31 December 2015

Art KL-itique 2015 Look Back

In a year when I lost faith in painting, the number of art events doubled, as compared with my listings two years ago. Large paintings – especially figurative literal statements and beautiful gestural abstracts – continue to be snapped up quickly in the primary market, leading to a deep reflection about the act of collecting. Despite a stagnant secondary market, the art economy was constantly discussed in conferences and symposiums, while non-commercial art spaces soldier on without institutional funding. A single regret will be missing the three shows that Satu Kolektif (Elias Yamani Ismail) participated in this year. Otherwise, following in the tradition of my favourite non-authoritative end of year awards, my 2015 Kuala Lumpur visual art highlights include…

Chang Yoong Chia – Love at First Sight (Photo Edition) (2011)

Printmaking: The medium was aptly celebrated on Labour Day at “Peasants and Proletariats”, which organiser Xin Art Space started its first year promisingly as a passion project. Cetak Kolektif – spearheaded by Faizal Suhif and Samsudin Wahab – held two shows at HOM Art Trans, and accorded the under-appreciated medium deserved recognition.

Sculpture in Petaling Jaya: Buden’s ‘Orang Assam’ and ‘Orang Ikan Kering’ were among a number of memorable sculpted works exhibited at G13, along with the miniscule and heavily-textured creations by Tiong Chai Heing. At Kedai, Nazrul Hamzah’s quirky constructs that references Western art history, showed great creativity and had me pencilling in this artist as one to watch in coming years.

Installation snapshot of Samsudin Wahab – Orang Assam (2015) [picture taken from “FLUSH!” exhibition web page]


Charitable art projects: Kedai Sebelah hosted a showcase and fun events for rural children on behalf of Projek Senikami, whose StartSomeGood campaign unfortunately did not achieve its crowdfunding target. Sembilan helped raise funds and awareness for a neuromuscular disorder, by running a week-long post-it art auction at an ice cream parlour. Charity art auctions organized for high society be damned.

White Box, Publika: Fergana’s “Collectors Show” was an eye-opener to appreciate modern Malaysian artworks, while a tribute exhibition for poet Pyanhabib Rahman also inspired quality creations from a number of local artists. With its impeccable production values, “Art Next Door” showcased what is fashionable art in our neighbouring state.


Installation snapshot of art pieces being auctioned at Inside Scoop Damansara Jaya, in support of “The Scoop About Branden” project [picture taken from Yap Sook Yee’s Facebook post]

National Visual Arts Gallery: It is confounding how little people care about artworks acquired with public money, hence kudos to Balai for exhibiting its “Recent Acquisitions”. and including a substantial number of works from its collection into “The French ConneXion” (curatorship is a secondary concern). Other commendable initiatives are its backing of the progressive school project “Gerakan Seni”, and a lovely exhibition of the two most holy Islamic sites in “Haremeyn”.

8 Jalan Panggong: Quirky exhibitions at Aku Café (“Known x Unknown”) and FINDARS (“Into/Outside”) draw attention, but it is the shows at Lostgens’ that keep me coming back to this address. Captivating in various ways are the burnt blouses of Chong Yi Lin, Au Sow Yee’s complex moving images, and the delightful yet subversive illustrations by Tey Beng Tze.

Chia Yu Chian – Petition Writer (1977)

Minut Init Art Social: A shiny new gallery founded by a political treasurer grabbed the headlines, but it is this grungy art space that caught my attention this year, with its showcase of art that one will not see elsewhere. Veronika Neukirch’s silicon-plaster fruits and Sophia Kamal’s brilliant paintings intrigue, but it was the WeChat art (?!) in “Circle Jerks” that blew my mind.

Diana Lui: Her works appearing also at Wei-Ling Gallery and Black Box this year, Diana’s “Totem” had me pacing back and forth the terrazzo floors of Alliance Française KL for a full hour. Other significant solo exhibitions were caught in established galleries, i.e. Wei-Ling Contemporary (Chong Kim Chiew’s multiple personas), Taksu (Khairul Azmir Shoib’s melancholic paintings), and Richard Koh’s at Jalan Maarof (Gan Chin Lee’s social realist depiction of migrants).

Sophia Kamal – I Am A Dream Still Dreaming

"After more than 20 years, perhaps it is about time for these strategies to be reproached. Visual artists should start to re-question their roles and positioning within the larger context of ‘hope’ for positive change and transformation in this beloved country. Instead of merely blaming, labelling, pointing fingers, voicing concerns, sounding alarms, relaying warnings, lamenting on issues, focusing too much on problems, or even sometimes riding and capitalizing on them for personal fame and gain, visual artists should explore fresh new ways to pro-actively contribute to their immediate surrounding and society. The harsh realities of the lower mind should be taken as challenges that can elevate us collectively towards higher consciousness."
- Hasnul J Saidon, Report from the Head of Judges, Penang Art Open 2015, blog post dated 17th December 2015

Diana Lui - Totem #11 (2015)

27 December 2015

Pulse: 2H 2015 Art Auctions

As an auction house diversifies to sell designer furniture and signed art prints, another gallery opens in Klang with its owner claiming that art investment “…offers yields ranging from 10% to 100%.” Five auctions were held across four months with close to 700 lots on the block, with GST now firmly included as a transactional cost. With Christie’s and Sotheby’s jostling for significant works from the emerging Southeast Asian market, local players have little to offer, although a great batik piece by Ismail Mat Hussein was spotted at a Petaling Jaya gallery. In that October fire sale, the first 38 lots had starting bids of RM 1,000, while a couple works by Yong Mun Sen and Chen Wen Hsi seem under-priced.

Ismail Mat Hussein – Dikir Barat (1995)

Masterpiece’s August edition sees all three available works by Jalaini Abu Hassan brought in, a bizarre occurrence that says little about the Malaysian secondary art market. Penang paintings see a dip in prices, while a couple artists (Long Thien Shih and Ng Hon Loong) with recent retrospective exhibitions see gains. The jury is still out if young artists will benefit or suffer from being placed in auctions early in their careers, as works by Khairil Izham and Anissa Abdullah appear on the block. Chong Siew Ying continues with her estimates-busting ways at Henry Butcher, whose nude figure sells at 70% higher than its high estimates. One wonders if the person depicted (whose name is quoted too) gave consent for this sensual work to be publicly exhibited, as I shift my gaze from an uncomfortable intrusion of privacy, to beautifully painted forests by Fung Yow Chork. 

Fung Yow Chork – Forest II (1999)

23 December 2015

From Little Things, Big Things Grow @ Lostgens’

An upside-down wind-up toy dinosaur sucks the head, off a dismembered torso covered with spectral bodies traversing into a fluorescent river. The fist-turned-snout lies upon a zipped-up chessboard, where a hand clutches the blue sky as ransom, and a rat looks ready to pounce. Nightmarish cartoon creatures are partially consumed by a giant white bunny, its steel bells ringing an imaginary cackle. Lollipops and one inflatable human doll float past; more sweets are found in the belly of a pink torso spouting out heads from its neck. Beside it is a swirling design that denotes the origin of this apocalyptic landscape. Various ghastly beings patrol the whole area, littered also with familiar and superbly-scaled objects from Super Mario Bros.  We are at the gates of hell. Except, there is no heaven.

Cycledelic (2011–2015)

One paragraph is insufficient to describe Tey Beng Tze’s four-year-in-the-making ‘Cycledelic’, as is the typical issue in naming all the symbols present in his works. Despite the multitude of things illustrated, Beng Tze’s creations are never cluttered. Taboo images and garish colours distract from his multi-planar compositions, which along with a nifty use of scale, project effective metaphors about being within more than one dimension. Psychedelia and surrealism are conventionally easy interpretations, but these works neither look like hallucinatory nonsense, nor make associations based on automatism. In the cosmic web of ‘Life Time’, a flooded river and burning forests hint at contemporary concerns, but decaying apples, an outward projecting clock, and stylised flowers and children, all point to a general meditation of life.

No More Fukushima (2014)

The exhibited works consist of various mediums. A constant reference to childlike innocence, l'origine du monde, social stratification, sounds, ghosts, and Japanese manga, present the artist’s areas of interest. In ‘Same Hole Shit’, deity-like characters and sinuous lines populate a forest, all the while unable to mask the obscene form outlined. The slime of purgatory is constructed bit by bit in ‘Kill the Poor’ – a pen drawing on 25 sheets of A4-sized paper – and its many dismembered limbs can be a repulsive sight. Abhorrence to a capitalist society is most prevalent in ‘Fucking More (Mall)’, its structural elements propping up or concealing lost souls. With its crowd of human bodies and a grand presentation, the three aforementioned pictures recall religious murals and painted fables. Where do you come from? Who do you see? What do you believe in?

Fucking More (Mall) (2014)

‘Fact’ displays hazy angst with muddled lines and vivid contrasting colours. In its visual simplicity, this 2010 painting is similar to the smaller exhibited works, which have been used as posters in concerts organised by Findars, the collective Beng Tze founded. ‘Drawing Sound’ presents a spontaneous collage of musical references, which broken records seem spliced by one masked deejay from the accompanying piece ‘Cut, Cut’. The latter illustrates a serene Japanese landscape interrupted by a giant robot, its round gleaming eyes, a shamisen 三味線, and drawn tree branches, anchoring the four pictures that make up the work. Opposite, three touched-up antique posters amuse via referencing the menace of mosquitos and masculinity, although the fiery spectres in ‘No More Fukushima’ point to a more sinister episode.   

[l] Drawing Sound (2014); [r] Cut, Cut (2015)

At a time when popular Malaysian art consist of isolated figures with a misplaced sense of scale, or abstracts with overt gestural brushwork, Beng Tze’s creations are refreshing for its accumulated details. Feelings manifest in physical representations, and its correlations traced over time, as hinted by the exhibition title. Some drawings may be indecent at first sight, but there is minimal shock factor, because we all know that real life is more ridiculous. The result is a splendid visual display, even an uplifting one, without the need of wall statements to describe singular notions or specific moods. Putting pen to paper as a first step is a potent act, and what transpires later on can lead the viewer to a different space or state of mind. As artists grow with their art, it is a joy for me to adapt and grow with their art too.

Same Hole Shit (2014)

21 December 2015

TP II by Cetak Kolektif @ HOM Art Trans

Compared to recent painting exhibitions that examine the act of painting beyond just image-making, creating prints are relatively straightforward. Even so, a good understanding of one’s medium is a pre-requisite in contemporary art. Surreal and abstract pictures describe the majority of exhibits here, where colourful silkscreens with subversive intentions fail to impress. Mark Tan’s building outlines subscribe to an outdated minimalism that obscures his progressive approach, while leafy prints by Agnes Lau Pik Yoke present dull images. Scratchy lines contribute to a disturbing charm in Fadhli Ariffin’s works, the dirty aesthetic and temporal nature of drypoint making it a suitable technique to illustrate corrupt power. 

Fadhli Ariffin - ‘Private Message' (2015)

Different from his signature mirror-image woodcuts, Sabihis Pandi’s linocuts are overly dense, notably distorting the two-tone picture ‘Jerat’. Other test prints/ trial proofs hang nearby, where I stand captivated with tuber-like representations by Faizal Suhif. Odd shapes and prickly hairs indicate deep looking at nature, which trump his constructed landscapes on sale. Cetak Kolektif’s other founding member Samsudin Wahab projects “Sumpah”, a tale of one cursed man-ape transformed into a frog, then meeting its demise via drowning. The corresponding six etchings show masterful drawings of bizarre characters, and lead one to ignore concerns about coherence in the artist’s metamorphosis narrative. “What's happened to me,' he thought. It was no dream.”

Samsudin Wahab - Bab III: Jelmaan (2015)

17 December 2015

Wudu @ Minut Init Art Social

Ablution – the act of washing oneself – is a common ritual in many cultural and religious customs. Practical upkeep of personal hygiene becomes a symbolic cleansing gesture. In Sophia Kamal’s paintings, this practical-symbolic line of reasoning walks a tightrope, as the act of removing makeup becomes synonymous with the Islamic ablution procedure of Wuḍū. The water-covered faces in ‘I Am A Dream Still Dreaming’ and ‘Milk and Honey’ depict different stages of one washing up, its symmetrical physiognomy pointing to the paradox of showing beauty. Why put on makeup if it conceals the truth? What is clean and what is pure? Why paint if the truth can never be painted?

I Am Never the Same, Twice [picture taken from Sophia Kamal's Behance site]

Prominent facial features, slender fingers, and dramatic poses, identify Sophia’s subjects as real life models. Pink and turquoise hues highlight a prettiness that do not diminish, despite the figures’ fidgeting gestures and anguished tone seen in a number of works. Feminine concerns underlie bold stares in some creations, and the absence of expressive brushstrokes portrays a fragile confidence, especially in close-up depictions of skinny hands. This intimate approach departs significantly from other local artists who illustrate self-doubt – where melancholy manifests in figurative gestures, sombre moods, nostalgic effects – and drawn in an over-large scale that dilutes the picture’s impact.

The Freedom in Fear; I See What You Do Not See; Ocean Breathes Magic [picture taken from ibrokemyshades.blogspot.com]

A dozen small works occupy one wall and emit an iridescent glow, indicative of Sophia’s venturesome decision to exhibit with fluorescent lights. The artist’s studio is recreated on the gallery’s floor; vivid colours and illustrative details are subdued in this setting, but contribute to an overall introspective mood. Sophia’s pastel creations are the most attractive, and her hand drawings contrast with politically symbolic gestures commonly seen in local art. Looking at the artist’s previous student presentations, works such as ‘I Am Never the Same, Twice’ and ‘What Love Isn’t’ were last hung upside down, where the latter looks like a surreal landscape of ridges and cavities.  I need to wash my eyes.

What Love Isn't

13 December 2015

Singular Rhapsody @ Xin Art Space

In the catalogue essay titled Rhapsodies of A Different Kind of Singularity: A Celebration of Malaysian Outsider, Naïve and Self Taught Art, curator Tan Sei Hon states the reason behind his interest in artists categorised as stated. “…(D)ue to their unique and personal approaches which differ markedly from the academically trained and conventionally inclined. Their private visions, fantasies and yearnings materialised in their own visual vernacular offers us a glimpse of the dimensions of the self unbounded by the tyrannies of conformity and standardisation. They believed unswervingly in their own artistic ingenuity and stubbornly refuses to sheepishly observe aesthetic formalities still shackled to dated or popular ideas about ‘Art’ taught in art academies, celebrated in the mainstream and sold in the marketplace.”

Installation snapshot of Cheev – How High Can You Dance? (2013)

As an art enthusiast, I have to utilise formal knowledge to appreciate the artful creations exhibited. The paintings of Ismail Baba and George Daniel fall under l'art pour l'art, while diety-like figures by Waja and Ummi Natasha project an unfashionable religious slant. Enchanting qualities in Gaelle Chong’s and Melissa Lin’s illustrative works draw upon surrealism. All-over lines and shapes by Fathullah Luqman, and the beautiful swirls in Dennis Chan’s paintings, fall into defined genres and are excellent interpretations of it. Active in non-mainstream communities, the visual styles of Rat Heist and Pangrok Sulap are well-established and expectedly striking. Why are artists who have shown at the Singapore Biennale (Shieko Reto and Jainal Amambing) considered outsider art? 

Installation snapshot of Thangarajoo Kanniah – Atomic Scape Series (2009)

A number of artists show potential to be contextualised in contemporary art terms. Pyanz Sharifudin’s use of henna relates to cultural connotations of the human body, while Thangarajoo Kanniah’s presents mysterious yet attractive compositions with cosmic forms. A mainstay in Publika’s Art Row, Adeputra Masri displays the attributes necessary to join the exclusive club. In ‘Benteng Akhir’, plasticine is moulded into grotesque figurines and photographed, then overlaid with camouflage designs and newspaper cut-outs for a splendid projection about politically-motivated resistance. Equally potent despite its irrelevance within the show’s context, a string-less violin crafted by gallery owner Chan Yong Sin is exhibited together with his anthology of poems, written during his eleven years detention under the draconian Internal Security Act. 

Adeputra Masri – Benteng Akhir (2014)

With news of pusillanimous politicians supporting creation of the more insidious National Security Council Act, one seeks respite from a hopeless feeling via beautiful art. Cheev’s scrap wood sculpture ‘How High Can You Dance?’ is undeniably raw, yet its exaggerated toe and wonderfully lithe arms contribute to an uplifting mood. Nearby, intricate drawings by Shanthamathe fascinate with an amazing array of fine patterns, as I learn that both artists suffers from physical illness. Looking at the totem heads in Rahmat Haron’s paintings, sincere personal expression prove attractive when it is not muddled by grandiose statements. Insiders call others outsiders, and seldom the other way round. Exclusion is a tool of power, and the Malaysian art world could do well to self-reflect and shed its many pretensions.  

N. Shanthamathe – Power (2014)

“Sebuah violin yang bisu,  Di dalam perutnya,  Tercatat nama pembuat,  Pada tahun 1972,  Di tebing Sungai Muar.
Cikgu Sa’at pernah menggeseknya,  Beberapa buah lagu Melayu asli,  Bunyinya tidak begitu merdu dan bersedu-sedu,  Bagaikan suara orang tahanan yang terseksa,  Cikgu memuji pertukangan violin itu,  Dan memesan pembuatnya pasti menjagai,  Violin tunggal dan mahal tak dapat beli.
Selepas dipindah dari Muar ke Taiping,  Kemudian dari Taiping ke Batu Gajah,  Dalam perjalanan pemindahan terhuyung-huyung,  Akhirnya ditimpa kejadian berdarah,  Violin bersedih dan terus bisu.
Maka ia tidak berbunyi lagi,  menemani si mogok lapar yang menderita.”
- Violin Yang Bisu, Chan Yong Sin [from Bebas, published by Gerakbudaya, 2014)

Installation view of Chan Yong Sin – Violin yang Bisu (1972)

09 December 2015

Art Next Door @ White Box

Two giant bent cigarettes lie on the ground, the masking tape around it reminding one not to touch this glossy object. Look hard at Robert Zhao Renhui’s photographs and the camouflage falls away. Unlike Chris Chong Chan Fui’s botanical drawings, which the exhibition catalogue informs are actually artificial flower renderings. An overhead projection shows a rope floating in the sea, or if one prefers to sit, there is a six-minute video focusing on the far end of a void deck in Singapore’s ubiquitous apartments. A row of small photographs capture cineplexes from a bygone era, while colourful furniture and posters are displayed nearby. The gallery entrance is painted in yellow and black diagonals like a barricade, and the only available wall text is a description of a national flag. This is contemporary art, as curated in Singapore.

Installation view of Perception3 - Terminus (2008) [picture taken from Michael Lee's Facebook album]

As “…an exhibition that commemorates neighbourly ties and shared affinities”, it is difficult not to feel comfortable with the show’s polished execution. Despite Singapore’s well-known cultural propaganda efforts, it is a mistake to charge the exhibiting artists as complicit to this cunning agenda. Given that the chosen Malaysian artists are recommended by the same source, comparing artworks from both nationalities also become irrelevant. Focus on the commonality, then. Detected in many artworks is a deeply-coded subversion, that manifests the issues of people living under authoritarian societies. Uneventful moving pictures in Charles Lim’s “Sea State” series, and ‘Terminus’ by Perception3, offer meditative scenes for viewers to reflect upon nation-defining spaces. Nearby, Yee I-Lann’s “Orang Besar” series draw significant potency, every time a VIP looks at it.

Malaysian and Singaporean Prime Ministers looking at Yee I-Lann' - The Orang Besar Series: YB #1-10 (2010) [picture taken from The Straits Times news portal]

Ironically, exhibits displayed under the Culture banner, are the least attractive. Graphic design and role play odes to Malay cinema add little to its source, while a couple of digital photo frames and typed poems present weak attempts at expressing stirring truths. Unassuming displays by Michael Lee and Vertical Submarine remind one about seeing art within the context of its space, which leads to a re-looking of Chun Kai Feng’s ‘Nobody to Hold’. Having encountered it twice in Singapore and dismissed it each time, this glossy sculpture would not be out of place as a bench in a Malaysian public park. Bending a cigarette at its butt reduces its potency; doing a double and laying it on the ground like litter, recalls clean streets (and its metaphorical synonym with that) of the island state. That it is constructed from industrial materials, only adds to its artful lustre.

Chun Kai Feng - Nobody to Hold (2013)

chi too’s long-titled book shelves, and Heman Chong’s 148-words ‘The Singapore Flag’, stand out for its concealed materiality. In the former’s wonderful constructs, formal characteristics like line and colour are embedded with additional dimensions like physical divide and shadows. Overlapping alphabets in the latter depict the forceful nature of an official description, thus granting yet limiting too the power of one formulated statement. When viewed together, these artworks invoke strong metaphorical interpretations “…for the pondering and understanding of ideas pertaining to nation, nationhood, and nationality”. Building bilateral relations via shared culture seems like an agreeable diplomatic strategy, until one realises that nations need to utilise culture as a unifying factor, while culture do not need nations for anything.

Installation snapshot of chi too (2015) - [l] Kompartmen: Ruang-Ruang Untuk Merenung Dan Memahami Ide-Ide Berkaitan Hal-Hal Negara, Kenegaraan, Dan Kewarganegaraan (Compartments: Spaces For The Pondering And Understanding Of Ideas Pertaining to Nation, Nationhood, and Nationality); [r] Kompartmen: Ruang-Ruang Untuk __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ (Compartments: Spaces __ __ __ __ __ __)

"Bendera Malaysia mengandungi 14 jalur merah dan putih (melintang) yang sama lebar bermula dengan jalur merah di sebelah atas dan berakhir dengan jalur putih di sebelah bawah, tanda keanggotaan yang sama dalam persekutuan 13 buah negeri - Johor, Kedah, Kelantan, Melaka, Negeri Sembilan, Pahang, Pulau Pinang, Perak, Perlis, Sabah, Sarawak, Selangor dan Terengganu dan Kerajaan Persekutuan. Bahagian yang berwarna biru tua di atas sebelah kiri membawa ke bawah hingga atas jalur merah yang kelima itu maknanya perpaduan rakyat Malaysia. Bahagian biru tua itu mengandungi anak bulan tanda Agama Islam - agama rasmi Malaysia. Bintang pecah 14 itu tanda perpaduan 13 buah negeri dan Kerajaan Persekutuan. Warna kuning pada anak bulan dan bintang itu ialah warna Diraja bagi Duli-duli Yang Maha Mulia Raja-raja."

- Description of the Malaysia flag, from the Jabatan Penerangan Malaysia web portal

Close-up snapshots of Heman Chong - The Singapore Flag (2015)

05 December 2015

Collectors Show @ White Box

Modern Malaysian artworks are rarely spotted outside private homes, and one has to rely on auction houses and galleries for such viewing opportunities. Walking into Fergana’s “Collectors Show”, the visitor is greeted by a dramatic Ismail Mustam picture, balanced out by an uplifting scene by Ibrahim Hussein in similar hues hung at the side. Sensual forms appear too on recent paintings by the former, which along with abstract works by Jolly Koh and Syed Ahmad Jamal, surround an astonishing steel sculpture titled ‘Mengadap Rebab’. Mad Anuar Ismail depicts the opening ritual in Mak Yong as a network of elevated islands, where the orchestra musicians and Pak Yong surround Tok Minduk, the five stylised figures perched upon a three-prong base.

Installation snapshot of Mad Anuar Ismail – Mengadap Rebab (2009)

Exaggerated forms inject vitality to the troupe, a figurative expression echoed in the preparatory drawings by Joseph Tan displayed in the row behind. Anurendra Jegadeva once described Joseph’s studies as “extremely methodical”, but looking past precise curves and measured spaces, the illustrated motifs present alternative ideas to his seminal work ‘Love Me in My Batik’. The lady lying on a bed in a vulgar pose, would have projected a controversial illusion, when the social commentary was about the two-dimensional construct of one national identity. Another mock-up had a Tricolore background and “BATIK LUV” letters that that can be read as “BIL AKU TV” vertically.

Joseph Tan – Graffiti Series (1969)

Structured compositions dissolve into complex emotions in the powerful ‘Graffiti Series’, a recreated wall scrawled with angry words, and (as the exhibition organiser informed) the artist’s blood. No words can explain May 13th adequately, and this piece should be included among the artworks typically mentioned as responses to the 1969 riots (Ibrahim’s flag, Lee Kian Seng's sculptures, Redza Piyadasa’s casket, et al). While the next section has some fantastic examples of Fatimah Chik’s batik creations – especially in terms of layering motifs as a symbolic space – one has to backtrack to Joseph’s fellow New Scene artist Redza and his ‘Baba Family’, in order to complete a tour of Malaysian modern art.

Installation snapshot of Faitmah Chik (l to r): Gunungan (1993); Gunungan (1987); Nusantara Sunset (1986) [picture from Fauzi Tahir's Facebook album]  

Redza once described the expressionist paintings of Jolly and Syed Ahmad as “highly personalised emotive statements”; looking at the garish collage and wooden constructs titled “Homage to Malevich”, it appears to be a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Form and colour are always non-objective concerns, and in the paint cracks that reveal halved lap wood joints in the black & white ‘Homage’, the pictorial support literally falls apart with time. More interesting are its transparent shapes and hanging possibilities, where one resembles a digital Chinese ideogram, and the slatted purple ‘Homage’ reminds of a bed base or window blinds. Mimesis is dead, long live mimesis!

Installation snapshot of Redza Piyadasa – Homage to Malevich (1972) [picture from Chai Chang Hwang's Facebook album[

Not fond of the gestural brushstroke too is Ismail Zain, who etches natural and organic forms to accompany a selection of generic shapes, which describe ‘Monument’. Stencilled motifs emerge from the black background, and the monotone seems suspiciously spiritual in matter. Completed with a computer 22 years later, ‘Memorial’ presents the perfect counterpoint to ‘Monument’. Thick vertical lines encase foliage like a goodbye ode to nature drawings, the nest-like slash marks at the bottom parodying the heroic actions of painting. While the grand modern narrative may be Abstract Expressionism vs Minimalist Conceptualism, I am just glad to see these works exhibited in a publicly accessible place.

Ismail Zain – [l] Memorial (1988); [r] Monument (1964)

02 December 2015

In-Between @ Richard Koh Fine Art

Gan Chin Lee writes at his web log (in 藝術與現實的念想之間, and translated by this author), “I am a painter, whose chief concern is to resolve painterly issues. My artistic expression is in the form of social realism; I still believe in realism and its distinct expression, which moves me deeply.” Seven diptychs draw immigrants within a localised setting, along with a single wall presenting captioned photographs and news snippets that support the artist’s documentation process. The contrast immediately stands out; as a reviewer describes, “…works in In-Between are divided into two: a large section drawn and coloured in a more realistic manner, and an accompanying piece presented in a more raw “work-in-progress” style.” Like wine with good food, the majority of pairings are forceful. Why are the diptychs not a problem when I first saw the exhibition?

Self and the Other (2013-2014)

Representing people is Chin Lee’s intent, and figures are the dominant subject in his paintings. A couple of older creations display a hesitancy that informs his execution in later works. For ‘Reunion Island’, nightlife on two island republics are stretched into wraparound scenes via shop lot fixtures. Street walkers and neon signs indicate seediness, while most persons are blacked-out in a failed attempt to emphasise via negation. In ‘Self and the Other’, one shabbily drawn old man and a transparent figure, confuse the viewer. Nonetheless, the white-skinned figure leaning at a stairwell acts as the catalyst in this exhibition, and imparts a focused virtue to Chin Lee’s portraits of foreign workers. This evolution manifests in ‘Phantom Existence’, where suspicion towards dark-skinned migrants escalated in the form of public abuse, during the last General Elections.

Phantom Existence (2014)

If overlapping figures are too literal, and blackened heads are visually simplistic, what can a painter do to present the under-represented? Chin Lee’s deliberate use of white to identify his subjects is jarring at first sight, yet its aesthetic and metaphorical impact complement the artist’s precise compositions, in highlighting a common Malaysian prejudice. In his works, one always sees the second largest figure first. Scale is an obvious concern, evident from jotted notes on the exhibited sketches. Focal points on the horizon and diagonal planes are effective illustration tools; when a crowd emerges from a building in ‘Islamophobia is a New Form of Racism’ (originally titled ‘Self and the Other III’), colour tones are utilised to depict visual depth. Looking at the red lining of the larger-than-life character’s eye, such detailed flourishes anchor painted pictures in realism.

Islamophobia is a New Form of Racism (2015); Close-up snapshots below

In the Russian and Chinese traditions of social realism paintings, depictions of an objective reality within an idealised commune is utilised to promote workers’ ethics. Echoing this ethos, labourers in a palm oil plantation are captured in ‘Breadwinner’, but its elevated overseer viewpoint infers a power hierarchy at play. Sunny reflections on the ground describe a beautifully drawn landscape, and illuminate also the general context here – migrants toiling in cash crop plantations for a living. Sound familiar? The exhibition’s largest diptych ‘Post Colonial Encounter’, dins this point home further. Extending from one arms-on-waist man at a distant house, wooden houses line the sides of paved roads in a new village. An uncle in denim and a migrant mother with her children, go about their business in overcast weather, so what’s the problem?

Breadwinner (2014-2015)

Painting on jute denotes a gestural interpretation of the in-between, an Edward Said term that describes the complex differences (including cultural disparity and economic exploitation) between colonial powers and colonised subalterns. Its manifested result – the hybridised identity – aptly describes Chin Lee’s concerns in his restating of the current situation within one’s communal history. In the work-in-progress panel for ‘Post Colonial Encounter’, a lady stares out at the viewer with a forlorn look on her face. Such moral statements are made also in another two diptychs, which point to one’s struggle in reconciling lived experiences with media-fuelled popular opinion. Social integration of migratory peoples inevitably results in conflict, and introducing an ethical viewpoint dilutes realistic observations. 

Post Colonial Encounter (2015)

There are no such issues with ‘No Place for Diaspora’, a vivid portrait of an elderly Rohingya sleeping on the sidewalk, accompanied by a top-down depiction of travelling boat people. With its direct reference to a humanitarian crisis, this work caps off my realisation that this exhibition is made up of a collection of standalone paintings. Social integration is cited as an exhibition theme, yet Chin Lee’s accomplished creations are still subject to its presentation context within an art gallery. Social realism as an art form supports revolutionary narratives for political mobilisation; in a Bangsar house, work-in-progress panels display simple contrasts and painterly effects that attract individual collectors. Here, a painter negotiates in between his personal concerns and making marketable works. If acculturation is relative, who or what is the dominant mode?

No Place for Diaspora (2014-2015)

“A critical stance against the absurdity of social reality has always been a characteristic found in works by many ethnic Chinese and Indian artists in Malaysia. They have adopted a creative path to explore, construct, reproduce and deconstruct the history of their immigrant forefathers in order to cope with their identity crisis. However, Gan adopted a different path. He diverted his attention to the current crisis and the influx of a new generation of migrants in Malaysia. It is in the eyes of these communities that Gan fills the gaps of his past.”
- Painting as the Path to Social Landscape, Nobu Takamori (trans. Chen Shaua Fui), exhibition catalogue for In-Between (2015)

Snapshots of painting close-ups, sketches, and photographs at "In-Between" (2015)