A Longer Sequence of
Gan Siong King
in conversation with
Below are email exchanges between Wong Hoy Cheong and Gan Siong King to prepare an exhibition text for Siong King's exhibition Pictures of Things. The edited version is available here.
20th Dec 2022
#1 While you have had works with grids and non-figuration now and then in the past, your recent body of works seem to have explored these ideas with a new depth and seriousness.
Can you talk about how you begin to do these works?
What made you u depart from the figurative works?
What led you on?
Are/were they based on or drawn from real tangible objects or visual images you chose?
#2 We discussed the possibility of using the title - almost like a “thesis” or “prelude” — to frame the exhibition.
What is it about?
What should the audience expect?
(Above 2 questions should suffice to start the dialogue — hc)
24th Dec 2022
Hello Hoy Cheong
Thanks for initiating this dialogue and for the 2 conversations earlier. OK, onwards.
1# Can you talk about how you begin to do these works?
No Signal, 2020, Oil on Canvas
(A broken oscilloscope)
It was in 2020, in the midst of the various lockdowns in K.L. that I made No Signal. But I didn't think much about it at the time. By that point, I have been trying to develop a painting show for a few years. Half-heartedly, to be honest. I was painting all the time, but I was making exhibitions with my video works. Partly because there were more opportunities with videos and, video shows were new to me. So, it was exciting with many things to explore. And currently, there are even more things to develop from those explorations. Some of these are related to treating exhibitions as a form or medium.
In hindsight, I was eager to somehow include those things in my imaginary, future, painting show. Particularly matters relating to my video-making practice. Because continuity is important to me. I'm not one for wildly different tangents when it comes to creative development. So, I was quite happy to take my time with this painting project. Partly also because I felt there was a deep problem with the way I paint, or perhaps, the way I approach painting. Although I'm not quite sure what that is.
Relearning Painting (2016 onwards)
One of the things that bug me is I only make paintings with the intention of showing them. Paintings for The Pleasures of Odds & Ends and The Horror, The Horror came about that way. It was a way of working that suited both those shows. There's a level of efficiency that I like. But I supposed I got bored with that way of working. Things became too streamlined and practical. I feel I don't play as much when I paint. There's a lack of innovation with the medium and tools. I wanted to unlearn and relearn how to paint. For the past few years, I've been rethinking the process, tools, and my general attitude toward painting, And how these things affect one another. Some of these thoughts are mentioned in my essay Thinking Aloud on the project page. I'm not sure if I've made any meaningful progress. But, I'm quite certain a blank canvas is no longer as precious compared to before, so, that's something. In fact, most of the paintings in this show have other images beneath them. Because I've done as much erasure, by painting a canvas with Titanium White, as I painted any imagery on them. It's almost performative. I was painting without a clear idea for a show. In fact, the idea is to find 'the show' through painting. My belief is with enough paintings, a show, or at least a pattern and direction will emerge.
Painting Straight Lines
Painting No Signal (a broken oscilloscope) was one of those attempts. I was attracted by the light quality of the reference image. This fascination with light or the potential of rendering it with paint is one of the criteria for my image selections. I'm attracted to images where light or the lighting is in the foreground. Overexposure, strong shadows and etc. And I do have a folder of selected images waiting to be painted. I painted No Signal in between some figurative paintings. That night, I was working on another painting and needed to let it dry before I could continue. It must have been around 7-8 pm because it was too early for bed and too late to start painting a complicated image. I browse through my image folder and thought I'll just paint those vertical and horizontal lines for a few hours. Y'know, as an exercise in making straight lines. It's been a while since I painted vertical and horizontal lines freehand. I can always erase it if it doesn't work out.
It was a more satisfying session than I expected. When it was done, its the only grid-like painting hanging in a studio of figurative paintings. At that time, I have in my studio some paintings of closeups of body parts. They seemed to belong together in my mind. I tried hanging them side-by-side and somehow, it articulated in some ways my experience of the pandemic. Not as a narrative, but simply as a mood. A sense of isolation, listlessness, an orderly atrophy. I thought I have a show, finally. Tentatively titled An Abstract Fear of the Outside World (AFOW).
Mute, 2019, Oil on Canvas
Untitled (tentative), 2019, Oil on Canvas
Changing My Mind (April 2022)
I imagined doing this show at The Back Room after the lockdown is lifted. Because it's been a while since I did a painting show. So a small space seems like a good idea. 3 months turned to 6 and eventually became 24. In the 2 years, I made 2 feature-length video works that also deal with my experience of the pandemic. And after showing those 2 video works in early 2022, I changed my mind about AFOW.
It felt derivative and old. Especially after the pandemic became endemic. I told Liza I needed more time. But, I knew I cannot take another few years. She thought my apprehension about AFOW is all a mind game in my head. I know and I needed help.
I thought talking to people and showing them paintings in my studio will help get me out of my own head. Their feedback might lead me to see things I haven't. In the past 8 months or so, I've spoken to a number of people about this show. Some I knew well, others not so. The unknown is always an alluring element. I also started building the project page on my website as another way to develop this show. Initially, I wanted to publish the page publicly as a way to generate feedback from the public. But I didn't because something doesn't feel right. Perhaps the thought of potentially maintaining multiple threads of conversation is too much.
I continue to paint.
And I was painting over (erasing) them as much. So, I was doing quite a lot for what is initially supposed to be a simple painting exhibition in a small space. I've been here before. This feels like a habit of mine. I have similar experiences when I make my video work. For example, most of what I shoot ends on the editing floor as the saying goes. I don't only shoot what I need. Shooting is also a process of finding the shots I didn't know I need. Ironically, simplicity is something I aim for in video as in painting. But that usually comes after a period of uncertainty.
Part of my SketchUp vizualization
The Right Question
Then one night I had a minor epiphany. Which came from my recent approach to painting. Where I prioritize speed, simplification, and interpretation over details. How can I adapt this? Well, I should simplify and just remove things. Those grid-like paintings look simple enough. Why didn't I think about doing a show with only those paintings? They are fun to paint. But feel too simple as images. Somehow, just hearing that thought in my head made that idea appealing to me. I suddenly realized I have somehow equated simple images with bad imagery. A form of cheating even. It's a blind spot or bias. I think talking to you and other friends over the months has somehow helped uncover this.
I have not seriously thought of making a (seemingly) abstract exhibition before. And then I thought if I were to do this, how simple can I take things visually? Painting horizontal and vertical lines. I can't think of a simpler act and visual at the moment. I did a quick visualization in SketchUp with the paintings I have and added some other images that I could and want to paint. And I'm excited by what I see. It's not complete or resolved, whatever the fuck that means, but it works for me on a few levels.
The mood feels right. And that's good enough for me. In fact, it's a variation of the initial 2020 idea. But I don't feel like I'm repeating myself.
Act of Painting
Because of the lack of (immediately) identifiable imagery, the act of painting these horizontal and vertical lines comes forth. Which creates an opportunity to talk about the technicalities of paintings. About mixing black by layering a fixed set of colorful paints, for instance. Or my preference for painting lines freehand instead of with masking tapes because the act is enjoyable, therapeutic almost. I count this as progress in regard to relearning how to paint. The ability to just enjoy the act, be in the present, and contradictorily, not think about how I can use the end product. I've said this a lot lately about my video work, the doing is equally important to the end product. And it's what made painting No Signal satisfying that night during the pandemic.
Repetition is something I wanted to develop from The Horror, The Horror. (THTH) This counter-intuitive idea that repetition can be a source of creativity. I have some other ideas on how to do this in other iterations of this show. But working only with the basic elements of line, plane, and color work just as well. So, from repeating the same image in THTH to repeating the act of painting a set of elements. This for me is an unexpected development from my Turing paintings.
The Problem of Representation
While the images are grid-like, they are not abstract in the sense that it's a painterly exploration of lines, shapes, and colors. Some of them are real objects that happen to look abstract. Most are actually figurative paintings of two-dimensional objects. So, intention also plays a role in terms of definition here besides appearance.
The Potential of Representation
Most of these paintings straddle aspects of figuration and abstraction simultaneously. I'm not sure, but I think I can use this ambiguity to make meaning. At the very least, I'll have fun trying. For example, using No Signal to express aspects of my pandemic experience but without deviating from the visual continuity of the show. I know, I know, why can't I just let the pandemic go? I'm not sure. Regardless, I hope to make paintings titled Soap and Plastic in the coming months.
In that sense, a whole host of things can be projected onto these visually simple images. Echoing the function of those graphic design layout grids. They are not as boxed-in compared to the figurative paintings that I have in my studio. This created for me a nice boundary to innovate and build something with these simple elements. A part of the tiredness I mentioned in our conversations is gone. I can still make more paintings, and I look forward to painting more.
#1.1 What made you depart from the figurative works?
What is painting?
I don't think I hold a strong distinction between figurative and abstract paintings. I certainly don't see myself as a figurative painter. Actually, I don't even see myself as a painter. Just like how I'm not a film director. I'm a visual artist that makes paintings and videos. I see both figurative and abstraction simply as images. I don't have loyalty to either. I'm more interested in how I can use them. This is true about my painting and video work. Perhaps this is due to my approach of seeing painting as an object with images on it. An object that is looked at with a set of parameters and expectations.
Part of my ongoing question is what is painting? What else can it be? How can I use it to talk about whatever I want to talk about? And how can I find an aspect of painting that is mine? Beyond aesthetics, or as a commodity. I'm not against both of those things. I mean, my creative practice for the last 7 years is sustained by selling paintings. And I'll need to sell much more. But I must believe there is more to this. Even if there isn't.
I'm repeating myself. But most of the paintings for this show look abstract, but they are not abstract in the traditional, painterly sense of the word, is it? They are an intersection between figurative and abstraction. A duality. Nothing to see Here is a realistic painting of a focusing screen. A (plan view of a) focusing screen is an object that happens to look abstract as a painting. I supposed if I didn't paint the faint shadows beneath the grid, it would have better qualified as an abstract painting. But painting those shadows is deliberate. Because this duality is something I'm interested in and want to use.
Nothing to See Here (tentative), 2021, Oil on Canvas
(Photography focusing screen)
I think part of my interest in unstable definitions or states comes from my need to see things in different ways. To find grey areas, point them out, and unravel some of the logic and values that hold these definitions together. And to be fair, how reliable are definitions that are based on appearance alone? And generally, paintings are mainly about visuals!
#1.2 What led you on?
Outside of Art
I think this overlaps with what I've talked about in Thinking Aloud. A sense of responsibility for my creative process aside, there are things outside of art. This might sound far-fetched, but it's informed by being a Malaysian. An urban, liberal Malaysian to be fair. Which I assumed is the minority, so, I'm not sure how Malaysian that is. It's a hopeful position to take nonetheless, but perhaps a tad naive.
I believe in change. At least I don't think things will remain the same. As a whole, things will evolve for the better, in the end.
As a Malaysian, It's difficult to accept that things cannot be better. And this includes political, social, professional, personal, and creative matters. But things can only have the potential to change if they are first seen and understood differently from the status quo. And my interest in finding different ways to see, and by extension other ways to be comes from this belief. There's this relationship between how we see and understand the world that makes us who we are.
Or maybe this is as good as it gets, and things just stay the same or go to shit.
#1.3 Are/were they based on or drawn from real tangible objects or visual images you chose?
Easel Paintings (2000 - 2011)
I don't have a record of the last painting I did that is based on a real-life observation. But I've Truly Lost My Way is probably one of the last few I painted. It's a painting of a set of containers in my studio. With the title, I was making fun of the fact that I've accidentally become a technical painter of decorative paintings. Something that I loath just a few years ago. Because y'know, I'm a rebel and gangsta (in my head), so what happened? With this painting, the interest in light is already there. Because it was around that time that I started researching and playing with still photography.
I've Truly Lost My Way, 2007, Oil on Canvas
This painting came at the tail-end of another phase of renewal which started in 2000. When I switched studio from Melawati to Old Klang Road. Where, again, I wanted to relearn how to paint. At that time I wanted to return to easel painting. After my Melawati years of making large, semi-abstract, gestural paintings. So, maybe it's right to say I usually get bored and have a need for renewal every decade or so.
All the images for my recent paintings and for this exhibition are sourced from the internet. This practice started in the late 2000s as a way to play or test the basic assumption that painting is about image and mark-making. It's not that I hate image or mark-making, I just feel there has to be more, and I generally like ideas that are counter-intuitive. So, instead of making an original or unique image to speak about whatever, the challenge is to create an original context or interpretation of readymade images to do that. Merci Marcel Duchamp. This is also my way of including the internet in my painting practice. Because having internet access has had an impact on my creative practice.
Moving Images (2018 - Present)
Recently, I've expanded my image selection to include images captured from videos and movies. I'm not sure why it took so long, because it's the most obvious thing to do. Considering I have been making videos for the past decade. It started when I felt a need to somehow converge my video and painting-making practice. For a while, it was useful to have 2 different processes and art forms. They serve as counterpoints and fulfill different needs.
Besides expanding the pool of selection, the color, lighting, and grain of images from movies and videos are appealing to me. They also provide a different set of reference points. And of course, I thought I can use this to show how my painting and video-making have converged! For a while, I was very interested in finding more ways to show this convergence. And it's part of the initial objective of this exhibition. I don't feel a need to be so deliberate about this anymore. So, It's no longer in the foreground of this exhibition. But it's there.
2# What is it about? What should the audience expect?
Keywords (For now)
Painting, Lines, Color, Grid, Calibration, Material, Tools, Process, Repetition, Pandemic, Internet
Vision, Seeing, Mood, Play, Time
Off the Top of My Head
It's about a mood. Which is both bright and dark all at once. An absence or emptiness.
It's also about painting. And painting horizontal and vertical lines. How this simple element is used in various fields related to light, vision, design, representation, and image making. The painting's titles will point to those things. Using titles to interact with the images to form connections. So, the painting labels should include a short description of what the image actually is.
What it's Not
I'll provide a QR link to the project webpage. Possibly with a small painting of a QR code. So, it's also about the process of making the show. And what's not included, and why. Which will also serve as an introduction to my practice for those not familiar with my work.
The paintings are hung at eye level. The presentation isn't "innovative" or "creative". My current hang aims to create an austere(?) mood. The colors, size, and subject matter of the paintings are used to create a slow visual rhythm. Maybe there should be no rhythm at all if that's even possible. Quiet, not loud. No big movements or overly dynamic. It should feel like a crisp blank piece of A4 paper. A space that the audience can use as a mirror and project whatever it is in their head. A bright comfortable place to stay, stare, read(?) and, rest.
Sooner or Later, Everything Becomes A Copy of A Copy, 2014, Oil on Canvas
It depends on whether they are familiar with my work or not. Those who are familiar will probably be surprised by this development, in terms of subject matter and technique. Which is good, but not the most important thing. And the inclusion of Sooner or Later... will hopefully make them remember The Pleasures of Odds and Ends. And think about how I develop things or work over time. And with time.
And for those not familiar with my work, I hope the look of the show as a whole, and then the individual paintings will resonate with their experience of the past 2 years. And/or provide some space for thoughts about images and paintings. Simple basic questions like what is a painting or an image? What's figurative or abstract? And hopefully about originality, copies, and repetition in relation to art.
7th Jan 2023
Anyway, will proceed with the next series of questions based on your replies.
I get a sense from the detailed (background) explanations of your rethink and reflection on your painting practice full of uncertainties, questions about your relationship to painting and how it has not changed / or has changed over a decade - you use terms like “half hearted”, “deep problem”, “lack of innovation”, etc.
Why do you still feel the compulsion to continue to paint despite feeling “half hearted”? Do you feel you need to resolve this? Would you stop painting and just focus on other creative explorations like your video making?
You refer to looking for subject matter from your “folder of images”. What exists within this folder? Do you find the removed process of looking at real images printed on paper more interesting and useful than lets say observing and painting from real objects?
You mentioned hanging your figurative/representational works and non-figurative one to see how they would work together. You mention “mood” a few times. What do you mean by mood?
When I wrote for “Pleasures of ….”, you also felt that you needed to hang your works in groups, be seen within grouping. Why is it important to hang your works in clusters? What intertextual/intervisual meaning/s do hanging works in cluster have beyond having a “mood”?
When you talk about your abstract or non-figurative works, do you actually mean that the images are originally based on a real object (like a broken oscilloscope)? Which of your recent “non-figurative” works are based on the zooming in or real objects?
And which are developed from explorations of geometric forms and colour and not based on any real objects?
OK thats it for now.
10th Jan 2023
Never say never, but it’s unlikely that I’ll abandon painting. It’ll be like abandoning my art-making. There’s an emotional dimension to this. Because when I don’t paint for a period of time, I feel agitated. I’m not quite sure why. It feels like I’m running away from my responsibility.
Part of my seemingly critical view of my painting practice is simply because I can be hard on myself. And I have an obsessive-compulsive tendency when it comes to my work. I think those mildly dramatic phrases you picked up should be read in context and in comparison to my video-making practice. Which is a more recent addition so, by comparison, I have more enthusiasm about it. But I’m no less critical about my videos either.
And film-making itself is a newer medium. It’s constantly evolving. Whether you think in terms of the equipment, workflow, or presentation platforms. Can’t say the same about oil painting. Hasn’t oil paint reached its technical zenith after Van Ecyk? I am happy that red and yellow are available in opaque nowadays, but still. In that way being creative with paintings is different from videos, and makes them a good combination for me.
Painting in general is static in so many ways. But painting is also so direct. There are fewer places to hide. In some ways, it’s a mirror where all my convictions and doubts are reflected back to me. Which is different from videos which I use more as a lens to see the world. There are other differences because videos and paintings are on opposite ends of my practice. And I think this is a big part of what makes both appealing to me. They are counterpoints, I don’t think one could work without the other. Having more than one trajectory suits my restless mind.
Painting for me in the last few years is about deciphering the signal from all the noise of its history. And my limited history with it. It’s an exercise in reduction, editing things out, and finding ownership of it.
My ‘half-hearted’ attempts at making a painting exhibition are symptomatic of my experience with making painting exhibitions, and not with the act of painting. In fact, painting is becoming fun again. This is why I don’t think one needs to be completely happy, motivated, and content at all times to work on something. It’s just impossible because emotions come and go. A sense of responsibility for my process is enough. And being unhappy with what I make is a familiar place. Most of my work that I like goes through that phase. I accept that sometimes things work out and other times not. As long as on a whole there’s progress even if it’s incremental, I’m good. I’m not looking to be unhappy but it doesn’t bother me as much. It’s a useful discontent.
When it comes to art and art-making I don’t think there must be a resolution. I mean art and art-making is not a mathematical formula or scientific pursuit. It’s useful to have a problem to resolve, an ideal to pursue, however abstract or unattainable. But I’m clear their function is to generate work. And the doing is what matters more. Thoughts, ideals, and words are a means to an actionable end. They are not an end in themselves. Or else they are useless to my practice.
In them are still images and videos I found online. And actually, there are a few folders on different computers. Because I work on different computers when painting, making videos, or just browsing. And I spent time looking at and reviewing images on all of them. The content is always evolving, depending on my interest at the time. Not all will be painted because I do lose interest. My recent video project folder looks very similar. Seemingly random, but full of possibilities for juxtaposition.
Besides subverting the idea that painting is about artists making unique imagery with their individualistic mark, one of the motivations to use ‘ready-made’ images online is about working around the problem of access. My interest goes beyond what I have access to observe in real life. But to be fair, not many people have access to an Electron Microscope either. I am also interested in what can be visualized as paintings.
Blood (tentative), 2020, Oil on Canvas (Work in progress)
(Electron microscopy of red blood cells)
Image or paper?
Painting by referencing real objects only can also be tricky. Because the paper or screen where the image sits can be viewed as an object. And I do look at the paper/screen and the images interchangeably when I paint. What I mean is they are like the relationship between a novel and the words in a novel. In all copies, the words as symbols mean the same thing, but all the physical copies of the novels will be different depending on who owns them. They are two distinct things. One is a symbol/picture and the other is an object in real life. The same image viewed through an old TV is different from a computer monitor or a print.
So, the actual physical reference I use plays a part. The Judgement of Venus is an example. It was painted and repainted over months as the actual printed reference bleaches. The yellowish band on top and the pinkish discoloration on the side of the top right panel is actually from the bleached-out print. So, I’m actually looking outside of the image and at the paper itself. This thing that decays in the Malaysian climate. Because if I wanted a pristine image, I could always just refer to the JPEG version. But I used both.
The Judgement of Venus (tentative), 2020, Oil on Canvas
(Silicone implants for breast augmentation)
Images as ideas and light
And there are some things I reference that are not things but ideas. A compositional grid for instance. And then there are references that are light, like those calibration lines on a TV screen. And there are events, particularly past events, that I can only access as pictures and words. I suppose this applies to referencing stills from movies as well because they exist purely as images and not things. So, certain images I paint are by nature once removed or are not objects in real life.
Columns and Gutters, 2022, Oil on Canvas
(A compositional grid)
Scan Lines (tentative), 2019, Oil on Canvas
(Closeup of a CRT screen being calibrated)
I Should Get Back to The Office (tentative), 2022, Oil on Canvas
(Still from the movie Pyscho (1960))
This use of online images as a reference is temporary. It’s useful and interesting for now. Part of my initial motivation to do so is to include the internet in my painting process. I know, pretty old fashion. But I’m part of the generation that lived without the internet and smart devices. The internet and the digitization of everything are a part of my reality and I want it represented in my work.
Yeo Tze Yang
Look On Down From The Bridge, 2020, Oil on canvas
I have nothing against painting from real life, in fact, many of the painters I admire do just that. And one of them is Tze Yang, a younger Singaporean painter whom I’m hoping to work with in the near future. I’ll go back to it at some point. And when I do, I won't be surprised if I become like Morandi with his vases, bottles, and jars.
Mood as in this subjective, abstract expression of an emotional state. Maybe it’s something from my movie-making or TV commercials days. Where the art department makes ‘Mood Boards’ when proposing settings and props.
What is not
But in this show, I also mean mood as opposed to concept or narrative. Putting mood in the center is something I’ve not done before. I’m not sure about this, but I have to do it anyway. This is one of the things I kept trying to walk away because it seems so flimsy from but kept returning to.
The memory of those few months in 2020 must have been more traumatic than I thought. I wasn’t depressed and I don’t think it’s the isolation, because that’s something I’m familiar with. Maybe it’s how the immobility of everyone and everything made me reflect on my place in the world. And how I got there. It’s a feeling of hopeful futility in everything. But that’s not quite it. I‘m still thinking of ways to put them into words. But most likely my words have reached their limits and my paintings should take over.
An exhibition as a group of artwork
The biggest reason is I take the position that a painting exhibition is the grouping of a set of paintings in a space. It’s not a law carved in stone. And I’m only using this as a framework to develop ideas I have about exhibition-making. I’m open and want to find other ways to define what an exhibition can be. If I remember correctly we’ve spoken about making an exhibition with a single painting. And I’ll likely do that when the right space and idea coincide.
Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear (2022)
MOMA, New York
Photo by Emile Askey
Cluster is a word you used, and quite often. I use the word group because it’s meant to be the opposite of the singular. The word ‘cluster’ brings to my mind a particular pattern of arrangement. Y’know, Wolfgang Tillmans’s dynamic, seemingly casual, random even, manner of hanging his photographs which I see everywhere. I’m not hating, because I’ve done it before. And it looks just like my studio. Perhaps I just want to see these paintings in a different way.
My editing timeline for Pelacur Muzik (2023)
This way of seeing and thinking about paintings as a group has something to do with my video-making. Specifically the view of my editing timeline. My timeline is a sequence of independent images arranged to work together for a particular end. It’s a montage. And it’s through this montage that a particular story, mood, and emotion is created. Independently, each image can take on different meanings, or serve different purposes. It’s the Kuleshov Effect.
“The Kuleshov Effect is a film editing effect invented by Soviet filmmaker, Lev Kuleshov. It is a mental phenomenon where the audience derives more meaning from the interaction of two back-to-back shots than from one shot in isolation.”
Example of Kuleshov effect.
In the first row, the soup shows hunger.
In the second, the deceased child sows sadness.
And in the last row, the woman shows lust.
Making exhibitions with paintings
I’m interested in the possibility of this new dimension that is created by merely sequencing or grouping different images together. What intertextual/intervisual meaning this new dimension can create is of course contextual. But the idea is when a group of images is seen together they take on a different meaning than when seen individually. Put this way, an exhibition becomes as much a ‘work’ as individual paintings. And not just an inevitable by-product that pops into existence upon the completion of a series of works. And this is what I mean when I talked about making an exhibition with paintings the last time we spoke. It’s a slight shift, but it makes my painting experience different. The act can be independent or comes first and the paintings themselves can take on multiple meanings.
The use, not the definitive meaning
For this show, the paintings were made with this idea in mind. It’s not about making a ‘series’ in the traditional sense of the word. To an extent, they are anti-serial paintings. For the past 3-4 years I’ve been painting what I like without thinking at all about a series or a concrete idea for a show. The show will be made mainly by selecting a group of paintings based on an idea. And then develop more paintings around this grouping to suit the specificity of the venue. Off the top of my head, choices about what to paint are based on
The quality of light in the image. I’m drawn to images that have pronounced lighting or shadow. E.g flash photography, a shimmering glow, shiny surfaces, etc.
Subject matters that occupy my mind at the time. E.g. science, matters relating to vision or seeing, representation, etc.
The potential an image has to be paired with other images. Images can mean many things. Images that make me think about how I can use them in multiple ways. E.g. the unexpected, provocative, ambiguous, historical, visual complexity, etc.
The aim is to create a pool of images that I can then use for selection. The aim is never to show all the paintings I have in my studio. I already did that during my open studio project, Meeting People is Easy in 2017.
2 views from Meeting People is Easy (2017)
So, what the audience sees in this show is only a small selection of what’s available. Naturally, there are many other paintings that didn’t make the cut, so to speak. Not because they are no good, but because the criteria for selection for this show is focused on something else. But I’ll use them in my future exhibitions. Interested audiences can see what’s not included and the various setup and ideas via the project page on my website gansiongking.com/elephant
In fact, this exhibition also features a painting I made for The Pleasures of Odds and Ends (2014), which you mentioned. Where my idea about exhibition-making was in its early stages of development. In that show, I was interested in the idea of making ‘seed’ paintings. Individual paintings that I can develop around and use again in future exhibitions with different contexts. It’s an attempt at including the element of time in my painting and play with the idea of shifting meaning. It’s 9 years later and we’re in the future. This is one of the reasons I wanted you to be a part of this project. So that not only my work recurs, but the people I know and my relationships with them come back too.
(Please refer to the shortlist I’ve prepared for a description of the references I used. The painting labels for the show will also include a short description.)
It’s safe to say these paintings are not abstractions in the conventional sense of the word. And when I do use words like non-figurative or abstract to describe them, it’s just a convenient shortcut to set them in contrast to my figurative paintings. In between the 2, I see them as ambiguous.
A part of my painting is about figuring out what painting can be by exploring its’ boundary. This is why I’m interested to paint images that can exist between the binary definition of figuration and abstraction. The instability of definition or meaning is also something that interests me. I’ve explored this in The Horror, The Horror (2015) by painting 12 Alan Turing portraits that look the same. But each has a different title that looks at these paintings through various lenses.
This interest came from thinking about the need for simple and convenient classification. This desire for order, even if it means making things so simplistic that it becomes a low-resolution caricature of the real thing. It’s a hurried and simplified way of looking at and organizing the world. I’m no exception, like everybody else I do that too. It’s a shared human condition that I use as a device in my work.
Untitled (tentative), 2022, Oil on Canvas
Some paintings are based on real objects. The oscilloscope painting is one, the 35mm ground glass is another. But they are others that are more ambiguous. A graph paper for example. Which is more an idea first before it’s a figurative or non-figurative image. There’s also the painting of a grided Chinese calligraphy paper. Which is both a design and an actual product in the real world. Both are true, so It really depends on which viewpoint one takes.
A Chinese Poem, 2022, Oil on Canvas (WIP)
(Chinese calligraphy paper)
Untitled (tentative), 2022, Oil on Canvas
And then there are those ‘light’ related images. The RGB channel of a TV screen, or the bands of the rainbow spectrum on a soap bubble. Which is a natural phenomenon that exists in the world. But then there’s the image of aberrations from a defective lens. It’s an optical by-product that doesn’t exist in the real world, but we can observe it nonetheless. So, my references, or what I think can be paintings, are not only things we can hold but also things we can see, especially those beyond our naked eyes.
I’ve also adapted and interpreted some of these seemingly abstract images. Re-laying out certain grids for a particular purpose. And I’m thinking of painting the ‘color bar’ visual I used in Thinking Aloud but in the dimension of a 3-feet fluorescent lamp. So, there are none that explore geometric forms and colour for their own sake. But there’s still time.
Color bar from Thinking Aloud
The other way round
Obviously, I’m not making paintings so they fit neatly into the conventional classification of painting. That’s not my interest. I see classification, frameworks, expectations, etc only as an ad-hoc way we organize the world. They are functional but unstable and are a baseline that we all shared. Which makes them useful as a departure point to see in other ways.