Pictures of Things
Exhibition #1 from project Elephant
Photo by Kenta Chai @kenta.works
2023 | Solo exhibition | The Back Room | Kuala Lumpur
Pictures of Things was conceived in the early months of the lockdown in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic. It's about picturing a mood from that experience. Where I made and thought about paintings when everything around me slowly folded into itself.
This exhibition is the first of a larger painting project titled Elephant. Elephant is my long-term project exploring possibilities around making paintings and painting exhibitions. Particularly through conversations with others about images and the language we use to describe them.
These paintings were selected and develop from a larger pool of work. They are available to view on the main project page.
Paintings with a grey dot are sold.
1. This Small Show
It’s a mood.
I want to create a mood that is both bright and dark all at once. It is a memory of an exhibition I had wanted to make in those early months of the pandemic in 2020. Quiet, not loud. It should feel like a crisp blank piece of A4 paper. A space that the audience can use as a mirror and project whatever is in their heads. A bright comfortable place to stay, stare, read and rest.
Putting “mood” in the centre is something I have not done before. I am not sure about this, but I have to do it anyway. This was one thing I kept trying to walk away from because it seemed so dated and flimsy yet somehow I kept returning to it.
Twinkle, Twinkle Little Shit, 2022, Oil on Canvas
In my recent approaches to painting, I prioritised speed, simplification and interpretation over details. Was it possible to adapt this for an exhibition? Could I simplify and just remove things? Paintings of colours with horizontal and vertical lines looked simple enough. Could I do a show with only these paintings? They are fun to paint. But yet they felt too simple as images. Somehow, just hearing that thought in my head made it appealing to me. I suddenly realised I had somehow equated simple images with bad imagery. It was a blind spot.
The memory of those lockdowns in 2020 must have been more traumatic than I thought. I was not depressed and I do not think it was the isolation — that was something I was familiar with. Maybe it was how the immobility of everyone and everything that made me reflect on my work and place in this world and how I got here. It was a feeling of both hopefulness in the possibility of the change that may come and the futility in everything that was immediately in front of me. Everything seemed to be folding into itself.
EEEEEE, 2022, Oil on Canvas
But that was not quite it. I was still thinking of ways to put that experience into a sequence of words. But most likely my words have reached their limits and my paintings should take over.
When it comes to art and art-making, I do not think that there must be a resolution. I mean art and art-making are not a mathematical formula or a scientific pursuit. It is useful to have a problem to resolve, an ideal to pursue, however abstract or unattainable. I am clear that their function is to generate work. And the doing is what matters more. Thoughts, ideals, and words are a means to an end that can be acted upon. They are not an end in themselves. Or else they are useless to my practice.
2. An Exhibition As A Medium
I see a painting exhibition as a grouping of a set of paintings in a space. It's not definitive and I am only using this as a framework to develop ideas I have about exhibition-making. I want to find other ways to imagine what an exhibition can be.
This way of seeing and thinking about paintings as a group has something to do with my video-making, specifically my editing timeline, which is a sequence of independent images arranged to work together for a particular end. It’s a montage. And it is through this montage that a particular story, mood, and emotion are created. Independently, each image can take on different meanings, or serve different purposes. It’s the Kuleshov Effect.
My editing timeline for Pelacur Muzik (2023)
“[It 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 shows sadness.
And in the last row, the woman shows lust.
Images and text from studiobinder.com
I am interested in the possibility of a new dimension which is created by merely sequencing or grouping different images together. In this way, an exhibition becomes as much a ‘work’ as are the individual paintings. It is not an inevitable by-product that pops into existence upon the completion of a series of works. While this is a slight shift in thinking, it makes my painting experience different. The act can be independent or comes first and the paintings themselves can take on multiple meanings depending on the focus of different exhibitions.
This exhibition is the first of a series of exhibitions from my long-term painting project titled Elephant. For this exhibition, I am not making a ‘series’ of paintings in the traditional sense of the word. To an extent, they are anti-serial paintings. For the past 3-4 years I have been painting what I like without thinking too much about a series or a concrete idea for a show. My belief is that an idea or a grouping of paintings will emerge organically from this pool of paintings. I'll then develop an exhibition by making more paintings around this initial grouping to suit the specificity of the idea. The choices about what to paint are mainly based on:
1. The quality of light in the image. I am drawn to images that have pronounced lighting or shadow — flash photography, a shimmering glow, shiny surfaces, etc.
2. Subject matter that occupies my mind at the time — systems and structures, matters relating to vision or seeing, representation, etc.
3. The potential of an image to be paired with other images and how I can use it in multiple ways — 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.
What the audience will see in this show is only a small selection of what is available because of this exhibition's criteria of selection. But I will use them in my future exhibitions. This is my attempt at including the element of time in my painting and play with the idea of instability of representation and meaning. Those which are not included, including the set-up-and-ideas-in-progress, are documented on the main project page on my website.
3. Sources and References
An aspect of my painting is about figuring out what painting can be by exploring its boundary, where definitions inevitably become fuzzy and unstable. The label of figuration and abstraction is an example. I do not have allegiance to either. Images are images. I am more interested in how I can use them than how they are conventionally defined. In my daily practice these boundaries are almost transparent. But I am interested in our need for simple and convenient classifications. This desire for order, even if it means making things so simple that it becomes a low-resolution caricature of the real thing; a hurried and simplified way of looking at and organising the world. It’s a facet of human nature that I use as a device in my work.
All the images for my recent paintings are sourced from the internet. This practice started in the late 2000s as a way to play with the basic assumption that painting was about making new images and mark-making. So, instead of doing that, the challenge was to create new contexts or interpretations of readymade images. Merci, Marcel Duchamp.
This was also my way of including the internet in my painting practice. Because having internet access has had an impact on my creative practice. And I wanted this impact to be represented in my work.
Untitled (tentative), 2022, Oil on Canvas
Some paintings in this show are based on images of real objects. The oscilloscope painting is one, the 35mm ground glass is another. But there are others that are more ambiguous. A graph, for example — is a mathematical idea that can be painted and seen as figurative or as an abstraction. The same with a gridded Chinese calligraphy paper; this is both a design and an actual product.
A Chinese Poem, 2022, Oil on Canvas (WIP)
(Chinese calligraphy paper)
Even the definition of painting from life itself can also become fuzzy simply by widening the scope of our gaze. Painting by only referencing real objects — the image and the piece of paper it is printed on or the image on a computer screen — can also be tricky. The paper and computer monitor where the image ‘sits’ can be viewed as objects. Because of the different ways an image is formed across different media, the same image viewed through an old TV or a computer monitor or a printed copy is different. The most obvious differences are its resolution and whether it’s reflected (print) or projected (screen) light.
So, the actual physical reference I use plays a part. The Judgement of Venus is an example. It was painted and repainted over months while the actual printed reference started to discolour. The yellowish band on top and the pinkish discolouration on the side of the top right panel is actually from the bleached-out print. I was actually looking outside of the image at the physical paper itself. If I had wanted to reference only a pristine image, I could have always just referred to the JPEG version on a screen. I used both.
The Judgement of Venus (tentative), 2020, Oil on Canvas
(Silicones implants for breast augmentation)
Some of the paintings refer to sources with ‘light’ related images. The RGB channel of a TV screen. Or the bands of rainbow-like spectrum on a soap bubble. Or images of optical aberration from a defective lens, an optical by-product that doesn’t exist in the real world but can be observed nonetheless. So, my references are not only things we can hold but also things we cannot see with our naked eyes without the aid of specialised tools.
Untitled (tentative), 2022, Oil on Canvas
(Soap bubble spectrum)
Recently, I have expanded my reference images to include those captured from videos and movies. Considering that I have been making videos for the past decade, I'm not sure why this expansion did not happen sooner. It seems the most obvious thing to do. It started when I felt a need to somehow converge my video and painting-making practice. For a while, it was useful to have two different processes and art forms. They served as counterpoints and served different needs. But I feel differently now.
Leaders (tentative), 2021, Oil on Canvas
(Still from a documentary)
There are also personal and collective events, particularly those from the past, which I can only access as pictures and words. This applies to referencing stills from movies as well because they exist purely as images and not things. So, certain images I paint are once removed or are not objects in real life.
Column & Gutters (tentative), 2021, Oil on Canvas
(A composition grid)
Besides expanding the pool of images to select from, the colour, lighting, and grain of images from movies and videos are appealing to me. I thought I could use this to show how my painting and video-making can converge. For a while, I was very interested in exploring more ways to show this convergence. And it was part of the initial objective of this exhibition even though it is no longer in the foreground.
Scan Lines (tentative), 2019, Oil on Canvas
(Closeup of a CRT screen being calibrated)
Most of these paintings straddle aspects of figuration and abstraction simultaneously. I am not sure, but I think I can use this ambiguity to make meaning. At the very least, I will have fun trying. For example, I can use No Signal to express aspects of my pandemic experience without deviating from the visual continuity of the show.
No Signal, 2020, Oil on canvas
(A broken oscilloscope)
In that sense, a whole host of interpretations can be projected onto these visually simple images, echoing the function of a composition grid. They are not as boxed-in compared to the figurative paintings that I have in my studio. This provided me with a nice space to innovate and build something with these simple elements.
Repetition is something I wanted to develop since The Horror, The Horror (THTH), one of my previous exhibitions The Horror, The Horror. And plays on the counter-intuitive idea that repetition can be a source of creativity. So, from repeating the same image again and again in THTH to a repetitive act of painting with a set of basic elements: lines, planes, and colours. The horizontal and the vertical. This was an unexpected development from that exhibition.
4. Painting As A Medium
The act of painting for me in the last few years was about deciphering signals from all the noise of its history. And my limited history with it. It's an exercise in reduction and finding ownership of it.
Painting to me, in general is static in so many ways. But painting is also very direct. There are fewer places to hide. In some ways, painting is a mirror where all my convictions and doubts are reflected back to me; it is different from videos which I use more as a lens to see the world. There are other technical differences that place them on opposite ends of my practice. And I think this is a big part of what makes both mediums 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.
For the past few years, I have been rethinking the process, the tools, and my general attitude towards painting, and how these things affect one another. I have explored some of these thoughts in an essay Thinking Aloud (Link). I am not sure if I have made any meaningful progress. But I am quite certain a blank canvas is no longer as precious compared to before, so, that is something. In fact, many of the paintings in this show have other images beneath them. I've done as much erasure of imagery — by painting over the canvases with titanium white — as I have painted new imagery. It is almost performative.
Titanium White (tentative), 2023, Oil on canvas
(An erased painting of a fetus)
One of my recent ways of working out my thoughts about painting was by talking to people and showing them paintings in my studio with the hope that their feedback might lead me to see things in different ways. In the past eight months or so, I have spoken to a number of people about this show. Some I know well, others not so. It was helpful and will continue.
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 am not against both of these. I mean, my creative practice for the last seven years has been sustained by selling paintings. And I will need to sell many more. But I must believe there is more to this. Even if there isn’t.
(Edited by Wong Hoy Cheong)