Light & Space 得意忘形 @ OUR ArtProjects

A century ago, Piet Mondrian wrote in his essay Natural Reality and Abstract Reality, that “(t)he new plastic idea cannot, therefore, take the form of a natural or concrete representation, although the latter does always indicate the universal to a degree, or at least conceals it within. This new plastic idea will ignore the particulars of appearance, that is to say, natural form and colour. On the contrary, it should find its expression in the abstraction of form and colour…” This abstract sensibility is now deeply ingrained in the typical consumer, who chooses a paint that “reflects up to twice as much light, makes the room brighter & more spacious”, to cover one’s interior walls. The English half of Liew Kwai Fei’s solo exhibition title refers to a product line of emulsion paints that boasts the aforementioned product feature; 得意忘形 describes the satisfied customer, but am I hear to buy house paint or look at paintings?

Installation snapshots of L&S-C3 (2017-18)

In a brightly lit gallery space with mosaic floor tiles, painted geometrical canvases are propped up and hung low along the white walls. The canvases are rectangular, triangular, square, L-shaped, trapezoidal, and a tiny pyramid included for good measure. C-clamps and F-clamps hold together wooden stretchers, upon which linen canvases are mounted. Each canvas is painted with multiple coats of a single colour, the emulsion paints utilized having product names such as Romance, Red Orange, Frosted Dawn, and Daring Blue. These manufactured emotional reactions do not surface, while one looks at the artist’s arranged objects, simply titled “L&S” after the exhibition title. Are these enlarged colour swatches in a pop-up showroom (highlighting samples)? Or are these pop-out showpieces in an imagined neutral space (sampling highlights)? Is the emphasis on modularity, or uniqueness? 

Installation snapshots of L&S-C9 (2017-18)

Such contradictions, and perceptive flip-flops, are amplified when one treats these displays as art. Kwai Fei’s works that I last saw at the same gallery space, were medium-sized acrylic paintings. Here, the painting is not flat, the sculpture is not free-standing. What artistic tradition is he working from – minimalism or conceptualism? Is artistic validation drawn from Redza Piyadasa’s painting-sculpture output of the 1970s? Not forgetting too the artist’s creations within his oeuvre, which include many geometric paintings in flexible configurations. In comparison with the latter, these exhibits feature clamps that are hidden only if one stands directly in front of the arranged painted canvases. Looking from another standing position, and its protruding pieces will compel the viewer to move instinctively, or even urge those with a re-tooling habit to reach for the clamps itself. 

Installation snapshots of L&S-C8 (2017-18)

Like the casual game Tetris, these modular exhibits engender a desire to create structure or fill gaps, which in turn prompts the viewer to recognize familiar forms from the displayed configurations. A sailor standing on the bow, waving nautical flags. A Milo packet drink, with its short straw protruding slightly. A folded rectangular table placed on its side, with an open leg just waiting to be kicked in. Irritated by these imagined forms, I withhold my thoughts and note the painted surfaces, and its soft muted colours instead. In spite of the gallery's white walls, these colours fade into the background in photographs, an especially undesirable trait for people used to treating art objects as Instagram subjects. It is instructive then, to refer to the folded exhibition pamphlet – which includes droll poetic dedications based on the product names of utilized house paints – and consider a photograph within.

Image of the artist assembling a set of modular paintings, from the exhibition pamphlet of Light & Space 得意忘形

The photograph shows the artist hunched over, his face looking downwards while joining a long piece, to the outside of a larger rectangular piece set on the floor. The artist uses his right leg to support the larger piece, while the white wall and square tiles suggest a living room space. Arranging these paintings requires substantial bodily effort, and each form is joint together tenuously. Its concept can only be executed to a point where practical improvisation is required, hence the usage of clamps. When encountered in person, the work is remarkably solid, despite its two triangular shapes balancing atop one big rectangle. Its inherent sculptural qualities point to the objecthood of painting – as wall hanging, as paint on canvas in frame; Yet typical painting qualities such as composition of forms are emphasized as sculptural 3-dimension constructs.

Installation snapshots of L&S-C11 (2017-18)

This wavering sense between the familiar and the unfamiliar, is crucial in appreciating Kwai Fei’s works. Viewers should restrain any thoughts, that these compositions resemble something, and dwell on the exhibits as art objects. Art history and the ontology of art, are useful starting points to ponder upon, but not necessary. Resisting the notion of art as collectible object, the artist appears determined to make audiences reflect about art itself. Teetering at the intersections of minimalism and conceptualism, this body of work’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. An infinite loop of irony may present the ultimate artwork (that resists a single interpretation in any time and space), yet its continuous self-negation as an art object also makes it impossible to comprehend. In the age of digital binaries, this artistic approach feels like a lost cause, albeit an avant-garde victory.

Installation snapshots of L&S-C5 (2017-18)

“The point is that modernism is always on the lookout for the moment, or practice, to which both descriptions apply. Positive and negative, fullness and emptiness, totalization and fragmentation, sophistication and infantilism, euphoria and desperation, an assertion of infinite power and possibility or a mimicry of deep aimlessness and loss of bearings. For this, I think, is modernism’s root proposal about its world: that the experience of modernity is precisely the experience of the two states, the two tonalities, at the same time. Modernism is that art which continually discovers coherence and intensity in tentativeness and schematism, or blankness lurking on the other side of sensuousness. And not on the other side, really – blankness as the form that sensuousness and controlled vivacity now actually take on.”
– T.J. Clark, The Painting of Postmodern Life?, Lecture delivered at Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona in 2000

Installation snapshots of L&S-C13 (2017-18)