Towards the Nebula @ The Edge Galerie
One of Malaysia's prominent visual artist working since the 1960s, Jolly Koh has always vehemently reject the label of Abstract Expressionist, assigned by virtue of his participation in the 1967 GRUP exhibition. Coined by Redza Piyadasa then, this view has unfortunately persisted and accepted into the canon of Malaysian art history. Interestingly, Redza is remembered as one who initiated many movements in the local arts scene, including the 1974 manifesto with Sulaiman Esa called "Towards a Mystical Reality". It is perhaps coincidence that Jolly's latest solo exhibition is titled "Towards the Nebula", as viewers collectively keep their tongues firmly planted in cheek. Displayed in plain silver frames within the swanky gallery space, new "Nebula" works are shown together with older landscapes, including a number of "Nightscapes" last seen in June's inaugural auction by the business newspaper.
Jolly openly acknowledges his influences, one of whom is Helen Frankenthaler, evident in the diluted background of 'Sunrise for Tristan and Isolde'. A similar characteristic is detected in 'Cerulean Sky', which soft blending of magenta and canary yellow is heart-achingly beautiful, its tranquillity broken by the mountainous swirls common within the artist's oeuvre. Two landscapes from 2008, 'Red Fall' and 'The Road Not Taken', convey action in a powerful and absorbing manner. Swathes of colour project different depths across the canvas, while splashes and drips inject verve. This preoccupation with atmosphere and energy, two elements that permeate the artist's expression, are derived from inspiration found in Zhang Daqian's landscapes. The Modern Chinese painter infuses his calligraphic strokes with an expressionist purpose, a technique Jolly employs and further develops into his own.
Serenity in the few "Nightscapes" are disturbed by luminous birds, its sentient presence adulterating the fantastical landscape, regardless of its ethereal appearance. The less crowded picture and smaller size of 'Shooting Star', transports the viewer to a personal space and perspective, not attainable in larger paintings of the same series. Mesmerising illustrations of night clouds spread across the sky in 'The Big Dipper', its bright moon recalling 'Starry Night' drawn a decade ago, whilst relegating 'Terang Bulan' to a foregone history. An artist who classifies black as a colour family, Jolly demonstrates great restrain not to overpopulate 'If there are any heavens, my mother will (all by herself) have one'. Colour juxtapositions of different intensity and tone, illustrate a sunken abyss encircled by glorious warm hues, the faded embers invoking hot smoke which mists up vision.
Boasting a thorough exhibition catalogue complete with descriptions of Jolly's 8 schemata, Marbling & Lava-like Effect stands out as the most visually-rich technique. A complex blend of colours and brush strokes represent molten heat, when paired with a dark background, take on an extraterrestrial quality. Manifest throughout the "Nebula" series, this approach imbues large canvases with hydrous volume and sustained activity. The mythical and astronomical combine seamlessly, as the phoenix's outline appears among the fiery clouds. Notwithstanding its magnificence, the employed perspectives remain resolutely third-person, a distant view that justifies the idea that a painter is ultimately working on a flat canvas. This creates dissonance in the large-format works, which capture the entire field of vision but leave viewers dwelling on the periphery, like a nonchalant observer.
Claiming that the marbling effect cannot be replicated, it is interesting that these images recall chemical reactions (which is what a nebula is) - will a high-resolution photograph of a real nebula or chemical reaction offer the same visual aesthetic? Questions also arise whether the artist's excessive tinkering made a picture less "right", a colloquialism quoted in the catalogue essay. Small impurities are invariably visible on large surfaces, in the continuous synthesizing of oil & acrylic paints. The outlines of 'Star Balloons' lack the natural contours one expects from nature, an observation applicable also to the bright strokes that define the rocky terrain of 'The New Dawn'. Nevertheless, Jolly Koh's successful career ought to remind the current generation of visual artists, that being well-travelled and well-read are useful principles to survive this kampung industry. Also, a sharp dose of humour helps.
"Best of all you work with love and desire, next with will, and finally, if all else fails, it is bloody obstinacy!" - Bridget Riley, The Eye's Mind [quoted in Jolly Koh's jottings in self-titled 2010 picture book]