This Is Where We Meet @ OUR ArtProjects

As large surveys featuring Malaysian modern art are under way in two KL institutions, this relatively small exhibition stands out as a significant complement, to one’s understanding about abstraction in Malaysian art. Lee Mok Yee’s creations highlight its medium’s inherent properties, although the pattern-dominated wall hangings attenuate the transformative effect, of utilising materials such as wood cork and incense to make art. Conversely, my attention was chiefly absorbed with ten paintings by Liew Kwai Fei, whose exhibits hardly resemble the artist’s recent output featuring waggish characters or painted texts. My deliberation of these paintings is influenced too by John Yau, whose reviews of New York gallery exhibitions I find fascinating, where the writer’s detailed descriptions of painted surfaces and poetic recount of its visual impact are remarkable.

Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting (2017)

Indistinguishably titled ‘The Art of Painting’, each acrylic painting is a composition of flat colours and irregular shapes. The first work hung on the left upon entering the gallery, is demarcated crudely into two squares and one rectangle. In the top right box, a background of two rich red hues recalls Rothko, while two vertical mints strips painted atop it is further overlaid with two-three swatches of colour. The ruffled mustard outline of a white rectangle at the lower right, mirrors the carnation outline of a larger rectangle at the top left. However, how both impressions came to be are different. The former’s yellow is painted over at least two layers of blue shades before the box is depicted, while uneven white brush strokes created the jagged pink outline in the latter. Each swathe of hue is utilized elsewhere on the canvas, each outline shows through the colours underneath it, and each form comes into being from marks made on both the inside and the outside.

Detail snapshots of Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting (2017)

The painting is incredibly well-balanced visually. Without a single focal point, the viewer’s looking is trained across the surface of the canvas. The roaming eye pauses at each assumed shape and colour, limiting its descriptive reading to a bare minimum. As a counterpoint to the common modes observed in Malaysian contemporary painting, there are no metaphorical symbols, no intentional obfuscation, no figurative gestures, no expressive brush strokes. It is just paint and canvas, not a webpage layout, not simplified abstraction, not child’s play. One fails to make sense of what is seen. It is avant-garde painting by deduction, whereby innovation is achieved through the failure of other approaches. In the age of disruption, Kwai Fei’s painting presents an oasis of mindfulness. The emphasis is on the current moment of looking, and over-thinking is discouraged.

[l] Lee Mok Yee - Two Bodies (2017); [r] Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting (2017)

Two works hanging opposite immediately conjure faces, however grotesque or unintentional the impressions may be. While Mok Yee’s arrangement of incense seem to illustrate a bulbous nose, a blob of pink in Kwai Fei’s creation resembles a wagging tongue. Looking harder at the latter, and one realises the slight differences in laying paint upon canvas. From opaque finishes to thick washes to stripped away surfaces, painted effects are subtly noticeable, especially the two streams of turquoise drips in this picture. As I gaze longer at the square area in this painting, more associations come to mind – sunny day, ice mountains, a rock, prostrating figure, etc… The composition of colours and shapes alone draw out illusions, thereby offering a return to the purpose of drawing-painting. Similar reflections can be realized upon observing most of the painted exhibits.

[l] Lee Mok Yee - Net (2017); [r] Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting (2017)

Admittedly, the pairing of Mok Yee’s and Kwai Fei’s works has an impact on the exhibition viewer. For another pairing hung on the wall at the gallery’s deep end, complementing features stand out – black is highlighted, vertical rectangles in ‘The Art of Painting’ enhance the geometry in ‘Net’, and the former’s pink and white lend a lush effect to the latter’s earthy flowers. However, the peeking pea pod/gold ingot forms, and underlying green lines, are muted in this presentation. The exhibition title is a misnomer, as both artists are not aware of each other’s current art, prior to this show. Kwai Fei revealed too in the artists’ talk, that contrary to the catalogue essay, ‘The Art of Painting’ is not a series of paintings, but a collection of standalone work. This becomes a key point to consider, when appreciating the three paintings hung close by.

Installation snapshot of: (2017) [foreground] Lee Mok Yee - The Stacking Memory Series I; [background] Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting, Lee Mok Yee - Pentagon

The paintings are a composition of rectangles, as one mentally assigns nouns – doors, windows, corridors – to these shapes. Upon individual inspection, each work explores different concerns in painting. Figure-ground relationship on the left, colour tone in the centre, and the one on the right… space? Larger than other paintings in this exhibition, the canvas is roughly divided into three sections, with flat colour fills and dry brushy outlines. The jagged line at the centre strangely recalls Clyfford Still, or a loose floorboard – both imagined objects which I have not seen clearly in real life. Such conjuring of read images also apply to several paintings. When attempts at making sense fail, a myriad of random terms come to mind – Matisse, impasto, Jolly Koh, mirroring, national flags of African countries, bevelled watermarks, colours that blend into the white wall, etc.

Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting (2017)

Viewing Kwai Fei’s paintings in context of his previous body of work, and the non-figurative paintings of the 1960s currently on show at Sasana Kijang and ILHAM, there is good reason to step away from words and expressionism. The most common illusions on a two-dimensional surface one encounters daily, come from social media delivered on a mobile screen, where clickbait and fake news headlines stir emotions incessantly. ‘The Art of Painting’ offers an antidote. Quoting sentences from John Yau in his review of Don Voisine’s paintings, “(t)hese are the pleasures these paintings offer the viewer who cares to think about how complicated the everyday act of looking actually is, who is able to slow down long enough to pay attention to things as real as surface, colour, density, and space. The tension between the painting-as-container and the planar forms wedged, as well as layered, into it, is exquisitely tuned.”

Liew Kwai Fei - The Art of Painting (2017)