27 December 2014

Paint & Ink: Just Add Water @ Sasana Kijang

In a year where news highlights include two airplane disasters, the Bank Negara Malaysia Museum and Art Gallery puts together an exhibition program that commemorates the ten years since the Indian Ocean tsunami struck, where an estimated 184,000 lives were lost and ten times that number displaced. London-based Oi Nuen Sprunt stages an installation that aims to explore “damage and healing”, where large ink paintings on layered paper are hung around an organza-covered space. A Louis Ghost chair and casualty statistics contribute to the sombre mood, although the obscure performance video and deliberately messy presentation block out any sense of empathy. Perhaps the sunlight streaming through the windows helps one focus better on the here and now, instead of the art installation.

Installation snapshots of Oi Nuen Sprunt - ShoutCryRoom

The adjoining gallery shows recent works from 42 members of the Malaysian Watercolour Society, and 15 international artists. A medium utilised by the British to depict maritime landscapes in Malaya since the 19th century, watercolour remains popular in this tropical land with its easy application and quick drying. The overwhelming focus on pastoral scenes and heritage buildings, however, deters any serious consideration of it as an effective medium in Malaysian contemporary art. Kho Choon Lee’s paddy fields during twilight are beautifully illustrated, while Seah Kang Chuan’s riverside shack reveals great skill in drawing ‘Reflection’. Two-wheelers are common subjects painted against a nostalgic background, which assumes the self-propelling vehicle as an antiquated machine, instead of one currently in vogue and promoted by city planners worldwide. 

Kho Choon Lee - Twilight #1 (2013)

Referring to works by the Penang Impressionists art group, Redza Piyadasa once remarked, “(t)hese idyllic and scenic panoramic views were influenced by the Classical landscape painting tradition and were admired by the local artists.” Notable painters in the following generation such as Tan Choon Ghee continue to have a strong influence here, although ‘Penang Prangin Heritage Zone’ by Koay Shao Peng projects an interesting birds-eye view of an old yet urbanised part of town. Koh Shim Luen’s chickens on sarong portray innocent pleasures; two aggressive cockerels in a cage by Ooi Aik Cheong show the opposite sentiment. Samsudin Osman’s depiction of a bridge in Putrajaya is a sad indicator that this fluid medium familiar to Malaysian schoolchildren, only has the potential to paint scenes similar to what the Impressionists did more than a century ago.

Koay Shao Peng - Penang Prangin Heritage Zone (2014)

22 December 2014

Language of the Jungle @ Richard Koh Fine Art

The neighbourhood gallery celebrates this festive season of giving, by supporting self-taught and socially-conscientious painter Tan Wei Kheng, although the artist being featured in Singapore Biennale 2013 probably factored into the gallerist’s decision to represent him. Selling out by opening day, the exhibition presents illustrations of the Penan people, an indigenous tribe active in rainforest near the Sarawak and Brunei border. Having encountered them while trekking, it is difficult to empathise with realistic paintings which exotic presentation risks trivialising the real issues, and seeing Orang Ulu as the Other.

Let Me See You Again (2014)

Wei Kheng “…composes his paintings as triptychs or mosaics of canvases, constructing a collage of images of their struggle, values and hopes (…) In articulating the Penan’s lived experience, Tan visualises the language of the Penans.” Ong Jo-Lene’s excellent essay complements these paintings by articulating about the tribe’s problems in sustaining their nomadic lifestyle, and their living practices that emphasise on coexisting with the natural habitat. Dichotomies aside, this essay is indispensable in interpreting the artist’s genuine intent to highlight a minority plight by painting cultural loss. When viewed and read together, one can empathise with the shared desire to uphold the rights of an aboriginal people whose “…language fails to express the violence of our world.”

Language of Leaves (2014)

Greyscale images and isolated figures present a conventional approach and a direct message; conversely, works which juxtapose subjects project visual contexts for greater appreciation of socio-cultural concerns. ‘Language of leaves’ depicts a leaf-root sign that indicates the whereabouts of two families, and also serves as an invitation to others. A coin (as trading currency) is threaded into a Penan man’s necklace in ‘The New Hunter’. The blue tarpaulin canvas in ‘Our Beautiful Garden’ makes one wonder about the material used to construct roofs before this. In times when people from a notable gallery is suspected of stealing from one Chinese artist, the spirit of Molong - which interpretations include "not taking more than needed" – is something everyone should learn from.

Our Beautiful Garden (2014)

“When we look at images of the Penans - be it in documentaries or the beautiful paintings here - what do we see? Can we see beyond the exotic? Do we think of them as still existing to teach us lessons in sustainability? A nostalgic trip to the days of living close to nature? A reminder that we have “come so far” from days of “roaming the jungles”? Or can we begin to catch a glimpse of the nuances of what it means to be Penan? Humanity needs to recognise the independence and autonomy of these differences we think of as the “Penan’s way.” That there can be more than one claim to reality.”
- Excerpt from catalogue essay for “Language of the Jungle” exhibition, Ong Jo-Lene, 2014

The New Hunter (2014)

19 December 2014

Soya Cincau @ Core Design Gallery

Ali Nurazmal Yusoff curates this black & white exhibition, its wacky title depicting fun by virtue of its wide range of mediums on show. Fish designs seared onto canvas, a ‘Turning’ canopy projecting shadows, suspended snake and ladder toys, and sandwiched parchment between Perspex, display works from developing artists yet to realise their concepts or execution in its entirety. Established artists join in the monochromatic exercise via utilising innovative techniques – Azrin Mohd’s light boxes present a natural progressive for direct narratives, and Jamil Zakaria’s sculptures follow on from the artist’s characteristic manipulation of wire. Traditional oil painting retains its allure with Shafarin Ghani’s ‘Rohtang’, the sublime blend of greys denoting one under appreciated painter whose more colourful works upstairs impress with its controlled tone. 

Shafarin Ghani - Rohtang (2014)

Another masterly painter is Husin Hourmain, who presents a stunning black-on-black calligraphy composition that ruminates over the mysterious letters Alif م, Lam ل, and Mim ا. Raja Lope Rasydi recounts his childhood memories via a departure from his airbrushed mecha characters - movie icons, found objects, and electronic devices, combine in a delightfully playful melange hung on a mesh panel. Ali also apes the silver screen with 'The Goodfather', strangely hung separately from its accompanying work '"A" for Epal', which illustrates the artist's children encased behind a wooden grille. The self-negating choice is a strange one - an isolated Mafia boss is interpreted as allusion to a patriarchal society, but when family members come into play, the overall picture represents the tenderness of a father.

Installation view of Raja Lope Rasyidi - Self Portrait - Self Maintenance II (2014)

16 December 2014

The Pleasures of Odds and Ends – Landscapes, Figures and Still Lifes @ Feeka

Gan Siong King selects 23 pictures from the internet then paints a realistic copy of it. As forewarned by the exhibition title, any attempt to decode his decade-long output, has to take into account the incoherent bits and pieces that intrigue one creative mind. The artist’s personal preoccupation with technological developments and outer space, manifest a desire to interrogate his “bad relationship with paintings.” Trained in painting and passionate about it, the arresting images chosen denote visual appeal as the main criteria, where the creative act of meaning-making is subsequently assigned via titles and web links. Tan Zi Hao’s eloquent essay states, “…a closer inspection on Gan’s paintings is never really satisfying because his paintings never elucidate despite being ‘realistic’.” So, what pleasures are attained upon inspecting these paintings?

The persistence of why (2014) [Reference image]

Beginning with the desire to understand colour, a heart-shaped diamond makes reference to light, refraction, and the colours in between, while the RGB blocks on a Cathode Ray Tube (CRT), indicate the elements that make up colour on a computer screen. The latter forms a diptych with a drawing of Yttrium, a rare earth element included in CRTs; Exhibited two metres away is a picture of neodymium magnets, and a DIY electric motor constructed using a battery cell, copper wire, and magnet. Power sources describe the profound impulse to paint, this desire for creation more obvious in the stone axe head illustrated on a sea blue background. Hung opposite are overt symbols of the industrial revolution, two mechanical engines hinting at a related invention – the production assembly line, where items are created repetitively.

Sooner or later everything becomes a copy of a copy (2014) [Reference image]

Industrial capitalism also advanced marketing methods that emphasized the aesthetic qualities of merchandise, which narrowed the association between art and manufactured product, through shop window and trade fair displays. This reconfiguration in the act of looking is elaborated in paintings based on a Windows desktop wallpaper, and one Martian scenery snapped by the Pathfinder rover. Thematically connected to the other exhibits, such landscapes question both the mechanical lens that captured the picture, and the technological set up of projecting it. Self-reference occurs regularly among the mimicked pictures, where dwelling on the ownership of Googled images is perhaps Siong King’s intent, yet such onerous thoughts are best ignored and assumed as the artist’s failure to accentuate salient points.

Bliss (2005) [Reference image]

Having ‘Search by image’ via Google Images before my visit, these works emit a strong aura upon visual inspection. Wong Hoy Cheong, whose painting is referred to in the Martian landscape, offers a useful approach to interpret Siong King’s presentation – “This foldedness-of-experience (of the real and virtual worlds) (…) vis-à-vis the overcoming of subject/object dichotomy in real time and space, recognises that the slippages in the real-virtual continuum are integral to contemporary life.” Staying connected to a digital world is now a fundamental experience, but supplementing wall labels with multiple QR codes indicate an artist who lacks confidence in the audience. When the invested visitor responds to his desire to show, one is led through a frustrating Daedalian web of cross references which attempt to impose multiple layers of meaning onto photographic images.

Sisyphus (2014) [Reference image]

Relating less to scientific knowledge gained from YouTube videos, singular objects that touch on personal politics prove to be the best works on show. A hominid fossil is titled ‘Ancestor (or Non-Bumiputera)’, transforming a still life subject into a clever dig at indigenous claims of superiority. ‘Terang Bulan’ alludes to one French-Indonesian song which evolved into our national anthem, the circular painting clearly depicting the dark side of the moon. This in turn recalls the iconic cover of a Pink Floyd album, and the mockumentary about Stanley Kubrick creating a fake moon landing. Malaysia’s formative years curiously coincide with the time when magnetic-core memory was the dominant form of computer memory. Titled ‘Sisyphus’, this recreation refers to the repetitive process involved in memorising; the object’s obsolete status relays the futility of memory.

Terang Bulan (2014) [Reference image]

A black metallic form used in letterpress printing refers to the proliferation of books and subsequently religion, yet the painting’s title alludes to a biblical account of how language was created to confuse mankind, the picture questioning the correlation between text publications and spiritual enlightenment. The desire for learned knowledge is evident in this exhibition, but an underlying sense of self-loathe is present, as the artist fails to locate answers in his continuous interrogation of painting. Prosthetic limbs attached to a thalidomide patient imply a desire to repair a disability, while a penicillin culture vessel insinuates a desire to cure oneself from an ailment, in this case, an addiction to painting and art. By presenting readymade images undone via painting, the wartime references mask the true conflict, which is the artist’s “bad relationship with paintings”.

Confusion of tongues (2014) [Reference image]

Art that invokes deep thought is typically good art, although Siong King’s forceful approach towards restating his personal aesthetic, presents a broad and reflexive viewpoint that is too open-ended for subsequently meaningful reflections. Raising my mobile gadget up towards the QR codes stuck beside a painted image of one celebrity scientist, I wonder, which is the artwork – a painting of a still frame from a television program, or this technological marvel known as the smartphone? As Marcel Duchamp once remarked, “ …I do not believe in painting per se – A painting is made not by the artist but by those who look at it and grant it their favours. In other words, no painter knows himself or what he is doing…” In a show of paintings which leads one to appreciate art beyond wall hangings, not knowing – may be the greatest pleasure of it all.

Fountain (a.k.a inside this vessel, a magic drug is brewing) (2014) [Reference image]

13 December 2014

X - Experimental Life Drawing @ 無限發掘 FINDARS

Twenty Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA) students exhibit works from their second-year drawing classes, covering the entire art space with figurative illustrations of different sizes and mediums. Facial distortions and amalgamation of living and non-living subjects make a fascinating statement of what one recognises about the human body, formal properties like line and shade notwithstanding. Small doodles and motion captures prove delightful finds among the cluttered presentation, as real-life models transform into an expression of each student’s graphic style and creative throughput. 

Installation snapshots

10 December 2014

Revelation of Jalan Sultan @ Lostgens’

Paper lanterns and banners with painted slogans hang side-by-side in a mid-autumn festival celebration held along Jalan Sultan, the protest in disguise documented by Gan Sze Hooi in ‘Guardian of Petaling Street’. Dedicated to all who participated in activities organised by the Petaling Street Community Art Project (PSCAP), Sze Hooi’s inaugural solo exhibition draws on his great eye for two-dimensional perspective, to preserve a heritage conservation movement as an interactive storyboard. Progress takes the form of construction work, where the viewer “discover faces that we recognize in the community” among old buildings and barren landscapes. The artist’s daughter is portrayed as a giant symbol of hope, contrasting with the wooden tower of despair erected at the centre of the exhibition space.

Paradise Lost (2014)

Painted onto canvas backed with magnet, moveable human figures and modern machines allow the audience to create subjective scenes and construct desired narratives. This outstanding approach triggers active participation and empowers the imagination, directing the visitor’s thoughts towards cultural preservation and urban livelihood issues. The closed window mechanism for ‘Apocalypse’ and ‘Hotel Lok Ann’ also work well, especially for the latter which opens up to an entire cast of eccentric characters and ample space for individual storytelling. In ‘City of Corpses’, heritage buildings are painted on the flip side of magnetic parts that make up the Warisan Merdeka Tower, the artist illustrating the cost of development in a most direct manner.

Installation and detail snapshots of Hotel Lok Ann (2014)

Earthy colours and flat painting form a subtle background for amazing scenes to materialise – one can pile up cranes and cars, arrange for a figure to offer incense sticks to a character that looks suspiciously like the curator, or have Tunku Abdul Rahman fly over Stadium Merdeka instead of proclaiming Malaysia’s independence in it. These subjects, including the MRT construction workers, are a part of the locale’s storied history. At this juncture, the artist’s attempt to document the past, present, and future, becomes muddled as a moralising sentiment creeps into the works. Despite his best efforts, the invisible power that masterminded this turn of events remains unseen throughout. Perhaps, that is the revelation we all are waiting for.

For My Mother (2012)

"And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I [am] the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.”" 
- Revelation 21: 5–8, English Standard Version

Evolution of House of Castaway I (2014) [picture taken from the Facebook event page]

07 December 2014

Warisan Kertas 2014 @ Badan Warisan Malaysia

Housed beside one well-restored kampung house, this selling exhibition “features a selection of antiquarian and recent books, maps and ephemera on Malaysia and Southeast Asia.” Beautiful maps and quirky posters recall a colonial past, the exhibits flanked by Ilse Noor’s etchings of local historical buildings seen in the Shell-commissioned Warisan Nusa. Flipping through 80-year old books about gardening techniques and Chinese porcelain is endlessly fascinating, while 1960s Papineau travel guides provide a glimpse into a time before Cuti-Cuti Malaysia. A 1978 edition of Aliran titled ‘Wither Democracy’ compiles essays and debates from local intellectuals then. Reading Tunku Abdul Rahman’s foreword, one wonders, what happened to the legacy of healthy political debate without invoking draconian laws?

Ilse Noor - Makam Tok Pelam - Trengganu (1986) [ed. 20/300]

04 December 2014

In the Flesh @ Richard Koh Fine Art

Appreciating a Yeoh Choo Kuan painting used to be an engaging experience. Underpainting is seen through layers of violent brush strokes, the smell of oil paints hang heavily in the air, thin horizontal lines resemble paper cuts, and esoteric titles imbue his abstract paintings with a reticent impression. Unveiling a “flesh object” approach, the usual sensory triggers are now suppressed behind mirrored frames hung in the neighbourhood gallery. Peeling lacquered oil paint mimic self-harm, but any brutal sentiment is encased in favour of protecting the material product, where art collectors treat abstract paintings as accumulated asset. Physical manipulation of paint becomes the spectacle in a hit-or-miss show, although some hits demonstrate the considerable prowess of this young artist.

It’s Just One of Those Days (2014)

These works “anthropomorphized the canvas; moving away from mere depictions of the figure to a sort of theatrical play by treating the paintings as props to acts of mortification.” Haffendi Annuar’s catalogue essay describes the series well, his dramatic prose aping the beneath-the-skin technique of Choo Kuan’s. Referencing film dialogue in artwork titles seems contrived at first, but the raw expression on canvas indicates one genuinely moved by scripted moments. As one who has watched the majority of movies quoted, it is inevitable to associate these paintings with the silver screen. American Psycho and The Clockwork Orange are referred to more than once, and one does wonder why the colour orange does not manifest in ‘I Was Cured Alright’. 

I Was Cured Alright (2014)

A blue-purple tone and organic-shaped cuts in ‘They Were Inside Us’ recall The Joker’s narration in The Dark Knight, while blood-red feature prominently in vampire movie references. Funnily enough, Woody Allen movies influence the most attractive pictures. ‘We Came so Close to Perfection’ (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) projects a bare yet powerful aesthetic, and the bright hues in ‘I Don't Know How Much Longer I Can Keep This Smile Frozen on My Face’ aptly describe the dysfunctional romance seen in Annie Hall. Vivid colours are revealed also under a gritty white layer in ‘It’s Just One of Those Days’, bringing to mind Limp Bizkit’s opening line from Break Stuff. Quoting the other featured song lyric, “all my senses are on fire” when viewing Choo Kuan’s works, only when the reflective glass is broken.

Be Me for a Little While (2014)

"The last chord has died away. In the brief silence which follows I feel strongly that there it is, that something has happened. 
Some of these days You'll miss me honey
What has just happened is that the Nausea has disappeared. When the voice was heard in the silence, I felt my body harden and the Nausea vanish. Suddenly: it was almost unbearable to become so hard, so brilliant. At the same time the music was drawn out, dilated, swelled like a waterspout. It filled the room with its metallic transparency, crushing our miserable time against the walls. I am in the music."
La Nausée, Jean-Paul Sartre (1938) [translated by R. Baldick, 1965)

We Came so Close to Perfection (2014)

01 December 2014

For the Imaginary Space: Selected Sculptures & Installations from the Pakhruddin & Fatimah Sulaiman Collection @ The Edge Galerie

As the story goes, sculpture in Malaysian art developed from a local crafting practice, and its modern form synthesises eastern and western traditions more effectively than painting ever did. Constantin Brâncuși springs to mind when one sees Tengku Sabri Ibrahim’s ‘The Warrior’, its elegantly elongated shape and shiny smooth surface, subscribing to features of the Romanian’s works. However, the abstracted figure takes after an enlarged keris hilt, with carved recesses that resemble fighting wounds. References to a traditional weapon, and the legends that come with it, transform this block of wood into Malaysian art. Also universally beautiful yet alluding to local culture is Mad Anuar Ismail’s ‘Telur Kencana 1’, which numinous qualities of khat (Arabic calligraphy) is presented in a wonderfully-balanced, inverted-point sculpture.

Tengku Sabri Ibrahim - The Warrior (1988)

Past and present mythologies anchor the best works, in this showcase of works from a prominent private art collection. Sharmiza Abu Hassan’s crookedly-hung ‘Alegori 1: Hati Nyamuk’ and Mad Anuar’s invigorating ‘Storm Riders 7’ are compelling interpretations of fables, although the exhibited studies fail to reveal additional insight. Multhalib Musa’s ‘By Default’ repeats a symbolic motif, both questioning and legitimising a constructed belief that consolidates power via racist proclamations. Fighting cockerels carved onto jambu laut woodblocks present a sublime amalgamation of printmaking and folklore, Juhari Said’s tall masterpieces once prompting Azman Ismail (whose twisted pole creation is featured here) to state, “…beliau (Juhari) mengeksploitasi makna dan falsafah ayam, sekali gus memperlihatkan nilai-nilai intelektual masyarakat Melayu tradisional.”

Juhari Said (2006) - [left] Laga; [right] Taji

An ethnic Malay background helps in appreciating Raja Shahriman, whose struggle with figurative representation and threatening gestures, manifest in three metal sculptures. Sinuous lines from the “Nafas” series, contrast with the direct statement-making of Zulkifli Yusoff, whose distorted subjects exhibited at the bottom of steps, negates any political intent that existed previously. Hung above the glossy floor, Paiman’s salvaged constructs suffer the same fate, although Sharon Chin’s cut-out “Monsters” allow for enlightenment upon torchlight inspection in a dark room. Contained within a Perspex box, Nur Hanim Khairuddin’s prize-winning spell book remains arcane and undiscovered. Compared to another collector-sculpture show held earlier this year, this exhibition suffers from a stuffy arrangement, the chosen display layout stifling the aura of the art object.

Multhalib Musa - By Default (2002)

Sculpture and/or installation-only art exhibitions are not common, and here the noble aim includes to “demonstrate the sheer range and diversity of the medium in this country”. This objective ultimately lets the show down, as personal taste is forgone in favour of “variety and breadth”, leading to an incoherent display of objects that promotes non-paintings as rare collectible. The catalogue foreword equates the couple’s collecting endeavours in the early 1990s to the Singapore Art Museum, unnecessarily blurring the lines between private collector and public institution. Curator Rachel Jenagaratnam even nullifies her influence, by beginning her essay with “(w)orking with art collectors is an interesting ball game…” and ending it with “…one would be hard-pressed to disagree that they are curators in their own right.”

[foreground] Bayu Utomo Radjikin - Growing, Edition 5/5 (2004); [background] Umibaizurah Mahir - Toys (Gerabak) (2006-2007)

In an interview, Pakha states the modest intention “…to elevate (appreciation of) sculptures to the level of at least painting or drawing…” Some exhibits are selected for its non-traditional media, which creates a spectacle when viewed out of context. Portraits on seashells, one lightbox, four glass jars, and a Sanyo rice cooker make the cut, to go along with more traditional bronze sculptures. Ahmad Shukri’s fibre glass eggs denote the compendious nature of the Sulaimans' collection; Bayu Utomo Radjikin’s stunning bust demands a walk around it to appreciate the sculpted details. ‘Jesus’ Tools’ by Anurendra Jegadeva proves why personal taste should be the only criteria when individuals collect art – the painted wooden plane simultaneously recalls a biblical account, a functional action, and an erosion of spiritual beliefs – such reflections are likely less salient to a non-Christian.

Anurendra Jegadeva - Jesus’ Tools (2005)

Myth-making aside, material is the other characteristic which demonstrates sculpture as a fully developed Malaysian art form. Azahar Manan’s tribal masks, Sharmiza’s narrow keyholes, and Faizal Ramli’s juxtaposed voids, carve culturally relevant forms that evoke introspection in a wooden diptych format. Tengku Sabri’s ‘Column XV (Seri Sarawak)’ emphasises the act of assembly rather than sculpting, marking the artistic evolution of one who has since moved on to found object constructs. Latex and its stretchy quality is utilised by Juhari to mock the inconsistent art critic, while Umibaizurah Mahir casts malleable clay into fragile toys and pretty figurines. Industrial materials reflect the increasingly urban aesthetic – Ramlan Abdullah exploits the tension of stacked glass; Multhalib realises his concept digitally before joining steel loops into a captivating hanging construct.

Sharmiza Abu Hassan - Nur Pintu Hati (Diptych) (1998)

Depicting the tools and gestures necessary to create art, Rosli Zakaria’s rectangular block mesmerises with its static set up and erring title, the intentional delay heightening the tension in making objects. Figurative representation is questioned in ‘Bagai Lembu Dicucuk Hidung…’, while ‘Belakang Parang Kalau Diasah’ projects a gestation period for ideas to take shape. The common assumption that painting is superior to sculpture should be challenged in Malaysia, where the interpretation of myths and use of local materials, signify a medium more effective in portraying the domestic landscape. Walking among outstanding artworks, one pictures this collection being owned and displayed in a public institution, and not in a gallery promoting private art museums. The private reluctant wall has to come down, so that the public can inhabit this imaginary space.

Rosli Zakaria - Gunting Dalam Lipatan... Bagai Pahat Dengan Pemukul…. Bagai Lembu Dicucuk Hidung…Belakang Parang Kalau Diasah (2008)