16 September 2017

16/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Looks like erected nipples. Constructs by Elias Yamani Ismail are always beguiling, and this grid of 81 (wooden? plastic?) squares, each with a protruding tip at the centre, is no different. The tension is palpable – is the flat surface transforming before my eyes? Does each dot/button trigger a reaction? This picture-sculpture is more erotic than the voluptuous lady, printed by Long Thien Shih, that hangs on the opposite wall. The gap between squares are wide enough to suggest individual drawers, like those in a traditional Chinese medicine pharmacy. What lies within? Are these concealed stupas on a Sudoku grid? Seen from the front, the reflected spotlights assume gleaming triangular shapes, adding a silver thorny pattern to the confounding image. Looking at this visually ambiguous artwork, I feel hopeful about how some affinities just cannot be explained - like being a Malaysian.

Elias Yamani Ismail – Regangan No. 2 (2010)

13 September 2017

15/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Notwithstanding a red egg and other constructs viewable from Jalan Tun Razak, ‘Pemain Rebab No. 1’ by Mad Anuar Ismail might as well also be labelled as “public sculpture”. I see it every time I enter the lobby of the National Art Gallery. And how well it has aged! The stylized representation of a musician is always a welcome sight – culturally relevant, striking aesthetic, invokes other non-visual senses, grand scale, and technically refined. Placed underneath the spotlight again in “Negaraku”, the piece serves as a reminder that re-contextualised art can improve looking, and visitors should give themselves more leeway in creative interpretations, and how a work may look different each time one sees it. 

Mad Anuar Ismail – Pemain Rebab No. 1 (1991)

10 September 2017

Malaysian Art: A New Perspective 2017 @ Richard Koh Fine Art

While this exhibition claims to showcase “unconventional approaches demonstrated across various mediums”, it is more interesting to note the diverse backgrounds of the six featured artists. The ascending visitor is greeted with angled perspective lines and small found objects on a painting, its coloured and monochromatic elements combining, to form a contrast between nostalgia and outlook. Dhavinder Singh worked at Galeri PETRONAS, is associated with an Ampang upstairs shop lot gallery, and has shown once or twice at most major commercial galleries in Kuala Lumpur.  His last solo exhibition presented captivating works that memorializes the artist’s former residence, a now-demolished apartment complex. This exhibit continues the style seen at “Recollectus”, although Dhavinder’s acrylic box-and-spices installation works, are more indicative of his oeuvre to-date.

Dhavinder Singh - Great Black Divide (2017)

A standing Jun Ong construct illuminates one section of the gallery, its iron mesh arrangement more interesting than neon lights beaming within. Relatively well-known for his public commissions, the architecture graduate is part of a design studio based at a Bangsar repurposed factory. A UiTM graduate, Faizal Yunus’ large four panels seem more in line with the commercial identity of this Bangsar gallery, where he is employed and showed his first solo exhibition. Vivid colours and abstract forms appeal strongly to Malaysian collectors, and its surface texture created with net and gesso projects an attractive visual effect. Hanging opposite is a horizontal grid of cartoon buildings drawn with colour pencils, art teacher Ho Mei Kei garnering interest recently with her take on art and education. Mei Kei is the youngest among this lot, her work also the lowest-priced.

Faizal Yunus - The Interstices I (2017) [image from rkfineart.com]

One stands bemused in front of Izat Arif’s installation ‘Rahasia Menjadi Artist (Seniman) Yg Meyakink-kan di-Malaysia’. Kitschy marketing materials for a book present a bygone sales approach, adding onto the outmoded traits of a physical book, and implying too the artist as one extinct profession. The book itself – with different collaged covers for each of its 20 editions – contains hilarious observations and miscellaneous jottings, where the artist is depicted literally as a buaya. Izat’s overall presentation expresses a nihilistic yet perspicacious view of his vocation, although the zine-like print quality undermines the irony of his publication. The artist assists Shooshie Sulaiman in her international exhibitions, and is part of the carpentry collective Kedai; He is better known, however, as the other artist whose work was censored in the Bakat Muda Sezaman 2013 finalists’ exhibition.

Installation snapshot of Izat Arif - Rahasia Menjadi Artist (Seniman) Yg Meyakink-kan di-Malaysia (2017)

Earnest and visually striking, Chong Yi Lin’s Good Morning towels are emblazoned with abstract logos. The artist – whose first solo exhibition was held at Lostgens’, and is currently furthering her studies in Taiwan – says in an interview published in the catalogue essay, “(m)y art is a form of restoration of my feelings towards these objects.” Sewing organic forms onto the inherent grid of the rough fabric, marks a cultural object as distinguished memento, as I imagine the work up in flames as part of a funerary rite. Moving from distilled memories and tiresome constructs, to fluorescent prints and imposed stereotypes, to resigned gestures and corporeal reminders, this collection raises a question: is the diversity in its urban population a factor in the diversity seen in Malaysian contemporary art, or is it the other way round?

Chong Yi Lin - Evanescent Series (I-X) (2017) [image from rkfineart.com]

05 September 2017

14/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Mohd Salehuddin’s ‘At the Kampung Shop’ stands out as a personal favourite in the National Collection. Some writers claim the picture reinforces racial stereotypes, but what I see is a brilliantly framed modern-life scene, with its socio-political lens still intact. The picture utilizes classical painting devices – an arch leading to a horizon line and a lush landscape, outstretched arms which positions are aligned, indicative texts printed onto an object, and the drain on the painting’s lower-right hand corner that further foregrounds the whole scene. One songkok-donning figure (the driver?) whose back is turned to the viewer, literally stands out from the rest, and is the key person. Was this picture painted before or after the first Malayan general election? Was this person an Alliance, Socialist Front, or PAS supporter?

Every time I see this picture, its displayed title changes: Mohd Salehuddin – Membeli Belah di Kampung (1959)

02 September 2017

13/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

The National Gallery Singapore, is where I last saw Cheong Soo Pieng’s ‘Tropical Life’. The rather-simply-executed picture – oft-quoted in writings about Malaysian art history, and referenced in Ho Tzu Nyen’s 2005 television series “Episodes of Singaporean Art” – recalls Paul Gauguin at first glance, and looks like a preparatory drawing for a batik painting. The idyllic scene is complemented by a turquoise sea in its background, although I wonder what the lady at the centre is doing, and whether the person carrying something on her head is a servant, or depicted as dark-skinned because she was standing in the shade. The illustration of an extended Malay family is likely imagined, yet possible to envisage as being based in either Malaya or Singapore. There is no way I can look at this painting, without thinking about the art and national histories of both places.

Cheong Soo Pieng – Tropical Life (1959)

30 August 2017

12/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

Malaysian artists who work predominantly in sculpture are only a handful; Moving on from conceptual heft and modernist pastimes, there is a fascinating allure to three-dimensional geometric shapes, the raw texture of natural or industrial materials, or forms that interrogate cultural motifs. Rarely is political commentary a subject matter in sculpture, but when it comes about – such as Multhalib Musa’s ‘Pedra Branca’ – the effect is oftentimes sublime and better than when presented in a painting. Middle Rocks and the boundary lines are carved onto steel, while structures on the disputed island are painted all-white, in contrast to the present state red-and-white colours. The rectangular base draws attention to the isle, hinting also at the geographical distance of the outlying rock to the Johor coastline, which is three times shorter than the distance to the current claimant. 

Exhibition snapshot of Multhalib Musa – Pedra Branca (2009)

27 August 2017

11/16 Musings about Negaraku @ NAG

If an American tourist can influence Malaysian art… I imagine that the middle-class Malaysian who likes art, probably started out with exposure from their family, saw classics from the Western art canon while travelling, and observed aesthetic preferences embedded within local cultural objects. To think that art should not be judged by visual criteria entrenched in Western art history, is a difficult notion. Even after visiting a few Southeast Asian countries, the idea of a Nusantara aesthetic, remains obscured to me. “What is Malaysian art?” is not a question asked by most local collectors, and I am tongue-tied if asked about why I think is it important to support the local art ecosystem. Are biennales organised with visitor numbers in mind, the right thing for governments to do? Hey, if a Singaporean artist can bring Nusantara narratives to the Venice Biennale…

Suhaimi Tohid – Journey (2001)