Foreboding Purpose @ National Art Gallery (II of II)

...In his tribute essay titled A Protean Appearance In Malaysian Art, Krishen Jit surmises that "Digital Collage (...) might well be an ironic strategy for Ismail wishes to raise consciousness about how in the decoding strategies of extracting meaning, observation is amalgamated with the observer." This task of decoding is mediated through the Macintosh SE, one boxy personal computer with a 9-inch monochrome display, also the cutting edge of consumer electronics in 1987. Ismail undertakes a pioneering move by exhibiting framed dot matrix printouts on gallery walls, thereby transmuting the binary bits of digital signals into art. This is an outdated concept in the age of Instagram creatives; Nonetheless, clear outlines ease one to dwell upon Ismail's visual semiology approach, and reflect on the appeal of the framed portrait-sized image that we consume through mobile phones, the cutting edge of consumer electronics now.

Vincent (1988)

Published reviews of this show to-datereify the artist’s intention to make “user-friendly” pictures. Receiving mentions are works foregrounded by Bruce Springsteen, the cast of Dallas, and ‘Malaysian Gothic’, an appropriation of a familiar picture from the American art canon which approach harks back to 'Woman Crossing the Stream'. In ‘Vincent’, the sensual appeal of famous paintings are negated via its low-resolution recreation. Repeating grotesque figures and a posing lady (with Van Gogh completing her formal dress from the waist down!), poses a droll inquiry into the status society confers to masterpieces, and amazingly foretells the recent phenomena of art selfies. Another pioneering move is apparent too when Ismail Zain pairs a Rumi quote with six fading mangosteens, or presents coloured birds flying out from Munch’s Scream, each projecting meme-like aesthetic and humour.

1988 memes: [left] Al-Rumi; [right] The Scream II

Katherine Mansfield's short story The Garden Party portrays class consciousness through a non-linear narrative structure, Ismail's work of the same title featuring masked figures foregrounded by lilies. In a radio interview, organising curator Jaafar Ismail interprets this work as poking fun of the art exhibition opening, an event where the simple question "what do you think?" poses the most discomfort. Exhibited nearby is a curiously related work, 'Tetamu Senja' drawing a collection of disparate images that begins with an invitation to a wedding banquet. Seven pictures are encased in a thick frame that resembles a motherboard, and a clock counts down in each panel as evening sets in. The work's droll effect is at odds with A. Samad Said's ruminative sajak of the same title, and one suspects that this difference is a purposeful subversion on the artist's part.

The Garden Party (1988)

Exhibits outside Galeri 2B offer more examples of Ismail’s deliberate work. Two copies of Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘Drowning Girl’ – itself a mimicry of comic book images and its mass produced medium – have similar speech bubbles but different texts. 'Wanita Lemas' and 'Aku Rela Tenggelam' have nuanced differences, and propagate discrete takes on individual agency. The former acknowledges that it is a (willing) local copy, whereas the latter asserts its status as a (possible) artwork. Hung on the same wall is a newsletter for the Malaysian Artists Association, which absurd pictures and ludicrous art-historical commentaries follow a rich tradition of satirical publications that are especially potent in this post-truth world. 'Backbenchers: saga looks too Japanese' critically dissects a political statement by literally drawing an opposing perspective, this scene/screen-setting a go-to approach within Ismail's oeuvre.

[left] Wanita Lemas (1988); [right] Aku Rela Tenggelam (1988)

One such invisible screen delineates 'Utamaro and Marilyn', where its large shunga illustrates the increasing cultural influence of Japan over America, at a time when the Look East policy was fashionable. The import of consumer products, is concomitant with the import of its cultural output. Ismail injects a local element, by including batik prints into 'Fesyen Antarabangsa Untuk Anda' and 'Kagemusha and The Wax-Resist Caper'. The latter invokes hilarity, where the elaborately-dressed body double is set upon, by pixelated shapes manifest in the patterned fabric. Doubling flower (jasmine? osmanthus?) motifs in bold outlines swirl around the daimyƍ, as a pair of ganders look on. Ismail's approach in picture-making is analogous with the wax-resist technique, and the splash of red mimicking the crackle effect, exaggerates the point where visual semantics blend then project sensually out to the viewer.

Kagemusha and The Wax-Resist Caper (1988)

Projected shadows 'On A Clear Day You Can See The 14th Floor' infers another non-confrontational USA-Japan battle (i.e. who sells the most cars?) which conjecture I made after glancing the archival materials exhibited. The silhouette of a yellow catfish ('Ikan Baung') is visible in 'Memorial II', its shadow directing my attention to other tropes seen in "Digital Collage", namely insects and plants. Plants, especially flowers, feature heavily in his paintings, and denote the artist's familiarity with the language of flowers (floriography?) A bloom is a literal representation of the state of becoming. It assumes a different symbolic meaning in different cultures, yet its natural ephemeral form engenders too a chance image. I appreciate the chance image in 'The Teratai Network', where the outline of a lotus plant inscribes the basic structure in four square pictures. Mountain and/or spirit, the equivocal sign is distorted in its final iteration.

On A Clear Day You Can See The 14th Floor (1988)

Moving beyond literary sources and obscure tropes, Ismail's choice to create computer printouts is equally enigmatic. Colours are either hand-painted or collaged (some wall labels are imprecise) and unattractive, especially when placed side-by-side with the post-1985 paintings. Like the red roses in 'Happy Birthday Mr. Parameswara', I conclude that the applied colours subscribe to a deadpan logic, that further emphasises the flatness of these prints. A truly remarkable and singular body of work, "Digital Collage" depicts Ismail Zain's belief that signs "adalah merupai perantaraan diantara pengamatan dan hakikat." In a time when the proliferation of images numbs the viewer into submission, Ismail's approach is outdated, yet remains profound and impactful in reminding the viewer to be always aware of visual templates that generate stereotypical interpretations. So, what do you think?

The Teratai Network (1988)