30 September 2014

Up Your Alley @ The Print Room

Framing pictures and creating contexts are the basic skills photographers need to utilise, and street photography provides one avenue of expression that tests these competencies. Guest submissions offer forgettable snapshots, as compared to the studio’s usual line-up. Linda Chin continues her focus on the subject of women, with a picture of Kyoto geishas strolling in the late evening, and another of one geisha bowing as a respectful act. Complementing these photographs is one snapshot of umbrellas crowding underneath an affectionately-titled signboard in Jiufen 九份, tying her exhibits under the exploratory theme of cultural clichés and concealed gestures. Razlan Yusof’s pictures are taken when the decisive moment is secondary to the exotic subjects, his choice of black & white dampening the foreign images.

Linda Chin - Gion 1 (2014)

Paul Gadd shows off his confident technique with coloured and beautifully-framed  photographs, taken in Korean subway stations and Bangladeshi ports. A blank signboard creates contrast in artificial light; Sampans arranged in a lotus configuration and an earthy building fronted by stationary trishaws, leave a striking impression with its day-lit captures of human industry. Paul’s other set of monochromatic pictures are taken in Kuala Lumpur, where suggestive compositions like ‘Man’, and ‘M is for…”, are interesting but less compelling than the coloured series. Black blurry borders are a tiresome framing approach, employed also by Shareem Amry, whose back lane snapshots fit literally with the exhibition title “Up Your Alley”. A long wedding veil and a child beggar project a moralistic outlook, which background characters inject additional context into her photographs.

Paul Gadd #6 (2014)

Group exhibitions are missed opportunities for those whose output can potentially form a powerful series of works, like Linda, Shareem, and Alex Chan. A child cups her hands over her ears at a lion dance performance near Jalan Alor. A dark silhouette and a long shadow occupy a vertical picture that looks like New York City, but is in fact KL. A partially covered shot inside a roadside café sees one man slumped onto his seat, his anonymity amplified by a ghostly mirrored effect. These three photographs by Alex feature one protagonist each, the environment provoking a personal reaction/consequence that represent an urban experience. With the widespread usage of digital cameras and large-capacity memory cards, the decisive moment becomes even more important in street photography, and that includes the post-production decision to colour or not.

Alex Chan #2 (2014)

27 September 2014

Art Expo Malaysia 2014 @ Matrade

Despite occupying a larger space and expecting a larger crowd, the overwhelming presence of rectangular paintings and metallic sculptures mark this year’s exposition as a collective bore. Hard-edged works are glimpsed at the Austrian embassy and Fujian Contemporary, but otherwise one has to settle at the Taksu booth for good international art, at the same time taking in Sabihis Pandi’s deliciously quirky ‘Slurp’. Azad Daniel’s clever phone covers and Zulkifli Yusoff’s multilayered grids draw visitors into the GCMA section, the latter work’s subdued tone and long texts depicting the necessarily tedious nature of a government program. Other local art galleries and solo booths peddle new works, some at inflated prices, as artists and collectors capitalize on art as commodity.

Installation view of Sabihis Pandi - Slurp (2014) [picture from Studio Pohon Rendang's Facebook page]

Henry Butcher’s displays include captivating large works by Ahmad Fuad Osman and FX Harsono; Otherwise one can appreciate older paintings on show from the collections of University of Malaya and AmBank. Twelve selected young artists showcase their output at a prominent junction, notwithstanding its poor presentation and jargon-laden wall texts. Cheng Yen Pheng’s newspaper-covered balloons stand out for its visual impact, while Yau Sir Meng’s melted construct is always a delightful sight to behold. Critical art is an unrealistic expectation at an art fair, just like the notion of art investment being a superior asset class, although the sales pitch by Art Futures Group was interesting. As tastemakers blinded by price tags jostle for position, one can spend this weekend better by driving past Jalan Duta, and appreciate better art at the National Visual Arts Gallery.

Installation view of Cheng Yen Pheng - Kabar Angin

24 September 2014

Man of the Times @ NVAG

Entering Long Thien Shih’s retrospective exhibition, the visitor is greeted by a figure in white hazmat suit, holding out a rainbow-coloured banana. Known for his surreal prints, what is revealing about this 2013 image is how it is no longer surreal, or perhaps reflects the surreal times we live in. Early paintings denote a strong influence by Cheong Soo Pieng, as the artist recognises that his change in approach happened after joining the Wednesday Art Group. Experimentations include sewing a ‘Kampung Nelayan’ scene onto burlap, and illustrating a cubist perspective of tin mine workers in ‘Big Investment’. At 20 years old, Thien Shih studied lithography in Paris, also enrolling at Atelier 17. One wall exhibits his output during this time, the drawings resembling Cheong Laitong with its gaudy colours, but its sinuous lines are evidence of his tutelage under Stanley William Hayter.

Let's Joy Together (2009)

Hung at the end is ‘Susan’s Birthday’, a sexually explicit drawing that leads on to the series of erotic prints produced in the early 1970’s. Body parts take the forms of food and plant, the titillating images capturing personal desires à la Salvador Dali. Minimal juxtapositions in ‘Foot, Hand and Hair’ and ‘Tongue and Egg’ enthral with its simplicity, while the pink tone and overt representations in ‘Chestnut Spikes’ verge towards pornographic content. Visual depth is an apparent concern in works from the later part of that decade; A distant horizon is created via window frames and grounded textures, prefiguring the well-composed prints of Raja Zahabuddin Raja Yaacob. Portmanteau combinations such as a furry hackney carriage and a primitive skeleton, contribute off-kilter elements in Thien Shih’s signature aesthetic.

Chestnut Spikes (1975)

Less interesting are exhibits from the 1980’s, which employ the birdcage as an ideological symbol. ‘Earth, Water and Air’ depicts one cooped up orchid floating above a pigeon, the repressed flower seemingly a response to the modernism associated to Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s painting of a similar title. As a sexual metaphor, the Cattleya is depicted together with a melted bed, or joined together with floating coconuts in the suggestive ‘Cattlya and Coconuts Airborne’. Delightful etchings hung in this section suggest the loss of natural habitats, such as ‘Run Tree Run’ and ‘Three And A Half Candle’. Another highlight is ‘Kuala Lumpur Art Festival’, which fascinating design includes propped-up facades of an iconic building, a ribbon of patriotic colours, and a red lantern amalgamated into a Mughal-style mosque. Tourism promotional posters have seen better times.

Kuala Lumpur Art Festival (1985)

A 1967 study depicts blurred lines created from ink wash and roller, which effect is utilised to great result for expressing loss of culture. Traditional objects are distorted in etchings ‘Where Are We?’ and ‘Head Dress of Borneo’, while a spectral fire consumes a living artefact in ‘Borneo Anthropoloque (Call From The Wild)’. Thien Shih’s paintings are equally powerful in his social commentary, by recognising what is visually familiar to the urban audience – tribal dance scenes are distorted by poor television transmission (‘Faulty Image’) or pixelated images (‘Dissolved By Progress’). Works from the past seven years continue to address habitat issues and the cost of progress. Utilising the CMYK model for his colour palette, surreal paintings project a strong artificiality, although its relatively large size makes it less attractive.

Where Are We? (1989)

Hasnul J Saidon’s interpretation of the superb ‘Bar Coded Man’ is on point – “(d)engan memetik dan mengolah-semula karya Leonardo da Vinci secara digital seperti robot (Leonardo meletakkan tubuh manusia sebagai sukatan untuk segala benda), Abang Long seakan menyindir bagaimana manusia kini disukat menerusi nilai konsumsi atau daya belinya.” By composing an ink drawing from newsprint, capturing and re-printing it, the additive modes of reproduction highlight the ethical issues about replication, visual or not. Exiting this wonderful retrospective of a progressive modern-era artist, curator Tan Sei Hon leaves the visitor with an incisive quote, “(h)is grasp of the visual language and mastery of the elements of art, delivered in wry humour sets him apart in a scene that still lingers in nostalgia and parochialism, that mistakes dour solemnity as a sign of intellectuality.”

Bar Coded Man (2001)

20 September 2014

Hanging @ R A Fine Arts

Strolling past the gallery, an eye-catching work by Mustapa Ibrahim draws one in, ‘Bahasa Gerak Badan (Diptych)’ a wonderful tribute to fellow Anak Alam member Zulkifli Dahalan. Hung beside is a beautiful rendition of the National Art Gallery’s former site, Mansor Ghazali’s oil painting a captivating scene with dark clouds overhead. Brilliant turquoise sets off the illustration of one breastfeeding mother, Yusof Abdullah’s simple lines capturing the expression of practical tenderness. Above average works by established painters like Yusof Ghani and Bayu Utomo Radjikin are also on display, this selling collection superior to the typical auction house holdings. Replications of celebrity photographs aside, Jalaini Abu Hassan’s ‘Fish and Tree’ recalls a time when the artist employed collage and abstraction, yet his signature style of utilising bitumen and drips were already obvious. 

Yusof Abdullah - Ibu (1979)

17 September 2014

Great Malaysia Contemporary Art (GMCA) II Preview @ Artcube

Two galleries collaborate to occupy a large exhibition space in the upcoming Art Expo, displaying new works from a collector’s stable of favourite artists. Hamir Soib’s giant canvas is the show’s highlight by virtue of its size, the golden steed (RM 200,000) a poor follow-on painting from last year’s big fish. Another horse takes the shape of the Ferrari logo, made by Al-Khuzairie Ali for his current series of ceramic skeletons. Two constructs on pedestals by Umibaizurah Mahir intrigue, while Ahmad Shukri’s shoddy ‘Open House ‘SOLD’’ (RM90,000) looks terrible in the presence of Azrin Mohd's work, whose unambiguous found object aesthetic is superior to Shukri's. Suhaimi Fadzir hangs up tools (RM 110,000) used by construction workers and food stall operators, one golden detached wheel on the floor reminding all to take a break. It also acts as a prompt for Malaysian art to stop making superficial claims about perpetuating national unity.

Suhaimi Fadzir - ’Warung Kita: Teh Tarik dan Nasi Lemak (Duality) (2014) [picture from Artcube's Facebook page]

Not exhibited are installations by Zulkifli Yusoff and Annabelle Ng, but already publicised by the galleries whose announcements have different meanings for the ‘M’ in "GMCA". Great in size but boring in content are works by Masnoor Ramli Mahmud (RM 50,000) and Tan Chin Kuan (RM 200,000), while Eng Hwee Chu’s ‘Beyond Border’ (RM 110,000) projects a rare optimism. In ‘Monabukelisa’ (RM 55,000), Fadli Yusoff combines the gallery’s name among texts, together with Ibrahim Hussein lines, to create an incompatible painting which approach may be developed further. Ruminations cover Fauzin Mustafa’s ‘Cerita Ceriti I’ (RM 60,000), his imposing figure shrouded in batik shreds also posing identity questions. Blown-up iPhone covers sprayed with automotive paint gloss over the notion of Western capitalism, since purchasing each of Azad Daniel’s creations is equivalent to buying six iPhone 6’s on launch day.

Fauzin Mustafa - Cerita Ceriti I (2014)

Zena Khan’s writings set contexts well, but her superlative plaudits shroud the entire show with the shadow of a collector’s ego. With an objective “…to include those artists who set international level benchmarks within the Malaysian art industry”, only few of the represented artists have exhibited internationally in recent times. The trademark show itself has not travelled overseas, and is co-organised by a first-year gallery. This group exhibition settles on the immediate spectacle that negates individual art practices. Its eye-bulging price tags turn away knowledgeable art viewers and potential foreign institutions, nullifying the show’s objectives. Like the black hole entropy formula drawn by Ahmad Fuad Osman, there may be solutions to difficult problems like the Malaysian art market. Setting a Malaysian benchmark on what is acceptable internationally is not the way, but a local habit.

Ahmad Fuad Osman - Blindspot (2014)

14 September 2014

Tengkujuh @ Artelier

Beautiful renderings of nature are considered a mockery to contemporary art, but deserve its own category in the local art canon, where a resourceful and peaceful environment has greatly enriched many Malaysian lives. Zainal Abidin Musa escapes his day job to paint monsoon storms on the peninsula east coast, employing an impressionist approach that captures the “Tengkujuh” season. This outdated mode projects a persisting attribute that illustrates effectively long spells of rain, especially in the dissolved scenes painted on linen, a fabric that deteriorates fast in humid weather.  Sketches made for this series indicate a high level of technical skill, and are rightfully exhibited alongside a body of work which spans five years. Blue and yellow pastels on brown paper draw one stunning river panorama, while purple watercolour clouds enchant with its transparent qualities.

Pagi di Seberang Takir (2013)

Curator Azzad Diah Ahmad Zabidi describes Zainal’s weekend trips in translated prose, “(a)s a visitor it is certain that his experience differ from those of the local residents...” Completed in the studio (more Degas than Monet), the artist’s passion to capture natural landscapes fortunately includes human figures, which “…is just symbolic to the situation – to express the emotional atmosphere of the moment.” Silhouettes of men resting inside wooden huts are unsentimental, its vagueness necessary to portray people gathering because of forced proximity and time’s passing. Another interesting perspective is to capture an industrious moment, like the man crouched beside a small fire, smoking muntjac meat as rain pours outside. Contemporary impressionist painting may be romantic, but its approach can still remain relevant outside luminous landscapes.

Menyalai Pelanduk, Batu Rakit (2012)

11 September 2014

Seascape, Recent Paintings @ The Edge Galerie

As compared to one assertion that Latiff Mohidin's latest series of works emanates from two 1965 drawings, Johnni Wong's opinion is more germane. He writes, "(b)oth his parents were Minangkabau and to this day, Latiff is still enamoured with the Minang world view, which includes "the acceptance of the paradox of life". The Minang proverb alam terkembang menjadi guru helps sufficiently to apprehend Latiff's art, contrary to T.K. Sabapathy's ornate proposal to "rethink his entire painting practice and to weigh it chiefly and specifically as embodying landscape as a presiding idea or concept." "Seascape" features similar compositions of rocks jutting out to the sea, with a horizon in the distance. In an interview published in the catalogue, Latiff claims to portray silence in these pictures, which kitschy titles make reference to Chopin and Debussy compositions.

Interior Landscape 3 (2010)

Another exhibited series "New Landscape" is more brooding, as the artist forcefully depicts a personal amalgamation of alamraya and manusia, via oil paints. "Interior Landscape" sees puffy smoke and a boat image embedded within one room, an imagining of nature's presence in the studio's absence. Fleshy colours in 'Ancient Lake', and neon streaks in 'Memory of Stones', denote strong emotional recollections derived from serene observations. Another suite of paintings attempt to "...get into the rock forms, into their structure, into their content and make up." While no excuse is required for artists to launch into gestural abstraction, it is fortunate that these geological records culminate to formidable paintings like 'Rock Landscape' and 'The Rock'. Malaysian visitors get to appreciate many new works, as unsold pieces from the notorious Opera Gallery are displayed also.

Amber (2014)

Latiff remarks, "I used all techniques that I have developed in the past (...); I like to get closer to the grain, to the texture. But all of this is very restrained, not very expressive as in the Gelombang or the Rimba series." His painting output is powerful and occasionally experimental, but remains strictly confined by the boundaries of modern expressionism. Floating rocks resemble grotesque fingers, thick strokes of primary colours draw contrasts, black & blue drips & dots persist incessantly, and fluid colour blends create attractive abstract pictures about rock interiors. Sabapathy's high-flown essay states that "Latiff's seascapes are powerful testimonies of our perceptual connections with nature." Its six-figure price tags are also evidence that the rich can afford these missed perceptions. Indeed a paradox of life we need to accept.

The Rock (2014)

06 September 2014

There is nothing outside the text @ Lostgens'

Entering a white box gallery, one looks around and immediately sees the circular dots stuck onto printed labels. Each red spot indicates a measure of success – a well-regarded artist, surely. The gallery attendant flashes a welcoming smile. There must be something in the art shown here…

Entering a museum exhibition, one framed painting is hung prominently on a black wall and spot-lit. The small label beside the artwork indicates the artist, title, dimensions, year made, medium, and sometimes its owner. The museum sitter’s expressionless face reminds one to be solemn. There must be something in the art shown here…

The dot and the label are exaggerated in “There is nothing outside the text”, representing art as a consequence in this capitalist world. Carlos Llavata’s amplified paintings/labels address haphazard topics beyond those quoted, his utilization of texts as visual cues humorous when critiquing modern painting genres like ‘Still life, apple in the window’ and ‘faceless selfportrait’. Exotic portraits and event snapshots are still confined to art references, while titles like ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ and ‘9/11 landscape’ extend outside the gallery space, invoking learned trepidation at the same time. A smashed pot and soiled floor are remnants from his performance on opening night, while a recorded diatribe loops within an enclosed space at the back. The eccentric presentation augments the arbitrary range of topics, where ‘Landscape of 13 May 1969, KL’ is hung above the toilet, and ‘Tiananmen still life’ states a dimension that is obviously wrong.

Text is structure. Texts impose structure. Labels utilize texts. No labels, no things. No things, no talk, nothing. Performance is heard, seen, sniffed, tasted, felt. The five senses are reality. No structure. Before structure, there was chaos. What’s wrong with chaos? Cue Carlos: "I'm not going to tell you..."

Texts are continuously coded and decoded, a necessary procedure in this digital age. Constructed from ones and zeros, narrated events and described adventures capture the imagination, but numb our real senses. Academic categories and unnecessary particulars dilute art appreciation. These reflections make Carlos’ proposal an attractive one – there is nothing outside the text. Only real life.