Mem(Bayang) Maksud @ Balai Seni Negara (I of II)

The exhibition title and its curatorial thread, derive from a conversational text between friends Noordin Hassan and Ismail Zain, published in the catalogue of the latter's 1988 solo exhibition "Digital Collage". The former questions the use of the word collage in this body of work, in which Ismail clarifies that collage here does not refer to the simple juxtaposition of images, but about "how borrowed fragments of the signified can be summarised in one form or another many characteristics." He goes on to quote two examples which perhaps fit his intention - the Malay pantun with its "pembayang maksud", and the "intellectual montage" coined by Sergei Eisenstein. I imagine seeing a  landscape of paddy fields & coconut trees, followed by a 'Tumpal' painting by Syed Ahmad Jamal, which then conjures one packet of nasi lemak bungkus in my mind... or maybe, I am just hungry.

The Wayang Affair - Yield It! Yield It! (1970)

Outside Galeri 2B, a video loop shows local cultural luminaries recollect fondly their interactions with Ismail Zain, the cultural bureaucrat and patron of the arts. Ismail also stands out in Malaysian art history as a writer, with a compilation of bounded texts lying on the table outside for interested visitors. His art output is comparatively small, though significant. Creations done before 1985 are characterised by amorphous shapes and figurative forms, floral motifs and expressive colours describe large abstract paintings done after 1985, and the "Digital Collage" body of work represents a unique & mythical category. While viewing these exhibits, I recall two proclamations by the artist in an undated interview – "Contrapunctal relationship or paying attention to counterpoints and relating them together is the central issue to all my work since 1970." And, "If there are nuances in my work, they are deliberately introduced."

Sketch for "Anak Tiong Suite" (1967) and detail

Befitting the format of a survey, Ismail's early works can be seen as precursors to his post-1985 output. The hard-edged grids of 'Surface Painting No.3' affixes a formal structure, on top of expressive strokes. Brilliant complementary colours in 'Sketch for "Anak Tiong Suite"' demonstrates an accomplished colourist, while yellow flowers collaged on the female figure's dress hints at an early use of "borrowed fragments". One wall of purposeful juxtapositions centres upon the etching 'Monument', and highlights the inherent vertical attribute of a portrait-sized wall hanging. An untitled etching from 1966 presents irregular forms  and small bubbles in a landscape orientation, the odd yet significant combination just enough to make one interesting picture. Amorphous shapes appear in 'Japanese Cinema', and recur in 'The Wayang Affair - Yield It! Yield It!', the latter painting resembling a television more than a wayang kulit screen.

Untitled (1966)

Perhaps, the imagined aura refers to the "transmission of inner quality of being", a description Ismail uses when writing about traditional cultural practices as a parallel reality. The parallels drawn here are indicative of his art-making motivations, and his belief in Marshall McLuhan's maxim "the medium is the message". Nevertheless, Ismail is keenly aware that the structures & factors that bring about art extends beyond its medium. He says in a 1986 speech, "Penekanan yang terlalu kuat kepada manifestasi kebendaan, atau kesan lahiriah tanpa mengetahui atau mengambil kira tentang unsur-unsur yang memungkinkan manifestasi lahiriahnya dalam konteks kesenian tradisional adalah juga faktor yang membangkitkan pelbagai masalah." Adapted Hindu mythologies being a popular narrative in Malay Wayang Kulit performances, is a fact surely not lost on Ismail Zain.

Woman Crossing the Stream – After Rembrandt (1968)

While 'D.O.T' offers a complex entry point into the "borrowed fragments" that characterise his later digital prints, 'Woman Crossing the Stream – After Rembrandt' is more straightforward. The Dutch master's work is copied onto a standard sized 4:3 board, the vivid primary colours and spontaneous brushstrokes exaggerating its painterly expression. The model is portrayed off-centre, and together with the colour strip on the left, give the impression that the painted image references a picture from a book. As compared to the original, this figure's legs are cut short and soaked in a scarlet red stream, in turn lending an air of absurdity to a famous image. Rembrandt's 300-years old painting was thought to depict his wife, yet make reference to mythologies of female beings spied upon. Consequentially, Ismail's woman coexists with Rembrandt's image and its lineage, yet could well be one lifting her baju in a nearby rainforest stream.

Untitled (1988) and detail
"Istilah 'arabesque' adalah digunakan oleh ahli-ahli sejarah seni bagi mencirikan suatu jenis ragam-hias berulang yang dikaitkan dengan seni hiasan Islam 'amnya (...) Kemuncak dalam kesenian ini, yang sama ada terdapat pada lukisan didinding, pahatan batu, ukiran dan sebagainya ialah suatu motif geometri yang diulangkan mengikut suatu formula matematik. Ulangan motif ini melahirkan suatu sifat yang dinamakan dalam saikologi Gestalt sebagai "figure-ground configuration", dalam mana positif, negatifnya tidak bersifat mutlak. Disamping itu, pengaruh Islam juga telah menghilangkan entiti unit itu dengan memberi penegasan kepada kesuluruhannya. Arabesque adalah merupai suatu imajan tanpa rujukan kepada yang lain daripada yang menjadi hakiki kepadanya dan berfungsi sebagai penglahiran persekitaran yang khusyuk tanpa makna ikonografi."
– 'Arabesque, bentuk geometri yang berulang', description of the cover art for Seni dan Imajan, Ismail Zain, 1980 –

Gilded Butterfly (1988)

One presumes the repeating motifs in Songket textiles, appealed to Ismail Zain as an exemplary arabesque; Such patterns are spray-gunned onto many of his post-1985 paintings, the artist utilising table mats as stencils. Labelled abstract and decorative by Redza Piyadasa, this body of work was primarily commissions for hotels and corporate offices, which explains its large scale and expansive layout. Shapes of birds, flowers, and architectural flourishes populate these creations, its presence complementing the always-pleasant-to-look-at colour strips. The apparent flatness calls out the object's purpose as an interior decorative wall hanging, and increases its status as commodity, which irony probably delighted its maker. Departing from the norm are the figurative portraits in 'The Marriage of Sultan Mansor Shah', Ismail's last work before he passed away. One can only speculate the artist's intention at this point...

Untitled (1990) and detail