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)

05 November 2013

Recess: Study Break

Religious enlightenment is perhaps more easily attainable than an impractical professional certification.

Photo captures of Ahmad Fuad Osman - Sidang Sunyi Para Siddartha (2012)

02 November 2013

Critical Reaction to Converging Strategies

Galeri Petronas’ 20th anniversary coffee table book Convergence presents glossy photographs of its sizeable collection, supplemented with bland historical text with the occasional racist statement. Better content could have been included, such as summaries of major exhibitions at the gallery, like the J. Anu-curated “50 Ways to Live in Malaysia”, or printmaking feature “Go Block”. Ten times cheaper and much more informative is RogueArt’s second publication in the “Narratives in Malaysian Art” series, titiled Reactions – New Critical Strategies. A great variety of texts describe the different approaches in Malaysian art, interspersed with wonderful insights regarding specific artworks. The editors’ hope for readers to appreciate the “situations that demand reaction, and call for a heightened sense of criticality”, is best typified in Mark Teh’s incisive essay ‘An-Other May 13’.

Mad Anuar Ismail - Siri Meditasi (2003): No. 1 Pucuk Paku & No. 3 Bawang Sebokor

Ismail Embong’s ‘Mural Sejarah Malaysia’ at Putra World Trade Centre reminds that public art can be singularly responsible to spread racist sentiments and record biased histories. Such monuments crush the impact of socio politically critical works by fine artists, but May 13 also “justifies the recognition of a post-1969 consciousness in the arts”, as quoted from Krishen Jit. This murky event had significantly affected the local visual arts (and its move away from the figurative), but history attributed this shift more to the implementation of the National Cultural Policy 1971. Demythifying conventional art history is a preoccupation of academics, whose chronological analysis through the “localised lens of postmodernism”, as quoted by Michelle Antoinette, fit snugly into the starting point laid down by T.K. Sabapathy and R. Piyadasa decades ago.

Shooshie Sulaiman - Rumah (2006)

Looking back at realistic mystics via their landmark manifesto, the 1974 SELF-AGGRANDISING TRAIN-OF-THOUGHT RAMBLE portrays two persons stuck in a dichotomy of West/East, constrained by the books and thoughts available then. The refusal to acknowledge an Ersatz state, a term suggested by Ismail Zain, fortunately eroded in local artistic thought as both the public and the artist become more well-travelled. Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam is mentioned as the first artist/activist, although social concerns have been highlighted since Chai Chang Hwang’s unconnected handshake to Ahmad Fuad Osman’s large distressed self-portraits. The latter was a critical reaction to the sacking of Anwar Ibrahim in 1998, another event that elevated the political consciousness of artists as much as May 13 did. Two socio political performance works stand out for its pure ingenuity – Wong Hoy Cheong’s ‘Lalang’ and Mark Teh’s ‘Sudden Death’.

Photo captures of Mark Teh - Sudden Death (2009)

Acute observations by Hoy Cheong state the dilemma of most visual artists, that “there is no alternative art in Malaysia”, where he also took the “more plebeian, accessible” figurative approach in his painting output. Identity and its localised context are key themes among local artists – Chong Kim Chiew’s site-specific ‘Isolation House’ and Yee I-Lann's kitsch-y plates being excellent examples. The book’s final third include many passionate write-ups about art practices “beyond the white cube”. Zhuang Wubin’s excellent summary about photographic practices pays respect to the "grids & assemblages" by Ismail Hashin, and Eric Peris’ evolving technique, which he describes “evoke the passing, and not the flatness of time”. Video art has been slow to develop, perhaps because handheld cameras used to be relatively expensive. Yap Sau Bin's essay denotes a universal human desire to have a "critical engagement with space", framed within artistic pursuits.

Minstrel Kuik - Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily, Mer.rily (2008 - Now)

Despite the plurality of opinions offered, the common acknowledgement that art does not change the world grounds a solid practicality among Malaysians. Practising artists display a collective obsession with time and space, be it at a macro level (post-colonialism, nationalism), or at a micro level (video captures, site-specific). Fortunately artists like Bayu Utomo Radjikin are still keenly aware, that “if it is not beautiful, it is not art”. The compilation does not mention contemporary forms of paintings, apart from Simon Soon’s essay which curious terminology glosses over this major form of artistic expression. By commenting on these essays, I become fully aware of my own myth-making prowess, and learn a bit more about Malaysian art in my selfish way. A Chantal Mouffe quote aptly summarises these discourses, that “critical art has the ability to foment dissensus and render visible what is obscured and obliterated in the dominating consensus.”

Wong Hoy Cheong - Chronicles of Crime: Carpark (2006)