28 April 2014

READrawing @ Galeri Petronas

Since the wonderful "Thinking Drawing" exhibition held two months ago, a ridiculous string of exhibitions that purportedly showcase drawing have taken place. The latest attempt is "READrawing", which curatorial theme is "to investigate the definition of the drawing outside its conventional use." Empty statements and the need to fill a cavernous space leave one wanting, its incoherent collection hardly indicative of the four sub-themes. Text as visual art is the first and most interesting category, where visitors are greeted with Jawi characters in grid, and patchwork posing a sententious question. Saharuddin Supar's cartographic records are a bewildering inclusion, while burnt matches that spell the Negaraku by Norshahidan Mohamed, captivates as an imagined performance.

Saharuddin Supar - Forty Four Over Infinity (1999)

This theme begs a show all by itself, since multi-ethnic Malaysians have a deep cultural history with texts as art. The Western art canon traces the usage of text to object-reference (Synthetic Cubism), language (Magritte's pipe), and graphic symbol (Jasper John's numbers). But we are more familiar with calligraphic practices - from the Chinese, whose ideograms are condensed figuration and multifaceted in meaning; And the Jawi alphabet, a Southeast Asian script where spoken language dictates its written form. These expressions are markedly different from the Latin alphabet, and it would be interesting to juxtapose local masters such as Ahmad Khalid Yusof and Cheng Haw Chien, with artists whose interpretations follow a more contemporary approach, in order to widen the discourse about text as visual art in this region.

Mohd Bakir Baharom - The Gathering (2014)

Other categories about psychomotor skill and experimental medium, are pretexts to feature young and/or lesser-known artists, good individual artworks notwithstanding. Repeated motifs by Azam Aris and Haslin Ismail reveal exercises to exorcise inner demons.  Lai Chan Shiang's Miyazaki-influenced scenes and Fauzul Yusri's visual records, cover entire walls with unaffected visual treats. A gathering of thumb-sized soot spots by Mohd Bakir Baharom reminds of Spirited Away. Shahril Nizam's mistitled work presents a beautiful picture of a sleeping lady encased in rock. The gigantic painting of a Lego spaceship from the recent movie is pretty awesome. Shahril Nawawi's use of gum bichromate in progressively degrading prints, explores an uncustomary photographic process. Beautiful "Metalanguage" etching/sculptures by Shahrul Jamili introduce geometric designs that protrude into the viewer's space.

Shahrul Jamili - Metalanguage VI (2011)

Reverting to the conventional definition of drawing, Samsudin Wahab and Khairul Azmir Shoib illustrate grotesque figures with wilful panache. Technical skill draw attention in Syahbandi Samat's banner of pen-drawn Pinocchios, an effect also applicable to the charcoal portrait by Ahmad Zakii Anwar. Apart from Farid Raihan's sketchbooks, sketches are strangely absent in this exhibition. One expects preliminary line or pastel drawings by the likes of Latiff Mohidin or Amron Omar, to be meaningful inclusions within the curatorial theme. Last seen at Findars is the series of violent drawings by Lim Keh Soon, with one masturbation scene censored from public display. Entering Galeri Petronas feels like visiting a police state, as police personnel (what are they doing in an art gallery?) diligently stop guests from taking photographs.

Samsuddin Wahab - Statue #1 (Jerangkung) (2012)

Gallery managers should consider revisiting this rule, since it is apparent that this restriction does not apply, when VIPs come to visit. Its prominent location attracts many international visitors, although if the intention is to promote Malaysian art, the corporate gallery must admit it needs to democratise its space. "READrawing" reads as an expedited project where curators struggle between acquiring quality content and filling up the walls, with its misspelled wall texts indicative of lackadaisical ownership. Such missed opportunities result in failure to present drawing in a different light, which "...the common physical surface where signs, texts and acts become equal; what can be known as a surface of alphabetical signs, which disperse the connotations of representation into knowledge of conversation, and propose the future of the invisible." (Nasir Baharuddin, Drawing Between The Lines, catalogue essay for "Thinking Drawing")

Shahril Nizam - Drowsy (2010)

25 April 2014

Agresif, Naked Flower Does Not Talk

Malaysians are stuck in a state of limbo, as news that challenge nationalist definitions and moral crisis persist one year after the General Elections. This uncertainty manifests in our art. At Segaris, established artists employ familiar and tiresome approaches, seen in Kow Leong Kiang's selective blurring, and Ahmad Zakii Anwar's larger-than-life head. Wax-encased flags by Ahmad Shukri pay respect to missing plane(s), while Ramlan Abdullah's sketches are the only works befitting an exhibition titled "Naked Drawing". Attempts at contemporary innovation include veteran Tajuddin Ismail, who shows off expressive Franz Kline strokes, that pair well with dark-coloured blocks and printed objects. Jalaini Abu Hassan's protagonist 'Dollah Rimau' towers over cut-out tigers like cats in the compound, his turned back signifying an imagined menace. Intimate watercolours by Noor Mahnun are enchanting, but ultimately inconsequential.

Jalaini Abu Hassan - Dollah Rimau (2014)

Accompanying RA Fine Art's sculpture exhibition is an essay by Fuad Arif, whose writing discloses a solemn anxiety behind his train-of-thought composition. Displays of a metal rat and a cow skull, are diffident at best. Row, row, row your boat emits from a vintage portable television, its cartoon character presenting the alphabet with an adult twist. This pleasant surprise by Fadly Sabran packs contemporary concerns into a riveting sequence, as streams of consciousness are spelled out utilising flashing pictures and nostalgic visual cues. Hidden meanings in children's songs go unnoticed when one first learnt it; When one listens to a nursery rhyme that ends with Life is but a dream, harsh reality sets in. Such reverie is necessary, in a country where screening a documentary leads one to be charged in court.

Fadly Sabran - Neo Artifak – Indah Khabarovsk Dari Rupa (2014) [Installation view, snapshots of video]

Inside a serene gallery hung with 15 photographs of flowers in various stages of bloom, the everyday image of yellow flowers strewn along a road curb strikes me as poetic. Perhaps, just like Eric Peris' captures, there is nothing wrong that the cycle of life traps us all.
"Silently a flower blooms, in silence it falls away. Yet here, 
now, at this moment, at this place,
the whole of the flower, the whole of the world, is blooming."
- A Flower Does Not Talk, Zenkei Shibayama

Eric Peris - "Fallen flowers, Decorate the ground, Seeds, Job done" (2014)

20 April 2014

Pulse: March / April 2014 Art Auctions

Dubious practices continue to plague art auction houses as low-priced lots by modern masters are sold at Masterpiece, whom features an altered painting. KL Lifestyle Art Space touts previously unsold works at lower prices then flips a Jeihan Sukmantoro piece at a discount, implicating the struggling dealer who records a dismal 30% buy-in rate in its April edition. Henry Butcher stakes its claim as the pioneer and leading Malaysian auctioneer, by selling 97% of its 116 lots, despite the lack of superstar pieces and an increase of buyer's premium to 12%. Its commendable and ambitious push to promote art beyond pretty pictures again fails to sustain any traction, as prints and works by the Matahati collective receive little bidding. Discerning collectors willingly pay more for earlier iterations of signature themes by realist painters Kow Leong Kiang and Ahmad Zakii Anwar, although both artists' stock value are declining.

Tan Peng Hooi - Kampung Life (1966)

This observation of depreciating values apply for most artists featured at auctions, with a few exceptions such as Syed Thajudeen and Lui Cheng Thak, while prices for Huang Yao oscillate wildly. Other market trends see Singaporean buyers lapping up any modern work by artists whose surname starts with 'C', a sardonic move that calls to mind the preservation of cultural heritage, in the name of establishing a locale as an international arts hub. The art market is capable of sending investors into a zeal, evident in the recent stocking up of Awang Damit Ahmad works after his abstract painting sold at Sotheby's. However, one needs to be mindful of inflating prices, where its repercussions are inferred from the three unsold watercolours by Nik Zainal Abidin. The overly high estimates can be attributed to price tags seen at the retrospective show in May 2013, itself a collector's stock clearing exercise.

Dede Eri Supria - Mencoba Untuk Tumbuh (1992)

12 April 2014

Landmark: Important Contemporary Artworks @ Artcube

In times of adulating collectors as tastemakers, one can proclaim his favourite artists as contemporary, and the people around him will nod in agreement. Channelling his influence into a new gallery at the Intermark, a mixture of old and new works sell for eye-bulgingly high prices, contemporary or not. Patronage trump valuation among official support, Artcube being the only visual arts venture that received a government grant for creative industries. Ahmad Fuad Osman's missing piece from Art Expo 2013 leaps out as a sold painting after its brief placement at Sasana Kijang, while Hamir Soib's 'Frozen' bought at Henry Butcher a year ago commands a sum double its purchase price. Eng Hwee Chu's 'Christ in My Life' projects a moving expression in this season of Lent, but RM 100,000 seems like a profane amount for spiritual introspection, an observation equally applicable to 'Betul dan Rapatkan Saf' by Md Fadli Yusoff.

Eng Hwee Chu - Christ in My Life (1997)

Raising an artist's profile via their sales price is a myopic approach in supporting the visual arts, especially if big and beautiful wall hangings are the individual preferences. Auction houses have opened the Malaysian art market to regional buyers, and being a jaguh kampung does not translate into immediate international recognition. The Charles Saatchi model of backing artists' success should not be replicated, as art enthusiasts now groan at blind-sighted national surveys and Hirst/Emin. Elsewhere along Jalan Tun Razak, the collector collective Art Friends exhibits a varied collection, also holding talks to encourage others to join the privileged club of art collecting. Conscious accumulation of aesthetic objects underlies a need to anchor personal beliefs on material valuation, itself reflecting the capitalistic nature of the world we live in. Collecting is a noble activity, provided one is humble in recognising and acknowledging personal taste.

Roslisham Ismail - Super Fiction 8 (2008)

08 April 2014

Henry Butcher Malaysian & SEA Auction Preview @ Curate

With Ahmad Shukri's seminal 'Warning! Tapir Crossing' as its cover lot, Henry Butcher attempts to direct local attention towards the contemporary, but unfortunately the more "advanced" works on offer are by Indonesian artists. I Nyoman Masriadi's chimera draws attention, but it is the graffiti wall of Arie Dyanto and construction site of Dede Eri Supria, that projects more effective subversion. Khoo Sui Hoe's 'Three With Crescent Moon' is an irresistibly harmonious picture, and the cheeky wordplay seen in Huang Yao's '得鲤' stirs a smile. Engaging captures of a suburban scene include Kuo Ju Ping's beautiful 'Afternoon Scene', and the 'Swirling Haze Over Jalan Ah Fook, Johore Bahru' by John Lee Joo For. An increasing appreciation of these two artists and their techniques, led to further conviction that romantic landscapes are irrelevant.

Huang Yao 黄尧 - [Top] 智者多在渔樵问; [Bottom] 得鲤 (1979-80) 

The reconstructed Malay house interior by Mastura Abdul Rahman never fails to captivate, while one detects Ib lines and interesting colour combinations in Haron Mokhtar's 'Siri Melanau'. As a white-collar urban denizen, wild animals and cultural abodes, are perhaps less important than the 58 small photographs of worn-out bicycle parts. Ismail Hashim's assemblage depicts the essence of life - man-made objects utilised for man's livelihood, tempered by time (erosion of material) and fate (dents and ruptures). Innovation is utilitarian, nature is oppressive, yet imagining labourers commuting on these self-propelling vehicles, repudiates existential exposition in favour of invigorating the human condition. While thinking about its RM 12-18,000 price tag and sipping a teh tarik, the phrase that comes to mind is, "yang ‘tu yang ‘ni, 漁翁得利, 岂有此理!"

Ismail Hashim - of interesting looking (!) seats and other parts of bicycles belonging to Penang Port labourers. Photographed in “1991 & 92” - hand-coloured B&W photographs (2004)

05 April 2014

Drops of Colour @ Sasana Kijang

Artworks from the national bank's collection are casually exhibited at its spacious gallery - batik and watercolours on one side, and a random assortment on the other. The level of abstraction is a useful gauge while appreciating these wall hangings. School art classes recall a familiarity with handling watercolours, leading to typical admiration of realistic renderings, be it colonial buildings or tropical birds. Its simple preparation and immediate effect makes watercolour a useful choice in sketching modern life. Tan Choon Ghee crops lively street scenes, while a charming grocery store front is painted by Chin Kon Yit. Illustrated nostalgia is further compounded when the diluted properties of this medium is utilised. Mansor Ghazali's 'UKM Lake' captivates with marvellous colour blends, the picture evoking the essence of its depicted landscape, the impressionistic impact not unlike the works of Alfred Sisley.

Chin Kon Yit - Kedai Runcit 1991 (II) (1991)

Khalil Ibrahim projects bright orange hues onto batik, masking a newspaper print, its block-like shapes suppressing any political intention. In contrast, protégé Ismail Mat Hussin draws detailed scenes of fishing boats along the beach, his limited palette advancing the romantic characterisations of a rural landscape. More adventurous is Lee Kian Seng, who combines a photographic print with batik painting. Multiple silhouettes of the 'Railway Station K.L.' accentuate the presence of this iconic building, while a moody skyline augments the visual drama. Hung nearby are a number of Chuah Thean Tengs that showcase the master's unparalleled composition skill, yet what drew my attention was located at the opposite wing. 'Mother and Child' portrays a classical pose, its medley of geometrical patterns, tie-dye lines, and garish colours, amplifying the figurative forms instead of debasing it, resulting in wonderful elegance.

Chuah Thean Teng - Mother and Child (1993)

Malaysian modern masters and their collective abstraction are displayed in full force at this end of the gallery, none more powerful than Latiff Mohidin's 'Pemandangan 5'. Thick brushstrokes of primary colours depict a vigorous flow, its dark contrasts painting a ceaseless vitality beyond the frame. Older works including those by Latiff, Syed Ahmad Jamal and his distilled luminosity, or the sinuous lines of Ibrahim Hussein, look dated upon comparison. At the opposite end of the abstraction gauge sees the beautifully painted sleeping baby by Yeong Seak Ling. Surprisingly more enchanting is the 'Rubber Plantation Series', where the kampung house is now located within a rubber estate. Representations of this scene/environment are strangely uncommon in Malaysian art, despite the rural landscape being a favoured subject matter.

Yeong Seak Ling - Rubber Plantation Series (2000)

Successfully differentiating himself from the abstract expressions of fellow modern masters, Khoo Sui Hoe's endearing style is encapsulated in the magnum opus 'The Rainbow Day'. A rainbow, a parasol, and a metallic arch, combine with the artist's characteristic naive figures and water reflections, to form a magnificent landscape. First seen at Rimbun Dahan, Wong Perng Fey's 'Shadow of My Dream' recalls a vague memory via black, and thick but fluid paints. As one who thinks and remembers in an abstract manner, Perng Fey's intentional blur, and his depictions of an ethnic Chinese upbringing, resonates deeply with this visitor. Colour is a visual code, and drops of it are sufficient to trigger the deepest recollections. In my search to decouple general taste from personal taste, the process of unlearning and dispelling the sources of knowledge, proves to be the most unsettling one yet.

Wong Perng Fey - Shadow of My Dream (2008)

02 April 2014

Snippets: Q1 2014

Notable local photographer Ming Thein receives a dream corporate assignment where heavy engineering company Tenaga Tiub tells him that "...(we) don't want to restrict your artistic vision – so go ahead and shoot as you see fit." The resulting exhibition at Centre for Asian Photographers documents the factory aesthetic and manual labour that goes into manufacturing gigantic equipments. Two themes stand out as I recall my past visits to such industrial facilities - men at work and the refurbishment process. The lower cost of conversation makes this exacting effort worthwhile in capitalist economics, where size matters. Close-up snapshots are just right, while a black & white effect does not impair picture clarity, likely due to the well-lit location. Precise forms define functional beauty, an idea lost to many contemporary artists who dwell in unnecessary abstraction. 

Ming Thein - A blowtorch removes previous paint and surface coatings from an assembly prior to refurbishment (2013)

The F Klub paint models lying down or seated with a leg up, among other poses at “Flesh”. Marvin Chan includes action statements while Kow Leong Kiang display factual headings, the ochre present in both artists’ works portraying sexual warmth. Chong Ai Lei’s draftsmanship again fails to impress, although ‘Sleeping Nude’ qualifies as the most sensual amid the exhibits. Sketches by Shia Yih Yiing provide a lesson in shading; Chin Kong Yee’s ink drawings depict minimalist figures, whose rough strokes show a determined struggle between visualisation and execution.

Chin Kong Yee - Face (2013)

Personal persuasion leads to another prominent collectors' showcase, as high expectations from a previous show hinders appreciation of modern Malaysian art. Painterly abstraction and figurative realism describe the exhibits owned by lawyer couple Billy Too and Sin Min, whose high-valued collection is influenced by gallery owners. Rare public displays include works by Syed Ahmad Jamal, whose luminous bursts, form a contrast with the sinuous lines and hard-edged paint on Ibrahim Hussein's canvas. Great pieces such as Latiff Mohidin's Pago-pago with three totem figures feature only in the catalogue; The judgement of taste is a deliberate thought while browsing at unappealing wall hangings. An exception is 'Girl with Jar' by batik exponent Chuah Thean Teng, whose brilliant composition, parallel lines, and red lips, demand the viewer's prolonged gaze.

Chuah Thean Teng - Girl with Jar (1980s)