30 October 2015

Symphony of Unity @ Sasana Kijang

As Malaysians demonstrated unity by thronging the streets donned in yellow, many whom took the opportunity to “re-discover” the streets of Kuala Lumpur, it is a pity they did not venture out to Sasana Kijang for an invigorating dose of art. Intentional curatorship is unnecessary when broad categories are adhered to, and the extra effort here to pair pictures up make for a wonderfully pleasant walkthrough. Having seen many pastoral works hung on these walls, two pairs of collaged women stand out. Redza Piyadasa’s horribly garish ‘Two Malay Women’ sets off Norma Abbas’ ‘Two Heads Better Than One’ to great effect. Photocopied images of traditional dress are juxtaposed with the latter’s multifaceted women, whose short hair and trendy tops denote a cosmopolitan setting.

Norma Abbas - Two Heads Better Than One (1989)

In a clash of approaches, the formal idealism in ethnic Chinese artists is compared with the honest and straightforward depictions by ethnic Malay artists. In ‘Wedding Melody’, Eng Tay’s figures hold on to their banhus and stand aloof, in contrast with Harun Hj Bakar’s ‘Malay Classical Marriage’, where music is played and a convivial atmosphere exists via the couple dancing at the centre of this rather simple painting. A similar observation is made about works by Chuah Thean Teng and Dzulkifli Buyong. Teng’s profiled figures in ‘Combing Hair’ are encased in a circular frame, the adult’s strapless batik dress and dark skin tones referring to the exotic native. Whereas in ‘Searching’, two girls in baju kurung look for a cat perched upon a zinc roof, their gestures conveying lively enthusiasm and naive charm. The proximity with the subject matter at hand becomes obvious.

[l] Chuah Thean Teng - Combing Hair (1990); [r] Dzulkifli Buyong - Searching (1986)

Next pair in focus are the house interiors of Mastura Abdul Rahman and Chuah Chong Yong. The impossible top-down view in the former implies a divine eye that collapses visual perspectives, or perhaps just a cat’s viewpoint from the rafters. A more symbolic detachment is depicted in the latter, which point of view is at the stairwell behind a bamboo screen, a switched-on television outside further highlighting the personal isolation. Sabri Idrus’ hexagonal ‘Blue Cube’ captivates via its protruding shape, capturing as much attention as the gigantic canvas by Fauzan Omar that hangs opposite, which joins together symbols of development and nature in a Rauschenberg-like collage titled ‘Pembangunan Negara’. The flattened contemporary, thankfully, holds its own against the immediate illusion.

[l] Mastura Abdul Rahman - Interior No. 38 (1988); [r] Chuah Chong Yong - Interior - 2 (1993)

The great individual pieces about places on display include the beautiful overlapping lines and sky blue drawn in Victor Chin’s lithograph ‘Cascading Down Klang River’. ‘Kwong Siew Temple KL’ by Fung Yow Chork portrays a moody section within the 128-years old building on Jalan Tun HS Lee. Among the lovely watercolour paintings of buildings by Chin Kon Yit, ‘Masjid Zahir Alor Setar, Kedah’ stand out as a personal favourite with its slightly elevated perspective and for its cone-shaped trees. Unity is a reflection of individuals’ desires to live in a community, and showing the places we live and move in, can cultivate this sense of belonging more effectively than racial integration stories ever could.

Chin Kon Yit - Masjid Zahir Alor Setar, Kedah (1990)

23 October 2015

Be Careful or You May Become The Centre @ Wei-Ling Contemporary

A giant stick figure disposing off its head, greets the visitor into Chong Kim Chiew’s solo exhibition, where some works are attributed to the artist’s avatars. As if needing a punchline to pull together the group show, this mural utilises a universal warning sign to grab visual attention, its facile presentation unlike Kim Chiew’s typically less pretty creations. The icon nevertheless exudes the artist's confident charm, here daring the invested viewer to dispose preconceptions, or be blown away by its conceptual heft. Stickers delineate the manifested identities, its author and title (‘0 – Across your space, across his(her) space, across my space.’) constructing pronouns that describe a third dimension, alluding to a painterly issue confronted by artists for a long time. In Kim Chiew’s creations, time is presented as the third trajectory which alters spatial experience. 

Installation view: (2015) [from l to r] Kim  Skin Time; 0 – Across your space, across his(her) space, across my space.; Topy – Exhibition Logo Design No. 1 

Stating this approach in a direct and literal manner is ‘Skin Time’, an 8-hour slide show composed of 1-minute close-up stills of digital-format time inscribed onto human skin. Juxtaposing one’s biological clock with calculated running numbers, the projection was eleven minutes slower than universal time during my visit, which further highlighted one’s difficulty in experiencing time. This work is attributed to the avatar named Kim, “…an Asian who stays in USA…” who is probably a reference to Taiwanese artist Hsieh Tehching. While the latter’s performances are endurance feats that mark the human condition as art, Kim’s ‘Skin Time’ compacts the notion of time’s passing into a factor for gallery art appreciation. A suggestion to stretch the work’s concept further: price the video in accordance to one’s visiting time/ decision to buy/ MYR vs USD exchange rate on-the-day, etc.

Installation view of Chong Kim Chiew  Boundary Fluidity (2014 –ongoing)

Displayed in the next section are the papier mâché bricks of ‘Unreadable Wall’, rendered impotent when stacked up against a non-functioning revolving door. Doubling back to the main exhibition – “Boundary Fluidity” – eight tarpaulin canvases hang majestically from the ceiling, while a couple remain rolled up and leaned against the wall. One piece is laid out on the ground, shimmering like waves underneath the fluorescent lights. Ink and paint cover the polytarp surfaces, a number which underlying black and orange layers are exposed via cutting or peeling. Historical map lines are traced and overlapped, place names are written and erased, resulting in mostly ineligible markings. In a video last seen at Lostgens’, these individual tarpaulins are placed in isolated environments (beach, car park, road, etc.) in various physical states. Folded, immersed, covered, washed up…

Installation view of Chong Kim Chiew – Boundary Fluidity (2014 –ongoing)

Kim Chiew’s photocopied jottings stuck to the wall present clues to these obscure images. One A4 sheet circles Chinese characters that spell out inhibited and exhibited physical states, these words describing also emotions and actions in the Mandarin language. Sketches featuring old works associate material and colour, with dynamic gestures and static surfaces. By questioning the legibility of maps and mapping, the artist addresses the painterly issues of 3-dimensional representation on a flat canvas, also imbuing his works with the idea that time factors into depicting/ deciphering reality. History is a slippery notion and the future is unpredictable, yet the typical individual expends much effort to understand and relate the present to these two dimensions. Identity is a fluid construct, and the projection of time becomes the boundary. 

Photocopied sketches and jottings by Chong Kim Chiew

These tarpaulin works have enough substance to stand (hang/ lie/ lean/ unfold, etc.) alone within a solo show, but creations by Kim Chiew’s avatars serve to distract then extend the conceptual limits of art making and exhibiting. Framed photographs of a spot of chipped paint, a wall socket, and the floor edge, intend to state the illusionary conceit of representations. But compared to its last arrangement at G13, or the stickers of wall cracks and door knobs stuck within Galeri Petronas two years ago, this intervention appears too passive and regressive. Hung nearby for good measure is ‘White Over White, Black Over Black-Map’. Pixelated squares depict a blown-up image of rolling waves, thus transforming this 2011 work into a metaphor within the show’s context. You stand on the coast, but look too hard and you may be sucked into the whirlpool’s centre. Be careful!

Installation view of Chong Kim Chiew – Boundary Fluidity (2014 –ongoing)

This show is not aesthetically pleasing, but the gravitas of its exhibited objects makes up for this deficiency. Tracing military trails and land formations on 8 by 6 feet polytarp obfuscates the viewer, then leads one away from the canvas. This counter-intuitive response to an artwork is demanded by the ambitious artist, in his persistent reference to the “third space”. By presenting the illusion of slow-moving flux, the artwork is never finished, the truth is never absolute. Persistent looking, thinking, and re-looking, is encouraged, thus cultivating an appreciation of visual objects where a narrative always shifts, and its focus warrants regular reconfigurations. Time passes. Questioning the ego in the act of seeing is perhaps nihilistic, but the pleasures gleaned from the reflective impulse of looking, is a truly thrilling one. 

Installation view of Chong Kim Chiew – Boundary Fluidity (2014 –ongoing)

“Continual transition forbids us to speak of "individuals," etc; the "number" of beings is itself in flux. We would know nothing of time and motion if we did not, in a coarse fashion, believe we see what is at "rest" beside what is in motion. The same applies to cause and effect, and without the erroneous conception of "empty space" we should certainly not have acquired the conception of space. The principle of identity has behind it the "apparent fact" of things that are the same. A world in a state of becoming could not, in a strict sense, be "comprehended" or "known"; only to the extent that the "comprehending" and "knowing" intellect encounters a coarse, already-created world, fabricated out of mere appearances but become firm to the extent that this kind of appearance has preserved life--only to this extent is there anything like "knowledge"; i.e., a measuring of earlier and later errors by one another.”
The Will to Power, Friedrich Nietzsche, s. 520 (1885) [translated by W. Kaufmann. 1968] 

Mobile snapshot of Chong Kim Chiew – Skin Time (2015) by Sharon Chin, as published on 21st October 2015 in Notes on “Be Careful Or You May Become The Centre” at sharonchin.com

16 October 2015

The French ConneXion @ NVAG (II)

...In contrast with Georgette’s luscious paintings, Lai Foong Moi’s works lack the former’s decorative flourish. Adhering to traditional composition conventions, landscapes such as ‘Menuai Padi’ have a high horizon line with a diminishing scale of figures. Pictures done in 1959 of an Iban dancer and a Dayak longhouse intrigue for its early depictions in Borneo, as I succumb to a heroic imagining of one Seremban-born 30-year old unmarried female artist crossing the sea to visit tribes located on a neighbouring island. Perhaps paying tribute to celibate womenfolk brought into Singapore as construction labourers, ‘Samsui Woman’ displays a more controlled brushwork. The artist skilfully presents the sitter as an iconic figure, despite her hunched back and stout limbs, complete with receding hills in the background.

Lai Foong Moi - Rumah Panjang Dayak (1959)

Next, four intimate works by Chen Jen Hao grab attention. Maroon rambutans hang within a Chinese scroll. One stern-looking young person seats cross-legged and is holding a book, the portrait’s outline highlighted with turquoise pastels. A well-built man sleeps on his side with arms extended, the fleshy thigh at the picture’s corner potentially mistaken for a photographer’s fingers caught in the frozen frame. Fishermen mend nets underneath a canopy facing the sea, a mountain visible on the high horizon line where sea and land meet. Having read about the queer narrative in Patrick Ng’s batik paintings earlier in the day, I circle back to Jen Hao’s topless men done also in the 1960s. The tender image of a sleeping man is a rousing one, and the cropping-off adds to the picture's enigma.

Chen Jen Hao - After A Hard Day (1963)

Head portraits done in wartime Muar by Liu Kang present faces with determined looks, which describe a socialist idealism popular at that time. Walking past works by Yeo Hoe Koon and Lu Chon Min, I suspend my presumptions of a useful connection between France and these exhibits, besides the factual references to art schools. Mid-20th century French art is associated with the Art Brut and Nouveau Réalisme movements, which are not represented here. Long Thien Shih writes for the 1991 “A Touch of French” exhibition, “(n)ow, a common trait among the Paris-trained Malaysian and Singaporean artists who are Mandarin literate is their “delayed” reaction to the Modernist Movement, a 20 years delayed reaction.” Moving onto abstract prints by Latiff Mohidin, this statement still unfortunately applies to much Malaysian art now.

Ponirin Amin - Di Pentas Mu yang Sepi (1979)

Ponirin Amin’s square grids denote many things – a functional connection, an aesthetic symmetry, a picture plane – even a political position, as in the multi-planar arrangement for ‘Alibi Catur di Pulau Bidong’. Powerful lines and catchy titles (‘→ !!!.....’ and ‘3 Sequences’) by Abdul Mansoor Ibrahim captivate, while Juhari Said’s ‘Baju Kurung, Petaling Street, Bombay dan New York’ evoke faraway spaces embedded within the linocut flower patterns. Hung beside are yummy mangosteens by Lim Kim Hai, and three intriguing works by Chew Kiat Lim. The latter’s batik creations project a sinister feel via surreal juxtapositions, while green hues and distinct shading in ‘Pembebasan’ transform a typical Nanyang subject matter into a tinted illusion. Rounding off this section is Ng Bee, whose stoic characters, hatched lines, and symbolic objects, present a uniquely attractive art-making approach.

Juhari Said - Baju Kurung, Petaling Street, Bombay dan New York (1993)

Seeing older works by established artists is a delight, as it offers potential insight into an artist’s evolution. Observable from labels too are the institution’s acquisition trend - questionable taste and all - such as the 12-year gaps that separate three works by Foh Sang, or the 10-year difference in collecting three pieces of from Hoe Koon’s “Bouquet”. Edith Piaf on repeat and a romanticised view of Paris, irritate me to no end; however, any attempt to re-present artworks buried within the national collection is a welcome initiative, in times when society demands transparency in public asset acquisitions. Perhaps, curators can be given the opportunity to put together four-monthly shows “from the collection of BSLN”, instead of a dreary year-long freeze frame of “Recent Acquisitions”. Finding the diamond in the rough, is worth the displeasure of seeing Ken Yang’s paintings again.

Ng Bee - God (2012)

11 October 2015

The French ConneXion @ NVAG (I)

Judging from its tacky title, it is easy to dismiss this exhibition as another blasé attempt by the local institution to promote a diplomatic agenda. To my surprise, it turned out better than expected. Despite its misgivings – “The French link is ambitious. I can’t seem to grasp how the works are ‘connected’”, says a visitor – the show should be commended for exhibiting 81 pieces from the national collection, some of which have been kept in storage for a long time. Curator Ooi Kok Chuen makes do with a limited timeframe, and puts together a decent number of works to occupy the cavernous space and poor ambient lighting in Gallery 2A. Good art helps one sidestep cynical concerns about institutional intent or curatorship, and there are many exhibited works worth a second look here.

Chew Kiat Lim - Pembebasan (1968)

Two portraits painted thirty years apart, project sincere and imperfect depictions of artists’ spouses. O Don Peris illustrates the intricate details of his partner’s wedding gown and flower bouquet, yet her calves and shoes are plainly drawn to the point of being farcical. Chia Yu Chian’s take fares better, where colourful flower patterns in the background do not overshadow his wife dressed in blue, but her left arm leaning on the sofa still looks awkward. Twelve works by Yu Chian are on display – more derivative in style include the angular strokes of ‘Jalan di Bandar’ and ‘Wanita – Lady’ which recall Lee Cheng Yong, while his characteristic Fauvist colours and close-up perspective come alive in later works like ‘Still Life with Wine Jar’ and ‘Petition Writer’.

Chia Yu Chian - Demam Pilihanraya – Election Fever (1978)

Another vibrant example by Yu Chian is ‘Demam Pilihanraya – Election Fever’. One Chinese aunty donned in yellow clutching a purse, and a Malay lady clad in red carrying a child, stand in front of a wall stuck with Barisan Nasional and Democratic Action Party posters. Coincidental as it is, one cannot help chuckle when looking at this 37-year old painting now. Picasso references manifest in distinct compositions by “the most Francophile” Tan Tong, and in the slit-eyed cow people of Tew Nai Tong. The incomplete painting on an easel in ‘To Be Continued’ by the latter, projects a poignant reminder of these two modern artists, who passed away two years ago. Displayed on the opposite wall are eye-catching works by Loo Foh Sang and Long Thieh Shih, as it becomes obvious that the hanging sequence follows neither a chronological sequence, nor a segregation by medium.

Tew Nai Tong - To Be Continued (circa 1970s)

From his essay, subtitled ‘Malaysian and Singapore Artists in France and the Nanyang Nexus’, it can be inferred that Kok Chuen drafted his catalogue essay before assembling the exhibits. Writing in his typical biodata-heavy manner, the curator makes mention of every artist who was artistically influenced during trips to Paris, emphasizing on the majority of students from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts who enrolled at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts. Georgette Chen is cited as an influential figure in maintaining this cross-continent academic link, but in the exhibition she is grouped together with other women artists, whose works are hung within a walled-off section deep within the gallery space. The write-up follows a similar structure, which explains the disorganised feeling when one navigates the exhibition or reads Kok Chuen’s essay.

Loo Foh Sang – Kota Terbang – Flying Fortress (1968)

With no Nanyang connection and dated relatively later, Chong Siew Ying’s large creations feel badly out of place, as her shadowy characters remind one of Tan Chin Kuan’s ghoulish figures. Within the awful pink walls hang five paintings by Georgette from the national collection, the earliest acquisition being ‘Rambutan and Mangosteens’. Abundance is signified in overflowing woven baskets, where visual interest draws from fruits laid across the table, and fleshy fillings tempt the hungry observer. In contrast, the older ‘Ikan Kering’ is equally captivating but differ significantly in tone and mood, the dried fishes conjuring up a sense of stale air in a dimly-lit storeroom. Her beautiful portraits render material texture in vibrant tones, a great example being ‘Raiga’ where the brushy background projects the sitter holding onto a turquoise veil...

Georgette Chen - [l] Ikan Kering (1940); [r] Rambutan and Mangosteens (1950)

06 October 2015

Snippets: Q3 2015

Famous for his nude figures, or just its outlines, Khalil Ibrahim has sustained a long career as a full-time artist with his figurative paintings. In the retrospective at the relocated KL Lifestyle Art Space, it is indicative that Khalil’s artistic development has stagnated since the 1980s. Comparing two watercolour pictures of nude figures hung side by side – one from 1980 and the other from 2005 – the difference is not discernible, down to the disproportionate calves.  For his current signature style, grey-brownish bodies evolve into primary colour forms, effectively diminishing the sensual elements. At its best, this abstraction denotes a loss of desire; at its worst, such pictures pander only to market pressures. Alas, the predicaments of a modern artist in Malaysia.

Khalil Ibrahim – Pantai Bali (2005)

Artists based in Kuala Lumpur and Manila exhibit works in “Tales of the City” at G13, assigned the theme to “explore the cultural complexities of urban condition in both countries”. Overlapping outlines and 3-D characters denote a crowded sphere, while oversized portraits and conflated symbols isolate singular objects from a perceived mass. Lovely paintings of shopfronts by Francis Commeyne preserve a vital sheen, which contrasts with the common approach of depicting aged stuff. In group shows with vague themes, works that has a specific reference point are the most potent. Gan Sze Hooi’s ‘Into the Jail’ see his cartoonish figures occupy a demolished heritage site – with its butterfly plan, Moorish gate, and ironic murals intact – and giant figures of authority looming over the commoner. This is not an image from the past, but an accurate capture of the present.

Paintings in Gan Sze Hooi's studio, for the "Tales of the City" art exhibition [picture from Gan Sze Hooi's web log]

Leave it to Tan Zi Hao to use Malaysian vocabulary to literally describe farting sounds, backlit for those who cannot read clearly the words displayed at squatting height. Together with Leo So, “OFFART” shows works encumbered with deep frustration at the local socio-political sphere, a week after hundred thousands of annoyed urbanites gathered at the heart of Kuala Lumpur. The alphabet ‘t’ as Christian cross, book passages, and an iconic gesture, are symbols manipulated by Zi Hao in his cynically biting expressions. Toilet humour is more overt in Leo’s creations, which neon green paint and illustrated flies cover his canvases. This event works wells to entertain visitors still holding onto post-Bersih emotions. Entering the exhibition space, one is greeted by a stenciled idiom about farting, and a large fly perched upon a blacked out politician’s head. Such SHIT have to elicit a smile.

[l] Leo So - Najis (2015); [r] Tan Zi Hao - Malaysian Politics 101 (2015)

Without proclamations of greatness, Art Expo Malaysia Plus 2015 was a subdued affair, which make for a pleasant walkabout. Group selfies were popular at booths showing eye-catching pictures, while Xin Art Space presented a wall of Pangrok Sulap prints, its sales proceeds going to the Ranau earthquake aid efforts. Hard-edged Japanese and Korean works do well to strike a balance, for viewers tired of surreal juxtapositions and all-over abstractions that characterise the majority of offerings at the fair. Great Malaysian works spotted include Seah Zelin at Taksu, whose “Vase of Flowers” are beautiful and contemporary renditions of a still-life subject matter. At Segaris, Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim’s wooden creation preserves his personal style yet demonstrates an innovative streak, which immediately shows up the booth’s other showpieces as boring rehashes.

Installation snapshot of Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim - Fragment #1: Broken Landscape (2015)

A collective made up of Shooshie Sulaiman, Anwar Suhaimi, and Izat Arif, occupy a Damansara Heights bungalow lot, turning it into a gallery space and al-fresco café. Its first show, “Otak Jepun”, presents Yutaka Inagawa and his surreal collages that are framed, tacked to the wall, and even folded into ventilation openings. The exhibition statement relates about a Japanese “visual and design language”, but nonsensical cut-outs stuck onto a white background are always a delightful sight, especially when metaphorical associations are ignored altogether. The choice of subjects and picture planes created become the main focus, and rewards the tired visitor with refreshing images. A giant duck placed upon a baby stroller waiting to fly, anyone?

Installation snapshot of "Otak Jepun" at Lorong Kekabu 

01 October 2015

DUOA: Eternal Duties @ HOM Art Trans

Two lecturers set themselves apart from their students, by utilising unconventional mediums whilst retaining an attractive aesthetic value, although such gestures may not be enough to trigger innovation. The Malaysian identity preoccupies works by Bibi Chew and Sharmiza Abu Hassan, this search for a legitimate identity seemingly outdated in a time when reflexive personas are acted out within virtual communities. Plaster sculptures of food hang in pouches, and bunches of coffee strainers in varying shades of brown, are examples of attention-grabbing art which presentations are too obscure to be effective. Bibi’s always-attractive wooden board creations fare better with “Pigmentation”, a series depicting brain development, although the suggested reading of neutralised racial codes is difficult to empathise with.

Bibi Chew - Pigmentation #3 (2015)

‘Bridging’ by Sharmiza follows on an old series that play upon the Puteri Gunung Ledang fable, while ‘Country of Mind’ is an intriguing large creation that documents the physical terrain and mental state, when the artist last conducted pilgrimage duties at Mecca. Geometrical constructs are Sharmiza’s strengths, and her smaller collages are enchanting and thoughtful. “Organ Drawings” are encased within a hexagonal grid, the objects subjected to metaphorical additions that result in a multi-chamber brick heart, or a brain with construction cranes anchored upon it. “Stool Series” are simple deconstructions of hexagonal shapes juxtaposed with objects in an artist’s studio, presenting sufficient indicators of the artist’s emotional affinity with such forms. When the emotional quantum waves – as Hasnul J Saidon calls it – are apparent, the art is naturally better.

Sharmiza Abu Hassan - Open Heart series (2015)