Thinking Aloud (June 2022)
An exercise in remembering
by Gan Siong King
The Horror, The Horror (2015) Installation shot
After my last painting show in 2015, I felt there isn't much more I can do with painting as a form.
It became too quiet, too still.
I have been painting nonetheless. And painting over those paintings. Over and over again. It's almost performative. But I was quite happy doing that. Just enjoy the act of painting with no end project in mind. So, it follows that I have no painting exhibition to show for. Instead, I’ve been productive making shows with video works. And I started writing recently. Which is a useful thing to do as I reflect on the current state of my painting. Similar to some of my recent video work, I’ll be skipping back and forth through time with a few key ideas leading the way. Things will be simplified and details omitted for the sake of brevity. This is not a definitive account of my painting practice. If such a thing can exist in the first place.
Erased painting of a mosquito
A big part of my painting practice is about finding ownership of the form by testing its perimeter. Unpacking its history and expectations into simpler parts, then rearranging them in ways that made sense to me. It’s a form of playing, and I went about doing this in different ways.
Untitled, circa 1999, Mixed media on canvas
Most of it started around the new millennium when I switched studios, had internet access and later started photography. The move from Melawati to Old Klang Road is prompted by a need for change. 3 years in Malaysia Institute of Art and another 3 years after graduation as a hermit painter in the hills of Taman Zooview. A switch from an isolated space to one that is shared and more social. Ironically, the new environment is busier but the pace of my painting slowed. The switch also marks a return to easel painting and all the prep work that comes with it. After 3 years of making larger, more spontaneous paintings.
Internet and representation
In the early 2000s, I begin to have access to a computer and the internet. Certain aspects of my painting were inevitably digitized and this affected both the way I look at and make paintings. Picking up and researching photography also enable other ways to think about painting. One important thought is reconsidering the basic premise of my painting only as an act of image-making. I began approaching painting as the making of painted objects, a concept or a genre. Shifting the priorities to things outside the frame and on the frame itself.
Bliss, 2010, Oil on canvas
(Windows XP’s default wallpaper)
It was around that time I started painting only images sourced from the internet. It started as a challenge. With the idea that there are already enough images online to serve/represent any ideas I may have. But it's an idea that assumes the act of copying can be something creative. Which is a provocative thought and another challenge. Two birds, one stone, I thought.
Because the reference images are natively digital, my process of making studies evolved. Making studies is an important phase that precedes the act of painting. It’s a way to pre-visualize, interpret, review and prepare an image. Pencil on paper was replaced with pixels and later prints. The process gradually became about finding and manipulating reference images with software. Which foreshadows the act of editing in my video-making that came a decade later.
Old studies, circa 2000. Mixed media on paper.
Setting in motion a slow shift away from painterly concerns. That preoccupation with composition, material and brushwork. This is expedited by the introduction of photography into my artistic practice. The question is the what and why, and not how an image is painted. Because the default approach became about painting as close to the reference as possible. Mechanical, with little painterly interpretation. Interpretation is done in the digital studies phase. Drafting on canvas with pencil grids was eventually replaced by loose tracing with an overhead projector. Which in turn was replaced by an AV projector. This way of making paintings is streamlined.
The Horror, The Horror is a series that came from this approach. 12 identical portraits of Alan Turing with different titles describing different aspects of his identity and also these paintings as objects themselves. Repetition, copying and not unique painterly gesture serves as a basis for these multiple interpretations to occur.
24 x 17cm, 2015, Oil on canvas
A version of this device was used to draft all 12 copies of the Alan Turing portraits.
The process is similar to making prints. Making copies. The very thing that painting is wary of in this age of mass mechanical and digital reproduction. Instead of resisting this, I thought it’s better to treat it as another subject and represent the idea of representation. I took the same neutral observer position with my reference images when I started printing hard copies of them.
Reference image printouts on my studio wall. (2022)
An image on a computer monitor is formed by projected light. Which is different from the reflected light of a printed image. Red, green and blue versus cyan, magenta, yellow and black. The creation of black is by the reduction in the former and addition in the latter. The opposite is true to make white. Using a printed image as a reference is closer to how a painting operates optically.
Apologies, nerd stuff, and I've digressed.
CRT, 2018, 16.1 x 14.6cm, Oil on canvas,
(Closeup of a T.V screen)
A physical copy has a bigger potential to degrade over time compared to a digital copy. A monitor’s colour does degrade over time, but that's another matter. The quality of a printed image varies depending on the paper it’s printed on. And I noticed the lower quality glossy paper I use sometimes bleaches over time. Leaving behind a visual artefact that can only happen in printed media. Much like chromatic aberration and lens flare in photography. It’s not how a human eye naturally sees the world. These machine logic or defects can be expressive. To me, they represent the present. This age of mass mechanical and digital reproduction. There is no lens flare or barrel distortion in a renaissance painting.
Example of a lens flare
Example of a camera lens barrel distort. Fallen Angels (1995)
The size of the print is also a variable. After The Horror, The Horror, I wanted to move away from painting details to painting an overall mood. Which is harder (to me) than it sounds. Because for the past decade I’ve conditioned myself to look at and paint details. Using a thumbnail-sized print (refer to above) as a reference image is a great workaround. There just isn’t enough data/resolution at that size for me to fixate on. Which necessitates a level of interpretation on my part. And at that size, the overall tone and pattern of the image become clearer.
Layering in Photoshop (image from elektronikgrafik.files.wordpress.com)
Layers and Sequencing
Image manipulation software uses among other things the logic of layers. It’s sometimes referred to as non-destructive editing. Where layers are added on top of the source image and can be removed without affecting the original. It’s a particular way of looking and thinking about image-making. Which I’ve applied to other things. In The Koganecho Gesture, I applied this to thinking about the making of an art event. Unpacking its constituent parts and rearranging their order in my workflow to speak about art-making and the role of an audience.
Idea > Art > Exhibition > Audience
Audience > Idea > Art > Exhibition
The Koganecho Gesture’s (2020) editing timeline
Video editing can also be seen as building something by imagining its’ layers and sequencing. Spatially and in time. In hindsight, layers and surfaces are key concepts from the digitization of my artistic practice. It’s self-evident in video editing. Where the single frame an audience eventually see is build-up from multiple audio and visual layers.
Still from Kecek Amplifier bersama Nik Shazwan (2019)
Using a screen within a screen in my videos is another expression of layers. And it’s also an image that again, represents the present. Because staring at a screen is something we all do. And the chance to perform a breaking of the fourth wall is hard to resist. This reminds me of Velaquez’s Las Meninas.
Las Meninas (The Maids of Honor), Diego Velázquez, 1656 -57, 318 x 276cm, Oil on Canvas
In 2015, when making The Boy, His Bike & the Map, I used an old CRT T.V. screen for a particular sequence. Which features footage of 50’s Malaysia in celebration of the nation’s independence. Shot with film negative but somehow made visual sense on a CRT screen. Perhaps it’s an association that only someone who grew up with these types of screens will make. Or maybe the lack of resolution and colour gamut lends well to the representation of memories. Hazy and more luminous than what it actually was. I use this simplification by electronics, if you will, as an interpretative tool.
Still from The Boy, His Bike & The Map (2015)
I used this T.V on other video projects later on. Eventually, I started looking at reference images for my paintings through this screen. And devising various ways to tweak and take photos of the T.V screen to make reference images for my paintings.
This is one point where my painting and video practice converged.
(top) Original footage, (bottom) Still from Fathers - Untitled 10th Year Anniversary project (2017),
The result can be a ghostly, simplified version of the source. Which I find appealing. Perhaps it’s the opposite of the kind of detailed paintings I was making at that time. Perhaps they remind me of certain works by Seurat, Kollwitz, Morandi, Martin, Dumas, Tuymans and others. Heroes and heroines all, since my art school days.
Image credits update soon
So much of what I’m struggling with painting in the past few years has its roots in those years. This internalization of what's allowed or possible. When I was younger I circled a small perimeter of what painting is in my head. From that, I’ve decided painting is not mine. Because my interest lies outside of that circle. Perhaps this also comes from the fact that oil painting was the only option I had in my art school at that time. I don’t think I had a natural instinct for it compared to drawings or videos. So, if I’m to make anything of it, I need to find my own way around it. To discover an aspect of the elephant that made sense to me.
RGB. 2014, Oil on canvas
(Closeup of a CRT screen)
Unlearning my formal training is a source of distraction and inspiration. The last few years, I again reexamine the basics. Looked at different aspects of my paintings and their relationship. Adjusting the proportion. For example, the size of my canvases in relation to my studio space.
Aberration, 16.3 x 17.8 cm, 2022, Oil on canvas
The proportion between the size of my canvases and my palette. The former shrinks while the latter gets bigger, and becomes more permanent. From recycled styrofoam food containers in my student days to odd pieces of plywood in my 20s and 30s, and finally a custom-cut 6mm clear glass. But it took a while before I started squeezing paint on the edge of my glass palette. The small palette mentality was hard to break. More recently, I begin wiping my palette clean after each painting session. It’s a nice ritual. And my mind is clearer when I start with a clean palette. It feels similar to making up my bed after waking.
Sisyphus, 98 x 96 cm, 2014, Oil on canvas
(Early computer memory)
I've also switched to larger-size brushes. From the myopia-inducing size 00, which I used to make Sisyphus, to 10 or 12. The proportion between the sizes of my canvas and brushes is inversed. It's a strategy to abandon detail, or at least to approach details in a different way. I'm exactly sure why simplification is currently important to me. Perhaps it's just because it's a counter to my previous paintings.
I’ve always made my own stretchers and stretched my own canvases. This is a legacy from my student days when I can’t afford to have them made for me. But I also enjoyed doing woodwork occasionally. So, most of my paintings come in dimensions with a decimal point and are not completely square. For the past few years, I’ll just intuitively cut a piece of lumber by sight to a length I think is right. And make the reference image fit the frame. Or not at all. A painting with blank spaces seems more dynamic to me.
Nothing to See Here (tentative), 2021, 29 x 32.5 cm, Oil on canvas
(Photography ground glass)
I started using different types of white. Titanium, zinc, flake, mixing and underpainting whites. Opaque, translucent, tinting, pastel-ing and drying rate are the different attributes they have. Two or three of these whites are always on my palette. Dabs of hues are mixed with these whites. The aim is to stretch the tone. Producing as many nuances of greys as possible.
Lately, blacks are used sparingly, if at all. And is substituted by mixing either Prussian blue with Vandyke brown or Ultramarine blue with Burnt Umber.
There are deliberately fewer colours on my palette these days. Besides painting wet on wet, I don’t have a fixed approach. Sometimes I’ll work on the highlights first, other times it’s the mids or shadows. I am interested in the Venetian method. Grey ground and grisaille. Building the image with layers. Recently I use a mixture of Cobalt yellow, Orange, Violet, Phthalocyanine and Cobalt blue with white to make either a warmer or cooler grey.
Voter (tentative), 2022, 23.7 x 31.8 cm, Oil on canvas
(Still from a documentary about election)
Besides the 2 blues, the other three are not colours I would usually use as ground. In 2019, I inherited various tubes of old oil paint from Hoy Cheong. And you know what his paintings are like. So, they are mainly bright colours. They sat around in the studio leaking linseed oil for a while, because it’s so counter-intuitive to how I paint. And then I started using them because it’s so counter-intuitive to how I paint.
Old Tale Retold, Wong Hoy Cheong, 1986, Oil on Canvas
For a while, I was painting with a linseed heavy painting medium. There is very little paint material on my canvas. In hindsight, these diluted colours seemed to be rubbed onto the canvas. Which explains why my brushes are ground down to short stubs quickly. This happened gradually. And I wasn’t aware until a friend pointed out the lack of ‘materiality’ in my paintings.
Lights Off, 2017, 16 x 18.5cm, Oil on canvas
In hindsight, it’s almost like I want everything to disappear into this pool of grey. I wonder if it’s a manifestation of my fatigue with painting as a form. And I was systematically making everything disappear. Greyer, leaner, smaller and eventually painted over.
Currently, I’m attracted to images with particular lighting. A certain glow. Overexposed even, or those that shimmer with highlights. I’m drawn to painting them. Turning pigment into light. Those negative spaces around shiny objects. To paint the air.
In other words, nothing at all. Is there a need to represent this? Is this a result of my lack of painting exhibitions in the past years? This listlessness.
I thought it might be best to just make an exhibition about this listlessness. Or could it be an exhibition about trying to make a painting exhibition? There seems to be some utilitarian potential. An interesting failure is also something. At the very least it’s doable I thought.
Painting grids tilts the focus more to a form of manual labor. A form of painterly precision, which provides a sense of progress in moments of uncertainty and frustration. Placing images about image making together with figurative ones feels correct. But I’m not sure why.
Maybe because it represents opposites. Order vs chaos. A contradiction. Counterpoints.
Is instability something that I’m trying to depict? But this feels inadequate. Why do I think I need a concept to anchor everything when it comes to painting?
In 2017 I did Meeting People is Easy. A month-long solo exhibition in the form of an open studio. The idea of exhibition-making and eventually exhibition as a medium was beginning to develop in my practice. The consequence of that is my paintings and videos became elements of my exhibition. Much like the individual audio or visual footage serving the narrative in my videos.
Glitch (Tentative) 2022, 18 x 16.5cm, Oil on canvas
In that way, I no longer see my exhibition as a by-product that pops into existence upon the completion of a number of art works. The exhibition is moved forward in my workflow and is something I think about very early on recently. If you’re wondering which aspect of an exhibition I’m referring to, then you’re right here with me because I'm not sure. I'm treating it as a form in search of a definition. And that’s why is an interesting approach for me. It’s everything and possibly nothing at all.
At the very least, an exhibition is by nature collaborative and multi-disciplinary. So, it offers various ways to probe whatever it is I am exploring. Potentially adding to what my individual paintings can do. And it also suits my temperament and my preference for variety.
Mute (Tentative), 2018, 34.8 x 39 cm, Oil on canvas
(The underside of a tongue)
The recent addition of writing to my practice also came from this approach. Words and their various formattings connect ideas in ways I cannot through practice. It's early days yet, but I’m quite certain it’ll play a role in my work in the coming years.
This brings us to the present. I’m writing this as part of the development process for the show at The Back Room. I’ll continue to write as I continue to paint. At the moment things seem to be moving in different directions. I’m referring to both the paintings in my studio and this text. I feel I’m working on several shows in tandem. So, more rigorous editing of both needs to happen.
Glitch, 2021, 23.4 x 23.4 cm, Oil on canvas
Exhibition as Medium
I'm also using a 3D model to figure out what this exhibition can be, or rather, what it is. Trying out different arrangements. And also visualizing possible paintings to make for the show. Previsualizing their possible size and placement in the 3D model. My first instinct is I need to find one simple idea from this text to develop. I feel it's right under my nose but I just can't see it yet. There's an elephant in the (back) room, as the saying goes.
I think talking to other people will help. It's certainly something I do and benefit from when making videos. At the moment I cannot recall my need for solitude when it comes to making paintings. Perhaps it's an unexamined habit from my student days. So, it's good that this simple act of including others is crossing over to my painting process.
My plan is to write, paint, visualize, and speak to various people concurrently. Allowing discoveries in those different processes to inform and shape each other. We'll see what happens.