retrospective, which featured many rocks and trailing brush strokes. The fact that such bare sensibilities were developed halfway across the globe, earlier even than the Minimalism movement, must have shocked American art observers. This was followed by the relatively low-key exhibition of printmaker Zarina Hashmi's works on paper.

Zarina - Untitled (1970)

Sandhini mentioned how she started with colleagues whom barely knew what was art from Asia, where she eventually utilised her background to curate "Being Singular Plural", a multimedia group exhibition by contemporary Indian artists. This idea of bringing trans-nationalism to the United States continued early this year with "Gutai: Splendid Playground", which cannot have possibly succeeded without Lee Ufan's show as a precursor, and is now an art buzzword in New York. Sandhini ended the presentation with brief notes about her next curatorial effort (V.S. Gaitonde retrospective), and selection of works for the 450,000 square feet Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, which will be flanked by the national museum and the Louvre. Q&A time allowed for the intense discussion about "No Country: Contemporary Art from South and South East Asia" - the UBS-sponsored and heavily-criticised survey, curated by Singaporean June Yap.

[Top] Saburō Murakami - Passing Through (1956); [Bottom] Murakami progressively leaping through 21 paper screens before suffering a concussion 

As quoted by Ben Davis, "...“hybridity” and “nomadism” are their own kind of contemporary curatorial stereotypes, and the over-reliance on such tropes only raises the question it seeks to head off... the curatorial premise of “No Country” appears to be, “Huh?"" The failure in exhibited context is evident after reading a number of reviews, none which noticed the significance behind Vincent Leong's "Keeping Up with the Abdullahs". Powerful yet humorous, the act to highlight a political reality and racial segregation in a publicly-united country, is easily lost among the displays and its American audience. This problematic approach is acknowledged by Sandhini, whom reminds of the tensions that come with corporate sponsorships and geographic demarcations. Another engaging talk in the Vision Culture Lecture series, as we struggle to keep abreast of developments in the global art world, or if local curators even care about it.

Vincent Leong - Keeping Up With the Abdullahs 1 (2012)

"Just as countries that have broken free of the chains of imperialism strive as much as possible to recognize each other as equals, in the territory of art attention is being given to the types of boundaries and relations of expression where self encounters other (rather than constructing a painted empire on canvas through representations of the self). Expression achieves externality and imagination is liberated by structuring an interactive site where dialogue between inside and outside is possible. Using ambiguous expression that is simultaneously passive and active, I hope to cut into the controlled everyday reality of industrial society, breathing fresh air into it and stimulating an awareness of infinity that transcends the human, to awaken a world that is always open."
- In Search of Encounter: The Sources of Contemporary Art, Lee Ufan, 1970

Lee Ufan - From Line (1977)

27 December 2013

Snippets: Q4 2013

After Chi Too's zine which featured photographs of himself in a pinafore, Sharon Chin returned from her successful performance at the Singapore Biennale, to compile her "Mandi Bunga" illustrations into a zine. Hand-drawn curves and black ink fills are simple yet underrated in this age of technology, where the zine's picture quality was sufficient to print a good-looking reproduction.

Poster / final page of Sharon Chin's "Mandi Bunga (2013)" zine

"Day Zero Night Hero" showcases Ivan Lam's sequential series of 3 resin-encased works that portray straightforward binaries of time-bound notions, where familiar imagery and strong contrasts typify the artist's urban aesthetic. Visual appeal is a primary objective, seen in the pleasing hues that bind the first picture, the spatial constructs of the second, and the solidified waves in the third. Persistent effort is required to control industrial resin, its multi layered effect glossing over a plain obsession to create visual depth. These gelatin-like enclosures are the last examples of a tedious approach, its bulkiness weighing down the attractive diptychs unnecessarily. Continuous experimentation appears to be Ivan's motto as we look forward to his next evolution, occasionally reminiscing on beautiful panoramic narratives.

[2013, top l-r] I have hated you too much to be grateful of the day; I have loved you too fondly to be fearful of the night; Hero/Zero
[close-ups, bottom l-r] thick layer of resin separates each diptych; handmade battleship; resin waves

Centre for Asian Photographers opens in Jaya One, where the passionate owners intend to promote good (not art) photography for an under-appreciated visual medium in Malaysia. Highlights from the Maybank Photography Awards 2013 are shown in conjunction with the gallery opening, where the "Inspiring Asia" theme fits nicely with the centre's objectives. Photographer of the Year winner Yaman Ibrahim executes technically across multiple categories to pip the award from runner-up Carsten Stormer, whose series of shots taken in the Syria war zone are captivating but do not comply to the strict judging criteria. Great captures include the unanimous selection for best portrait - an old lady holding up a picture of a younger man's lower face; Street photography finalist Elvies Inocencio's monochromatic scene of three boys back flipping into open water, delineates a carefree exuberance in a remarkable composition.

Elvies C. Inocencio - Kalibo Aklan Philippines 

Dead fish is employed as a subject matter in DevLee's "鱼肆 IKAN" exhibition, where carcasses are magnified into black and white overstatements. Bone and tail state a prehistoric piscine evolution, while close-ups recall humans' ancient fascination with leathery texture. Adept at dramatic juxtapositions, notably the pictures with a black background, the photographer makes the most of a specimen's physical characteristics. The artist statement attempts to philosophise a personal interest, quoting the epistemic metaphor of Zhuangzi's Happiness of Fish. Arguing for a fish's metaphysical presence by presenting its material form is cloying, a fishy approach to turn interesting photographs into something more. The viewer will likely side with Huizi in the tale, who replies: "我非子,固不知子矣,子固非魚也,子不知魚之樂,全矣。" 

DevLee - 逍遥/Ethereal 03 (2013)

A visit to the University of Malaya sees a student showcase with impressive watercolour paintings by an engineering student and high-priced works from a budding Iranian artist. Mat Ali Mat Som's second solo exhibition "Unsung Heroes" features metal warriors posing dramatically on rock, where rippling muscles and flying strands of hair render the sculptures similar to Storm Warriors figurines. Historical warriors fight to resolve issues we still experience today, but heroes portrayed in such majestically furious manner are ultimately dated in form. 'Sipat Kandel III' captures attention which rock and metal become one, its ribbon and diamond shapes complementing a focus on the arms' uplifting gesture.

Mat Ali Mat Som - Sipat Kandel III (2012)

24 December 2013

Recent Works @ The Edge Galerie

The catchy “2 + 2” theme simplifies the presentation of recent works by established artists, as a wealthy target clientèle quickly snap up market-relevant and distinguished works. This is apparent for auction darling Ahmad Zakii Anwar, whose first three sales out of five pastel drawings are for an ethnic Malay man, a smoker, and one attractive peach-coloured portrait. Following on his recent series of works, 'Ketuanan' and 'Rumah Pisang' by Jalaini Abu Hassan stand out for its metaphorical content. The former shows Soekarno with stained shirt holding a parang, the backlit former Indonesian president and bloody doorway, forming a sinister scene that overshadows the lovely floral fabric floor. White light shines into a kampong house in the latter, where bunches of ripening bananas lie on the ground shielded from the blinding blaze. Both paintings are executed brilliantly, and immediately allow the Malaysian to inject interpretations of social realities.

Jalaini Abu Hassan - Ketuanan (2013)

Tajuddin Ismail pays homage to Eduardo Chillida and Cy Twombly, where the 40-year old 'Night in Giverny' proves to be a more beautiful painting than the recent 'Bloom' with similar motifs. As another old work 'Mosaic (Turquoise)' testifies, Tajuddin's works can be considered progressive once upon a time, but the lack of improvisation has relegated such art to wall hangings in 5-star hotels. Drew Harris fares worse, where the result of "'fracturing'... in traditional Asian brush painting" seem to be strange cut-up blocks of canvases with painted Lucio Fontana slashes. In comparison, local artist Daud Rahim has explored the brush stroke ala Roy Lichtenstein in a more engaging manner. Both abstract specialists hardly feature in local art auctions, as compared to the two figurative masters whom command escalating prices. The question that brings to bear then, are abstract and recent two increasingly disparate terms?

Tajuddin Ismail - Night in Giverny (1960s)

21 December 2013

An Op-ed on KL’s 2013 Monsoon Cycle of Art Auctions 2013 (Pt. 2 of 2)

Note: An attempt to write an op-editorial about art auctions in Malaysia, where such commentaries are not available. . Written in mid-November 2013.

Over the course of a month, the 3 houses together realised RM 8,993,050 for Malaysian and Southeast Asian art sales. The total tally signifies an increased interest in local and regional art, but barely registers a blip when compared to the record-breaking sale of $691,583,000 (RM 2.21 billion) at Christie’s New York. The two-hour Post-war and Contemporary evening sale offered only 69 lots where 63 were sold, including the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction, $142,405,000 (RM 456 million) for Francis Bacon’s "Three Studies of Lucian Freud" (1969). This gaudy figure easily obliterated the record previously set by Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” at $119,922,496 (RM 384 million) at Sotheby’s New York in May 2012. Obviously Malaysia’s art market still has a long way to go, but the more important differentiation factor is that the most expensive works sold at a KL art auction are abstracted forms by Malaysian modern masters. In mature art markets, contemporary art has consistently outperformed older art, evident when you look at the two most expensive works quoted above. Both share the similarity of being colourful and distorted, not befitting any conventional wisdom about beauty, perhaps even depressing or distressing to the viewer. Will any rich Malaysian hang such paintings on their marble walls surrounded by Bali-nesque gardens?

Ibrahim Hussein – Val Bon (1985), sold for RM 594,000 (est. RM 350-500,000) at Masterpiece Fine Art Auction, Lot 96, 13 October 2013

The figures in the previous report are not 100% accurate. That is because Malaysian art auction houses do not publish sales summaries, and objective art writing in Malaysia are non-existent. Beyond the advertisements disguised as news articles, steady sales betray a sore lack of professionalism at these events. One auctioneer does not publish its historical auction results. High estimates are set more than double the low estimates. A set of Chinese scroll paintings are bought at a Hong Kong auction and sold as separate lots across two sales events. Dubious ownership and fakes are sometimes cited. Rumours abound about discrete bidders that represent the auction house itself to drive up prices during bidding. Catalogue notes are either poorly written, or there’s none at all. Interested individuals consistently display a lack of knowledge about art, easily misled by auction house representatives who convince patrons that “this painting will look good on your wall”. Wall hangings are nonchalantly grouped and promoted with the terms “abstract”, “semi-abstract”, and “figurative” – even pillows and mattresses have more categorisations available. Art education for the unfortunate buyer inevitably come from the salesman.

As it is with any luxury market, the values of the object itself – in this case, artwork – is frequently ignored for bragging rights. Ibrahim Hussein’s “Val Bon” sold for RM 594,000 and provided the previous owner a 50% return in 5 months. The dark maroon borders are warm and attractive, but many of the interweaving lines seem like a mistake, and I doubt this work is considered a highlight in Ib’s catalogue raisonné. Art auction summaries also typically focus on the high-priced items, a curious approach that contradicts the idea of art investment (conventional investing strategy is to buy low, sell high). Khaw Sia’s RM 220,000 cover lot is a plain painting of Balinese women that looked like it could have been done by a Karyaneka artist. Of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and taste is personal. But in this capitalist world, an assigned monetary value can always transform ugly items into coveted masterpieces. Thanks to these auctions, the Malaysian public now has access to the self-contained community of Malaysian art collectors. However, the openness to embrace art beyond a simplistic “nice wall hanging” still look bleak, as the secondary art market capitalise on a marketplace enamoured with idyllic pastoral scenes.

Khoo Sui Hoe – Around the Moon (1972), sold for RM 93,500 (est. RM 18-30,000) at Henry Butcher Malaysian & Southeast Asian Art Auction, Lot 17, 3 November 2013

Did anyone come out on top overall? Henry Butcher’s average of RM 32,024 per lot is a comforting sign that the pioneer auction house still retains its credibility after the MAS fiasco. But really, should these figures matter in art?

19 December 2013

A Report on KL’s 2013 Monsoon Cycle of Art Auctions 2013 (Pt. 1 of 2)

Note: An attempt to write an auction summary report about art auctions in Malaysia, where such reports are not available. Written in mid-November 2013.

Unabated, Malaysian art auction fever fuelled Masterpiece’s South East Asian Modern sale on a Sunday afternoon at Sheraton Imperial, which realized RM 3,610,750 for the astounding 152 lots it sold. The total scored closer to the higher end of the RM 2.83-4.27 million pre-sale estimates as five works fetched over RM 100,000, and another five over RM 50,000. Only 8 out of 160 lots were bought in, as the firesale achieved an amazing 5 percent buy-in rate by lot, and 14 percent by value. The afternoon’s highlight belongs to Ibrahim Hussein’s “Val Bon” (1985), a busy picture featuring the artist’s signature sinuous lines, which drew a number of bids before expiring at RM 594,000 (est. RM 350-500,000). The work was just recently sold at Christie’s Hong Kong in May 2013 for HKD 870,000 (RM 358,941), signalling a remarkably quick turnover of a 50% return for the enterprising owner, even after subtracting the buyer’s premium.

3 stylistically different works by Indonesian master Lee Man Fong were offered and snapped up, nabbing the auction house a cool total of RM 239,800. Singaporean pioneers fared excellently, as Chen Wen Hsi’s “Gibbons” sold for double its highest estimates at RM 90,200. Two muted and melancholic works by Cheong Soo Pieng stole the show, “Fishing Village” (1974) selling for RM 95,700 (est. RM 18-26,000) and “Washing in the River” also quadrupling its estimates at RM 154,000 (est. RM 20-30,000). Despite brisk sales, the long afternoon also had its share of battlefield casualties, where Soo Pieng’s conventional Balinese scene (est. RM 80-150,000) and Latiff Mohidin’s abstract expressionist work from the “Voyage” series (est. RM 250-350,000) were bought in. Cover lot “Offering Preparation in Bali” by Khaw Sia easily broke the artist’s record at auction, going for RM 220,000 (est. RM 180-260,000), following onto the existing popularity of Nanyang-style works.

Khoo Sui Hoe – Around the Moon (1972), sold for RM 93,500 (est. RM 18-30,000) at Henry Butcher Malaysian & Southeast Asian Art Auction, Lot 17, 3 November 2013

Henry Butcher recovers from the unfortunate last-minute retraction of “The Modernist” September auction, to outperform its high pre-sale estimates at its Malaysian and Southeast Asian sale. Total proceeds came in at RM 4,268,500, with three works selling over RM 100,000, with a buy-in rate of 3 percent by lot and 4 percent by value. 19 lots belonged to Indonesian auction house Larasati, as local collectors clamour over the Southeast Asian works on offer. Despite the foreign flavour, Rome-based Malaysian artist H.H. Lim’s “Flying Image in Blue Project” (2011) sold for RM 121,000 (est. RM 40-60,000) in his auction debut. An Australian collector registered a high return for a well-preserved rotunda by Khoo Sui Hoe, which went for RM 93,500, tripling its high estimates of RM 30,000. A prime example on the quality front was Chang Fee Ming’s beautiful watercolour “Monsoon Has Gone” (1990) which sold for RM 209,000, the Balinese scene capturing the heart of a prominent collector willing to shell out double the amount of its RM 100,000 high estimates. A Choong Kam Kow oil painting (est. RM 50-70,000) was a significant buy-in, but that did not dampen the overall upbeat mood in another successful outing for the pioneer Malaysian auction house.

Despite only one-year old, KL Lifestyle Art Space (KLAS) has organised 6 art auctions to date, selling RM 1,859,660 of Malaysian modern and contemporary art in this November 2013 session. The tally fell right between the middle of its poorly estimated RM 1.16-2.32 million pre-sale figures, where all but two of the 76 lots offered found buyers for a top-class buy-in rate of 3 percent by lot and 4 percent by value. Thin in quality, high-priced acrylic paintings include Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s “Red Legong” (2000) which went for RM 137,500 (est. RM 50-110,000) and Ibrahim Hussein’s “Untitled” (1977) that sold for RM 300,800 (est. RM 160-400,000). A set of four scrolls by Zhao Shao’Ang last sold at Christie’s Hong Kong in November 2006 for HKD 384,000 (RM 158,429), where it was offered as 4 separate lots across two auctions by KLAS, which total sales summed up to RM 216,700 for the crafty owner.

Zhao Shao’Ang – Flowers and Birds (1978), sold for HKD 384,000 (RM 158,429) at Christie’s Fine Modern and Contemporary Chinese Paintings Auction, Lot 894, 27 November 2006

17 December 2013

Gema Hati @ Balai Berita NSTP

Former Anak Alam members Mazlan Noor and Hassan Majid get together to exhibit different dispositions, their works poorly hung in an alternate manner that severely impairs proper appreciation of either artists' works. Hassan's paintings initially grab attention with their distorted faces and phantom silhouettes, strangely triggering my imagination of how Cheong Lai Tong may have drawn Avatar characters in the midst of morphing ala Matrix Reloaded. When the medium is pared down to simply pen and ink, like in 'Di Bawah Terik Mentari', spectral portrayals dissolve within a well-drawn darkness. Few rounds around the exhibits later, the viewer starts to become enchanted by Along's concentric circles, its serenity punctuated by dots in Takashi Murakami colours. Poems accompany these works by the long-time Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka book cover designer, whose humility many praise in the exhibition catalogue addendum.

Mazlan Noor - Bulatan dan Titik Taharah (2012)

Along's typical presentation shows two landscape drawings aligned vertically, its framed gap acting as a blank space that superbly contributes to the joining of line and shape. Both symmetrical and asymmetrical motifs are equally appealing, where overlapping circles convey pictures pregnant with meaning. A short viewing yielded interpretations such as magnified raindrops or an interlaced timelessness, its Malay colours augmenting a quiet confidence exhibited by the artist. When a third panel is included into the middle of two drawings, visual balance is maintained via coloured dots and arabesque patterns, depicting an adventurous diversion within the same picture frame. Siti Zainon Ismail quotes, “Along’s spiritual energy is strong. I am the writer but he, as the illustrator, suggests the ideas and comes up with the designs. He has an immense love of God.” Circles express his world view - lines meet, but it ultimately return to the beginning.

Hassan Majid - Di Bawah Terik Mentari (2013)

"Suatu hari... Aku tersedar, Berada diruang baru, Terlalu asing
Tiada lagi angin menyilang, Tidak dengar ombak yang pulang
Tidak lihat burung melayang, Tidak nampak kerlipan bintang
Mengharap pula bulan yang terang, Mencari matahari yang hilang
Tiada lagi sahabat yang datang, Tiada lagi keluarga tersayang
Rupanya aku kini... Berada didalam ruang, Yang ada persoalan
Yang ada pertanyaan, Yang perlu ada bekalan, Yang perlu ada jawapan
Akhirnya... Aku mengerti dan pasti, Tidak dapat kembali
Pada ruang lama, Yang sudah aku tinggalkan...
Astaghfirullah Wa Atubu Ilaih"
- Ruang Baru, Mazlan Noor @ Along (4 November 2013, 3 pagi)

Mazlan Noor - Garis dan Lingkaran Wehdah (2013)

15 December 2013

Typhoon Haiyan Charity Art Auctions

After news broke about super typhoon Haiyan striking east Philippines, Sharon Chin embarked on an inspiring solo auction of her sketch and stencils used for her recent performance at the Singapore Biennale. Malaysian art collectors and industry players proceed to jump onto the art for charity bandwagon, swiftly putting together an auction with significant contributions from many artists, space provider, and even catalogue printer. Logistics and publicity were efficiently arranged, the privileged wielding their mobilising power with fruitful intent. Auction lots were priced below market value and its buyer’s premium generously waived, although only an Art Friend will describe these middling-quality works as "very cheap". Opportunity knocks for the ardent collector whom gets an artwork, a tax-deductible receipt, and a certain peace of mind. 37 out of 40 lots sold for RM 572,500, but it is unclear how much of the total goes to Mercy Malaysia.

Ramlan Abdullah - Minaret (1995)

Roslisham Ismail's collages, Anurendra Jegadeva's accordion book, and Chong Siew Ying's portrait, number among recent exhibits seen in galleries this year. ‘Payarama “Injappatah”’ by Awang Damit Ahmad stands out as a value buy, the immediate and powerful expression not always evident in the abstract artist’s prolific output. Looking at older lots, individual portraits by Ahmad Zakii Anwar and Kow Leong Kiang draw attention, but the diamond in the rough belongs to Ramlan Abdullah's 'Minaret'. An elegant tripod holds a stack of rectangular glass, depicting high tension in a visually gripping manner, the turning mechanism a constant threat to itself. Bidding was minimal - the only two market anomalies being Hoe Say Young and Suddin Lappo, whose 'Panji' is frankly a terrible purchase at RM 23,000. Last seen in a charity event and easily the best exhibit in this auction, Noor Mahnun Mohamed's 'Lanterns' did not sell.  

Awang Damit Ahmad - Payarama "Injappatah" (2013)

The event spawned another charity sale, the two-day “Piece of Me” exhibition organised by young artists collectives in collaboration with a Cebu-based gallery. Constrained by a 2-by-2 feet dimension, the feature wall of portraits by Cheong Tuck Wai, Fadilah Karim, and recent UOB Painting of the Year winner Gan Tee Sheng, captivates with signature individual styles. Arikwibowo Amril displays maturity with a charcoal illustration, where larger examples with the same medium can be appreciated upstairs at Segaris. Donald Abraham’s blue ‘Bulat’ pays tribute to Ibrahim Hussein, while thoughtful preparatory drawings by Syafiq Nordin and Nazri Tahir indicate potential. Amidst the good intentions, charitable art remains problematic in terms of the percentage return for the artist, which differs by person. One also wonders why such efforts are not channelled to Peninsula Malaysia's flooded east coast, a disaster much closer to home.

[2013, from L to R] Cheong Tuck Wai - The Wind is Rising; Fadilah Karim - Sleepless Night; Gan Tee Sheng - My Mother Portrait

13 December 2013

18@8: Mirror, Mirror on the Wall @ Wei-Ling Contemporary

Wei-Ling Gallery's annual showcase deploys narcissism as its unifying theme, which early communication likely led to a wonderfully coherent display, all artists successfully producing theme-relevant artworks. Following on recent editions of 18@8, a commercial tie-up required each artist to work on a Furla Candy bag, which were subsequently auctioned off to aid animal welfare organisation SPCA. A typical large-scale work by Zulkifli Yusoff greets and confounds the viewer, its overlapping strips of cloth and coloured resin resembling an architectural plan. References to the story of a tortoise and two birds are prominent only as texts, as the similarly patterned bag nabbed the highest auction price. Anurendra Jegadeva's version features cut-out felt icons, referencing modern society’s fallacy of worshipping personalities, a delightful diversion from his serious painting of a Burmese militant monk.

Furla bags: (left) Zulkifli Yusoff - The Birds and the Tortoise; (right) Anurendra Jegadeva - Pop-pop Trinity (plus One)

Still inflamed by electoral injustice, Kim Ng's 'Anonymous' draws 3 dark shadows among corrupt symbols and his characteristic printed motifs. Traces of a red frame box hidden narratives, while graffiti scribbles include snippets of political rhetoric. The overloaded picture is fortunately neutralised by a diagonal spread of light-coloured flowery lace. A fascination with words and wall jottings also preoccupies Choy Chun Wei, 'I Shop Therefore I Am (Urban Fragments Reflected)' coming across as a visual summary from strolling in a shopping district. Wife Yau Bee Ling explores materialism too in her couple painting, the uneven outlines and messy colours rendering an unattractive diptych. Cheng Yen Pheng grabs attention via her bag decorated with egg shells and black lemons, a successful visual that turns the stomach upon discovery of the leftover food utilised.

Kim Ng - Anonymous (2013)

Artists couple Ilham Fadhli and Azliza Ayob display inviting works in their respective inimitable styles. Kojek paints a headless woman, the melancholic scene based on a fable similar to Narcissus’, which eeriness dissolves after the figure’s head is cheekily restored on a pink-coated Furla. Azliza’s ‘The Enchanted River (of Temptation)’ depicts many traits of feminine splendour in glittery fashion. Crimson lips, gold ring, platform heels, leather gloves, diamond pendant, royal tiara, smooth skin – these motifs weave amongst foliage, birds, and flowers that flank the winding river. An elaborate goose serves as the pretty warning, against excess indulgence to the point where one becomes unrecognisable. Ever the ornate decorator, Azliza wraps her bag in beautiful lace and glittery stones, taking full advantage of its transparent make to augment a luscious design.

Azliza Ayob - The Enchanted River (of Temptation) (2013)

High gloss covers Wong Chee Meng’s ‘Fact and Fiction’, who demarcates forms in white & grey, a potent technique to single out the fiction/creation act of typing. Suburban flats, nyonya tiles, and medicine tablets in the background, imply a mundane reality that backs the human desire to inject colour into their (online) lives. Sean Lean offers a more traditional approach to painting, where idols a generation apart are juxtaposed dramatically in panorama. In his interpretation of self-love, Sean’s artist idol Ivan Lam reverts to his preference for stencilled words and toy transportation. ‘Solipsism’ features binary statements in the first panel, a golden mirror in the middle, followed by dark grey train tracks. The applied medium within each box reinforces a visual contrast unified across panels by black. Texts followed by a reflection then darkness, states the philosophical idea, but does not expand further nor impel one towards deeper thoughts.

Wong Chee Meng - Fact and Fiction (2013)

As a passive user of Facebook for news aggregation, the social media culture truly baffles in its potentially damning generalisation of a delusional generation. Hamidi Hadi states his observations about propagated half-truths within a crude black frame. Screenshots are photocopied onto a metal sheet, where friends feature as FB commentators. Protruding resin droplets continue to mesmerise, while the central Rorschach inkblot depicts pinnacle-like patterns in a familiar blue. Reflective surfaces bind the best works in this exhibition, which "...affirms the fact that art remains a wonderful refuge from the deluge of the digital world and Social Media..." Rachel Jena continues on in the catalogue essay, "...isn't it a little narcissistic of Wei-Ling Gallery to be showing off its best? The gallery is guilty, yes; But, this is one form of narcissism that we'll excuse." I Like.

Hamidi Hadi - LIKE (2013) with close-ups

11 December 2013

Transit A0 @ HOM Art Trans

Expanding on the previous A4-sized theme, this fund raising showcase allows artists to contribute on a larger dimension this year. Signature styles prevail, where Chong Siew Ying's charcoal landscapes and Zuraimi Rahim's aluminium construct flank an in-your-face political finger by Phuan Thai Meng. Recent evolutions see Marvin Chan depicting children faces on epoxy, as Ahmad Zakii Anwar experiments with pastel to draw a man's head. Eschewing a change of medium to explore other subjects, Kow Leong Kiang and Gan Chin Lee paint attractive nudes that take after post-Impressionist portrayals of human desolation. Twisting bodies in small spaces describe both paintings, although scattered rubbish in the latter evoke a more powerful (Freud-like?) struggle. Chin Kong Yee's early portrait projects less strain at first glance, but the bald head, blue table, and stacked chairs, delineate a central figure of personal importance.

Chin Kong Yee - Standing portrait of C.B.G (2001)

Chan Kok Hooi utilises thread to illustrate men's perverted gaze, leather backing a peculiar choice of background which dulls the carnal presentation. Saharuddin Supar's giant grater provides an amusing counterpoint to Hamidi Hadi's introspective 'Solat', while a lemon sky lights up Chong Kim Chiew's tonal exploration disguised as an ode to Munch. Grounded pumice cover Fauzulyusri's contribution, the singular drawing of a box surrounded by cave-like textures recalling his early Lembah Bujang works. Repeated layering and scraping of a porous rock invokes powerful emotions, as the time of viewing coincides with an unintentional association with a recently demolished archaeological site. Less significant but important nonetheless, documentation of the local visual arts are hopefully preserved via the efforts of MARS (Malaysian art Archive & Research Support), the receiving party of this event.

Fauzulyusri - Sekotak (2013)

09 December 2013

New Waves, Korea @ Taksu

Korean contemporary art reveals a sensibility seemingly informed by a colonial history of foreign occupations. Its aesthetic congruence amalgamates a Chinese emphasis on illustrated forms, clean lines & natural textures from the Japanese, with an American brand of flamboyance. Harbouring a desire to see Korean art up close since viewing pictures of Shin Meekyoung's beautiful soap vases, it is a joy to appreciate works from Taksu Singapore's "New Waves, Korea" exhibition at the Jalan Pawang gallery. Hong Sungchul's prints of human hands on elastic strings prove remarkable, its 3-dimensional spectacle projecting a fresh originality, that disrupts modern society's familiarity with flat digital images.

Hong Sungchul - String Hands 0247 (2013)

Hard-edged immediately comes to mind while viewing this collection, a description especially applicable to Yoo Bongsang and Kim Kunju, whose precise and polished constructs depict an artificial finish not seen in Malaysian art. A unique medium masks the decorativeness of the former, where depth is literally hammered onto a flat surface. The latter shows wonderful diversity - 'Myth' attracts with deceptively natural and white forms; 'Love II' juxtaposes colourful lines of polyurethane paint, its cut-out pot shape holding the viewer's gaze. Even Oh Sangtaek's flowing dresses display a strong intent despite its banal subjects, leaving one to ponder the large cultural gap between two countries often cited for economic comparisons.

Kim Kunju - Love II (2009)

06 December 2013

Fabrics of Society revisit @ Sasana Kijang

8 months have passed since I last visited the year-long "Fabrics of Society" exhibition, a duration coinciding with an ongoing endeavour to understand Malaysian art. A better appreciation for Khalil Ibrahim's batik emerges, his figures' sensual contours and rippling muscles drawing a vitality rarely seen in works by student Ismail Mat Hussin. 'They are Singing Hujan Tengahari at Meridien' by Ismail Zain explores repeated patterns and colour juxtapositions, its perfect symmetry invigorated by a painted waterfall gushing through the middle. Mentioned a number of times in Reactions – New Critical Strategies, pioneer photographer HRH Sultan Ismail displays a great sense of framing, best appreciated in a recently released monograph. 'Trade Tricycle' captures a scene still seen today outside Bidor's famous Pun Chun 品珍 noodle house, as the taste of wu gok and sight of petai bunches drift into mind momentarily. Photography, history; Memory, sensibility.

HRH Sultan Ismail - Trade Tricycle (1957)

04 December 2013

It's Still Life @ The Print Room

Expounded brilliantly in the exhibition introduction, "It's Still Life" "breaks away from the documentary approach... and ventures into the more technically-demanding world of still life photography." Quoting another line, "the often-cited test of still life photography is that you can't just take a picture - you have to make it." A number of the photographers struggle mightily, isolating plain objects in black & white or forcefully fabricating ineffective effects. Farah Azizan displays abundant skill in composition where an assemblage of natural textures creates luscious pictures, utilising unexpected objects such as candle wax and chicken feet. Colourful backgrounds are utilised to set off subversive objects in Paul Gadd's works, its prettiness concealing an uneasy and personal presentation.

Farah Azizan - Birds of A Feather... Together #2 (2013)

Dolls become captivating subjects for two photographers with different approaches. Alex Chan explores the ethics of eroticism through voyeuristic lens, staging scenes bordering pretension as he practices self-censorship. Breaking imaginary boundaries, Linda Chin's interrogation of sexual baggage via dolls and condoms, mark her works as the outstanding series in this exhibition. The naked female body and Barbie's unrealistic proportions are juxtaposed to pose an incisive comment about a moral propaganda. Outfitting the figurines with contraceptive latex, transcends perceptions of immodesty to reveal uninhibited concerns. Clear posturing and faded backgrounds keep each picture interesting, while a strong grasp of lighting and motion capture delineate a master in the making.

Linda Chin - Rubber Rubber #5 (2013)

02 December 2013

Snippets: Perth, Oct 2013

A 3-year collaboration between Perth's Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) and New York's Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the MoMA series presents the second of its five shows titled "Van Gogh, Dali and Beyond". Among the master paintings and monochromatic photographs, repetition of forms bind my two favourite displays. Elmer Schooley's 'German Landscape' feature rows of prostrating figurines on a brownish background, their small variations in posture resulting in a picture that depicts weightless mass. Arman's 'I Still Use Brushes' is wickedly sarcastic and successfully expresses a neurotic obsession to accumulate found objects, while commenting on the popularity of colour field painting during this time.

Arman - I Still Use Brushes (1969)

AGWA's collection holds much Australian aborigine art, yet what draws attention is Ken Unsworth's 'Suspended Stone Circle'. Smooth dinosaur egg-shaped rocks are suspended in a circular formation, presenting an ancient preoccupation to impose structure onto nature, the flotation in a gallery space stripping it off any environmental context. An emotional powerhouse of a painting, Arthur Boyd's 'Bridegroom Drinking from a Creek II' recalls Indonesian art with its swirling landscape and luminous coloured subjects. Part of his "Love, Marriage and Death of a Half-Caste" series which highlights aboriginal living conditions, Arthur illustrates a desperate scene of a suppressed community.

Arthur Boyd - Bridegroom Drinking from a Creek II (1959)

Proximity Festival arranges one-on-one intimate performance sessions with an individual, allowing artists to "take creative risks" and present repeatable experiences. I signed up for Program C, which included a short lesson of melting & sculpting metal, and a silly game to re-enact an assassination. Janet Carter's 'Meditation on the Breath' is a soothing exercise where one appreciates the miracle of life via focused breathing instructions. That night's highlight was easily Daniel Levin's 'The Gallery of Impermanent Things', which required posing rigidly for a photogram-like portrait, then transposed onto a full-length phosphorus-layered canvas. The projected image of myself fades within minutes, leaving one to ponder the meaning of portraiture, its temporal existence, and the unnatural desire to expose oneself. Malaysian artists should try holding a similiar festival - who does not want to remember participating in a performance artwork?

Daniel Nevin - Sleep (2006)

29 November 2013

Young Guns @ White Box

Framing - be it a physical border or a contextualised concept, are inherent to any artwork as we perceive it. Bayu Utomo Radjikin's attempt to frame (in galling red & black) 13 young artists as the next generation, seems a little gratuitous considering that a number of them have exhibited at House of Matahati. The scarlet wall behind Seah Zelin's 'The Unknown Adventure' sets the tone, where very large works are displayed on a contrasting background. Associating a seminal artwork with size is perilous, notwithstanding the corresponding higher price tag. Painters Haslin Ismail and Fadilah Karim's large canvases draw familiar styles, as Chong Ai Lei continues to struggle while depicting a vibrant outdoor scene, let down by the subject's lack of personality. Many of the participants stagnated after a promising start, hopefully because of a sophomoric slump and not due to being shrouded by the cloud of fame.

Akhmal Asyraf - The Distance Between Us (2013) [top; bottom shows close-up of underlying green]

Despite a strong resentment towards employing old furniture in artworks, Akhmal Asyraf's scraped wood construct enchants via the green layer of pigment uncovered beneath marine blue windows. Skin-deep commentaries extend to Najib Bamadhaj's stencilled tiger and Al-Khuzairie Ali's slot machine, while the tribute to his newborn by Ruzzeki Harris appears sloppily done, a precarious step towards an idleness evident in Samsudin Wahab's lazy road sign. Donald Abraham surprises with an attractive painting, his distinctive creatures projecting vivid interactions "to depict different circumstances of life" (from artist's statement). Engaging blends of colour underlie the storyboard, as its characters step into each other's demarcated spaces to inject volume onto the canvas. Black dripping paint forms a great background, which frame should be recreated by a prospective collector for maximum effect.

Donald Abraham - Setiap Satu Situasi Pembakar Semangat didalam Kegelapan (2013) [Installation view and close-ups]

chi too's 'What Turns Me On' is a ridiculous take on the "Nyala" theme, where the viewer is invited to turn on/off the lights illuminating the exhibition space. Depicting ir/relevance as a random function strikes an irresistible metaphor, which questions curatorial selection and its reliance on personal taste and fortuitous luck. Framed beautifully in red wood, Azam Aris' 'Hit the Lights' combines various mediums to create an atmospheric scene. Cone-headed controllers and a stormy skyline are painted over a picture with imploding astronauts, an amusing spectacle made further attractive with red fairy dust covering it. Bayu may be catching fire dealing with suspicions of tokenism, but his actions may be justified for one whom has benefited from the now-perfunctory Bakat Muda Sezaman award. Official recognition by a fellow artist is the lesser evil, as compared to market forces or a pusillanimous national institution.

Azam Aris - Hit the Lights (2013)

27 November 2013

The Artist chi too Looks At Artworks As He Contemplates the State of the Nation's Institutions a.k.a. How Can You Be Sure @ Art Row

Barring 'Apologies to J. Anu', the 14 photographs exhibited pose a familiar reminder of an unpleasant August memory. Garbed in a Malaysian schoolgirl pinafore, chi too dresses himself in a symbol of racial demarcation, an identity crafted by Yee I-Lann in her recent installation at "Kedai Commemorate". That project was among the secondary exhibits in the embarrassing M50 programme, which the artist theatrically comments on via kawaii or contemplative poses. Consistent with his absurd-yet-intelligent output, the photo captures memorialising "the only event that commemorated the 50th anniversary of the country which unfortunately failed miserably" reveal rudimentary questions. Subtlety, quality, public awareness, and ultimately censorship of the artworks shown then, bring to light an uneven curatorial approach and lack of leadership by the National Visual Arts Gallery.

Apologies to Yee I-Lann (2013)

In 'Apologies to Samsudin Wahab', a great picture emerges that best sums up the artist's thoughts a.k.a. the exhibition title, as the aesthetic construct is preserved in the pursuit of political performance. Such observations of the local art ecosystem echo the broader situation of citizens' general displeasure towards the Malaysian government, as deference becomes ingrained further into our collective psyche. Camp but relevant, chi too's works remain sidelined in the same pop-up space along Publika's Art Row. Having visited a couple shows recently with the artist present, I realised that my reluctance to approach them stem from a deeply manifested insecurity. Neither from the industry, nor having any formal education, is personal passion sufficient to provide constructive criticism? Self-interrogation has been a long time coming, brought about by the sensitive works seen on chi too's portfolio. What is my longing? How can I be sure?

Apologies to Samsudin Wahab (2013)

24 November 2013

Bersama @ Sasana Kijang

Outstanding artworks absorb the viewer in "Bersama", a diplomatic exhibition that attempts to "explore the relationship between Malaysia and Indonesia". Beginning with portraiture as academic art, Hoessein Enas' works remain inferior when compared to his idol Basoeki Abdullah, whose sliver of blue injects vigour not seen in Hossein's rigid figures. Another Indonesian AD Pirous is recognised as a pioneer in melding abstraction with Koranic calligraphy, although such approach has been utilised by Syed Ahmad Jamal since a decade earlier, whose 'Chairil Anwar' is a fine example that pays homage to the famous poet. Nearby, vibrant lines and local colours overlap in the delightful 'Kaligrafi Pohon Hayat' by Siti Zainon Ismail. Her whimsical illustrations are shown together with performance artist Arahmaiani's sketches, whose paintings of analytical dimensions and words project a stunted narrative.

Chang Fee Ming - Caressed by the Moon (2000)

From his daughter's collection and incredibly personal, Ibrahim Hussein's 'He Says' depicts reverse-printed graphics and stencilled conversations around a smiling self-portrait. Characteristic lines bloom and extend across the canvas, where superimposed words evoke redolent scenes. Its muted palette with red highlights draw visual interest, while the artist's white shirt represents a pronounced contrast with the overlapping mess at the left. Such unconventional beauty on a flat canvas outshines the photo-realist paintings of Ahmad Zakii Anwar and Chang Fee Ming, whose exquisite technical skills and dramatic compositions illustrate framed observations. Delineation of Jakarta's seedy back lanes echo urban loneliness in the former, while the latter traces a rustic Balinese culture through its fabric patterns. These loan contributions from notable private collectors signify an aspect of institutional curating which NVAG lacks.

Ahmad Zakii Anwar - Kota Sunyi 4 (2006)

Nanyang romanticism is interrupted in Ahmad Fuad Osman's 'Untitled (Zain)', where a local boy contemplates the many masks encountered in reality and from television, the pastoral background threatened by an inundation of foreign influences. Making an appearance is the heavily-promoted but missing artwork from Art Expo 2013, 'Leap of Faith' coming across as intentionally mystifying. Matahati comrade Masnoor Ramli Mahmud questions boundaries in 'Dua Daerah' and 'Bukan Milik Kita'; However, it is the cluster of small drawings that captivate with lively captures of local culture. Recording signboards, patterns, and other miscellaneous objects that piqued his curiosity, Masnoor's documented travelogue delves into the simple joys of travelling. Refreshing while it last, eye-opening experiences outside our community immediately enrich a temporal pursuit of human truths.

Masnoor Ramli Mahmud - Perjalanan II (2007)

As compared to the immediate observations of others, Nadiah Bamadhaj's works explore history as a subject matter and mode of expression, her circumstance qualifying her to be the best representative in this exhibition. Employing multilayered strips of paper, her wonderful charcoal collages objectifies a monochromatic centrepiece. A masked bird hangs on a lone branch, a female head doubles as a door bell, and an aluminium roof balances upon a squatting pair of legs. These surreal images depict the stark reality of a conscious people concealed behind fear and oppression. Poetic and sensitive, these portrayals echo the tense relationship between two countries who share more similarities than either would acknowledge. Nevertheless, "Bersama'" exhibits intensely personal artworks to trace a subjective link, a triumph of great curation in the leafy confines of Kuala Lumpur.

Nadiah Bamadhaj - The Doctor (2012)

"Kalau sampai waktuku, 'Ku mau tak seorang kan merayu, Tidak juga kau
Tak perlu sedu sedan itu
Aku ini binatang jalang, Dari kumpulannya terbuang
Biar peluru menembus kulitku, Aku tetap meradang menerjang
Luka dan bisa kubawa berlari, Berlari, Hingga hingga pedeh peri
Dan aku akan lebih tidak peduli
Aku mau hidup seribu tahun lagi"
- Aku, Chairil Anwar (Maret 1943)

Ibrahim Hussein - He Says (1986)

22 November 2013

November 2013 @ NVAG

After the momentary highlight of appreciating modern Malaysian artists (permanent exhibition hopeful), a stop over at the National Visual Arts Gallery rekindled the routine disappointment felt in previous visits. Artworks shortlisted for the Bakat Muda Sezaman (Young Contemporaries Award) 2013, display an alarming lack of originality, notably among established artists like Samsudin Wahab's frozen meat and Ali Bebit's talking lips. Sloppily made video art submissions bore within the first minute, the exception being Fuad Arif's atmospheric meditation of God's name, a relevant exhortation amidst the ongoing Allah controversy. Nonsensical constructs range from a giant shuttlecock to a football field, as artists struggle to impress in an intelligent or artful manner. Some exhibits transported sand into the gallery space to recall beach memories, a move as dull and uninspiring as an old cupboard displayed.

BMS '13 hopeful: Yim Yen Sum - Where I Come From II (2013)

Unable to identify the artist without a label, the saving grace on the top floor belongs to an urban scene designed from old electronic appliances, its thoughtful construction a commendable trait pertinent also to Shahariah Roshdi's fungi laboratory. Environmental concerns are highlighted in Annabelle Ng's dead flowers, while Yim Yen Sum's fabric dogs display a charming aesthetic that finally break away from the incessant statement-making on show. At the same time, the institution's priorities are seriously brought into question one floor below, where a solo exhibition is allotted to young Paris-based painter Ken Yang. Portraits of Malaysian royalty lack personality, while celebrities pose as nationalist stereotypes; The gentlemen's accessories and daguerreotypes proved more interesting. This antiquated and deferential bias sets NVAG back, as its contribution to the local visual arts scene fade into obscurity.

Antiquated: Photograph of Ken Yang in Paris with 'The Three Graces (1Malaysia)' on the left

20 November 2013

When Come Spring (?) @ Shalini Ganendra Fine Art

Malaysian Spring and GE13 had come and gone, so has Zac Lee's blue tigers and the yellow cat, from his last solo exhibition a year ago. Attempts to stimulate political conscience, are now replaced by a personal and sarcastic commentary, about the sorry state of current affairs. Expressing Chinese idioms and figurative sayings in a literal manner, Zac employs other animals as his subject matter. Only one tiger returns to this show in 'Stripes of Arrogance' - stuffed, taxidermied, and outfitted with a saddle - alluding to a political stalwart already dead and resting on borrowed time. The blue seen previously also features in only one painting, forming the background of the title work, which stencilled words mark it as the weakest exhibit. A horse and a stag are assimilated in a pair of displays, humorously depicting the Qin dynasty tale about royal deception 赵高指鹿为马 ("To call a stag a horse: to deliberately mislead.").

Threat of Threat (2013)

As the monochromatic statement-making dissolves into brilliant contrasts and skilful execution, Zac's remaining works elevate his status to among the few local contemporary painters whom effortlessly combine technical expertise with social commentary. In 'Threat of Threat', traces of the artist's Chinese calligraphy training are evident in the fins of fighting fishes, stunningly rendered in black on a white background. Blue liquid wisps rise up and draws the viewer in, its intentionally aged Polaroid borders an irrelevant afterthought. Hammering a blue crab claw to reveal red flesh in 'One Fine Day', political reality is laid bare in a powerful illustration of a discrete now and an overt future. Such ordinary gestures reinforce the up-close-and-personal perspective the artist favours, pulling the audience closer into a realistic and empathetic setting, a more effective strategy compared to the wild animals depicted previously. 

Listen (2013)

'Listen' juxtaposes a black magpie facing a red hibiscus at close distance, a funny yet meaningful picture which references a popular online video at a university event, generalised further to a symbol of citizen lamentations. These social concerns are condensed and packed into one blue flower crab, plastic-wrapped and tagged with a Tesco price tag, in the exhibition masterpiece 'Crabwise'. Realistic and familiar to the urban consumer, caution towards a living creature's pincers, transforms into carnivorous intent after the threat is relabelled as food. The yolk is deliciously portrayed, as Zac's painterly skills manifest within the moist and clinging wrap. Traditional still life, contemporary magnified subject, and the democratisation of art lend its influences to form this magnificent picture. Contemporary painting has progressed to reveal increasing layers of truths, where intellectual hunger can be satisfied in analytical morsels of a static visual.

Crabwise (2013)

Among the artist's favourite subjects, the national monument is imposed with plasticity via a cartoon logo this time round, marking a playful but serious jibe. Witty with a lusciously painted water surface, 'Duck in the Dark' displays an optimistic contentment as Malaysians drift upon tainted waters for another 5 years. Departing from an observed political leitmotif enhances Zac's works, as the tiny golden figurine of a founding father is no longer present to remind of an imagined nostalgia. This collection's works are smaller in size but more concise in its presentation, clearly rendered without the distraction of words, although Mandarin wordplay is still evident in a few artworks. Priced at RM 22,000 a pop, the figure seems reasonable for one whom increasingly forsakes abstraction for figuration, to communicate both aesthetic and socio political truths.

Duck in the Dark (2013)