Ivan Lam: Twenty @ Wei-Ling Contemporary

Threading a slippery path on the top floor, to view Ivan Lam’s sleek new creations under fluorescent lights, feels like experiencing the beginning of the end. Large eye-catching fare devoid of politics cater perfectly for the international art market, a place the gallery is focusing its attention on. The opening of this new space is accompanied by a hastily put-together survey, where works made before the artist’s gallery representation, are cramped into one fifth of the total floor area. Walking past glossy canvases, toy transportation, sans serif alphabets & numbers, a notorious vending machine, and equivocal artwork titles, a sense of fictitious materiality permeates the space. As Gina Fairley questions in her 2009 essay, “…has reality been thwarted by (Ivan) Lam’s hyper-saturated palette, fractured brushstrokes and ‘unreal’ perspective?”

The Day the Devil Cried (2003)

Such catalogue essays help propagate the view of one masterful printmaker turned virtuoso painter, a thinking artist well versed in art history, never settling in his creative output yet commercially successful. The works on display in this survey, however, fail to support these claims. Absent are the prize winners and auctioned lots, as references to Jasper Johns’ targets and enlarged pop imagery, indicate a desire to only recreate existing forms on flat surfaces. Large paintings culled from a handful of private collectors hardly signify critical value, especially for an artist featured often in lifestyle magazines. Personal narratives evolve into panoramic diptychs; as the opaqueness increases with the thickness of resin on Ivan’s canvas, one is reminded of the artist’s steady rise to fame which aligns with Wei-Ling’s prominence as gallerist.

Flower (You never forget my birthdays) (2005)

Angles, shapes, and layers, are picture-making concerns on two-dimensional space, but it is Ivan’s exploration of colour which leaves the deepest impression. References to Piet Mondrian and Edward Ruscha, observed in ‘The Day the Devil Cried’ and ‘Firestarter’ respectively, show accomplished attempts at mimicking styles. Inkjet printing is emulated in “Seasons”, dot-matrix recreations which allude to the conventional technology behind digital reproductions. Tracing the blocks of colour in ‘Flower (You never forget my birthdays)’, to the Pointillist-like dots and crosses in ‘Target and Deer - You Are Being Missed, Dear’, to the bold primary hues in ‘Train’, the artist successfully presents the irresistible appeal of flatly-applied colours. Swatches of house paint highlight Ivan’s palette – or what he terms “natural colour system charts” – in one gratitude piece for the sponsor of his medium.

The machine that walks this earth (2009)

Works from “Panorama” – in particular ‘The machine that walks this earth’ – strike me as the best among exhibits. Anurendra Jegadeva states in the exhibition catalogue, “(t)hese scenarios that seem mundane but are so salient because of that very ordinariness are executed with obsessive deliberation. Lam’s panoramas are deliberately frank paintings with no startling revelations, an art of technical prowess, intricate composition, brilliantly tactile surfaces and an undercurrent of social comment.” As the most realistic renderings within his oeuvre, an impossible angle in human perception also makes “Panorama” the most incisive. Drawing real life is an impracticable act and presented as such, where titles infer situational reflections that are vague upon recall, akin to the everyday human experience of modern life. 

The Blue Machine (2012)

Ivan's works can be seen as pandering to the international art market via his ambiguous visual cues. Amanda Rath writes, “…Lam appropriates and empties images in such a way that his work can read as knowingly bypassing or going beyond certain thorny positions and (dominant) discourses. They belong to everyone and no one.” His sleek and precise output also contrast with mainstream Malaysian art, where handicraft, statement making, and nostalgia, are the norm. Describing himself in an interview, “(a)t times I feel like a machine making the work (…) At times I’m painting the machine in me.” This mechanical and apolitical approach fits into what art critic Blake Gopnik dubs as “aesthetic agnosia”. Representative of capitalist pursuits and surface judgements of the general human population, Ivan’s works are perhaps, more real and on point than I will ever admit. 

Nippon (2014)