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...