Elephant (tentative title)
The Back Room, Kuala Lumpur, early 2023
This page serves as documentation and a platform to raise funds for my upcoming project tentatively tilted Elephant.
I’m working towards a small painting show at The Back Room in the first quarter of 2023. It'll be a painting show about, hopefully, paintings.
My last painting exhibition was The Horror, The Horror in 2015. 7 years ago. I’ve been presenting mainly video-based works since. But I’ve been painting nonetheless. Focusing on reworking the basic mechanics of how I make paintings and reimagining a new approach to examine ideas of representation or reproduction with paintings.
The tentative title is inspired by a conversation with Beverly Yong for the project, Dear Bev. It's borrowed from the parable of the blind men and an elephant. In this instance, I’m the singular blind man, and painting is the elusive elephant I’m trying to figure out.
Below is a selection of paintings being considered for Elephant. There will be additions and omissions as I continue to probe the contour of this beast. More text and clarity will come in the following months.
If you are interested in collecting any of the works or have other questions please get in touch.
Elephant project page published.
- Webpage brief.
- Primer essay.
- 1st draft 3D visualization.
- 1st painting pool.
1st draft visualization of Elephant @The Back Room (16/6/2020)
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 and clarity. This is not a definitive account of my painting practice. If such a thing exists in the first place.
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 to me. And I went about doing this in different ways.
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 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 a few years of making larger, more spontaneous paintings.
Internet and representation
With access to a computer and the internet, certain aspects of my painting were inevitably digitised. This had an effect on both the way I look at and make paintings. Picking up and researching photography also enable other ways to think about image-making. Rethinking the basic premise of my painting only as an act of image-making is significant. Instead, approach paintings as object making, concepts 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. By the idea that there are already enough images online to serve/represent any ideas, I may have. For a figurative painter, this adds an oblique take on the idea of representation. One which assumes the act of copying can be something creative. Which is a provocative thought and another challenge. Two birds, one stone, I thought.
Because my reference images are natively digital, the 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. Making studies was gradually replaced with finding and manipulating reference images with software. Which foreshadows the act of editing in my video-making practice.
Old studies, circa 2000. Mixed media on paper.
Setting in motion a slow shift away from painterly concerns. That preoccupation with material and brushwork. This is expedited by the introduction of video-making 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. The act of painting 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.
A version of this device was used to draft all 12 copies of the Alan Turing portraits.
The process is akin to making prints. Making copies. The very thing that painting is wary of in this age of mass mechanical and digital reproduction. Instead of resistance, I thought it’s better to treat it as another subject and represent the idea of representation. Especially when I started printing hard copies of my digital reference images.
Reference image printouts on my studio wall.
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 at that level.
And 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 is another matter. The quality of a printed image varies depending on the media 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. And it’s not how a human eye naturally sees the world. These machine logic or defects can be expressive. They seem to me to represent the present. This age of mass mechanical and digital reproduction. There is no lens flare or barrel distortion in a renaissance painting.
CRT, 2018, 16.1 x 14.6cm, Oil on canvas,
(Closeup of a T.V screen)
The size of the print is also a variable. After The Horror, The Horror, I wanted to move away from painting details to 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 that way. Using a thumbnail-sized print as a reference image is a great way to work around that. There just isn’t enough data/details at that size. 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 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 images. 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 to speak about art-making and the role of an audience.
The Koganecho Gesture’s (2020) editing timeline
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 this concept. And it’s also an image that again, represents the present. Because staring at a screen is something we all do. And to be honest, 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 Kecek Amplifier bersama Nik Shazwan (2019)
I used this screen on other video projects later on. Eventually, I started looking at reference images for my paintings through this CRT screen. And devising various ways to tweak and take photos of these images to make reference images for my paintings.
This is a point where my painting and video practice converged.
(top) Still from Untitled 10th Year Anniversary project (2017), (bottom) Original footage
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. 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
RGB. 2014, Oil on canvas (closeup of a CRT screen RGB pixel)
So much of what I’m struggling with painting in the past few years has its roots in those years. What's allowed or possible. Despite various experiments, I suspect I’ve circled a small perimeter of what painting is in my head. In that way, I’ve felt painting is never really 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 locate a part of the elephant that made sense to me.
And unlearning my formal training is a source of distraction and inspiration.
I reexamine basic things. Looked at different aspects of my paintings, and their relationship. Adjusting the proportion. The size of canvases in relation to my studio space.
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 did take a while before I started squeezing paint on the edge of my palette. The small palette mentality is 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.
I’ve always made my own stretchers and stretched my own canvases. This is something from my student days when I can’t afford to have them made for me. But I also enjoyed doing woodwork occasionally. So, my paintings come in odd sizes. For the past few years, I’ll just intuitively cut a piece of lumber 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.
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.
Blacks are used sparingly, if at all. Darker tones are achieved by mixing with either Prussian blue and Vandyke brown or Ultramarine blue and Burnt Umber. Together with whatever overall colour tone I choose for the painting.
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 painting with layers. I substituted black by mixing bright primary and darker earth tones. Recently I used a mixture of Cobalt yellow, Orange, Violet, Phthalocyanine and Cobalt blue with white to make either a warmer or cooler grey ground.
Besides the 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. And these diluted colours are rubbed onto the canvas. 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’, his word, in my paintings
Bulb, 2017, Oil on canvas, 16 x 18.5cm
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, and smaller. This is in 2017. That year 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.
In that way, my exhibition is no longer a by-product of a series of completed paintings. Which pops into existence upon the completion of a number of paintings. The exhibition is moved forward in my workflow and is something I think about very early on. If you’re wondering which aspect of an exhibition I’m referring to, then you’re right here with me. It’s a form of searching for a definition. And that’s why is an interesting approach to making art. It’s everything and possibly nothing at all.
An exhibition is by nature collaborative and multi-disciplinary. So, it offers various ways to probe whatever it is I am researching. Always adding to what any of my individual paintings can do. And it suits my temperament and my preference for variety.
The recent addition of writing to my practice 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.
Bringing 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. And this text is a brief(?) primer for those who are working with me on Elephant and hopefully future exhibitions.
I'm working on a 3D model of the show with the paintings I have in the studio. 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.
My plan is to write, paint, and visualize concurrently. Allowing discoveries in those different processes to inform and shape each other.