The portrait of a family man
|Harry Lee Kuan Yew|
The recent paintings by Ong Hui Har are a far cry from her earlier, embryo-like, abstract marble-textured paintings. Resembling enigmatic studies of the microscopic realm, or far away galaxies, they marvel the viscosity of oil and water-based pigments in different medium. Both of us were trained at Goldsmiths College, and familiar with the fad of flat backgrounds, seen the works of Michael Craig-Martin or Lisa Milroy which had a familiar flat graphic element. Michael Craig-Martin and Lisa Milroy, painters, were familiar names in the teaching fraternity at Goldsmiths in the late 1990s. A greater surprise to a few who knew my paintings from a couple of years ago, Ong and I now had a common subject matter.
It would be easier to describe some of the paintings, write about the intention behind the works and their significance in the brief painterly traditions of art in Singapore.
The works in this exhibition have flat coloured backgrounds, making the subject suspend in mid-air, much like how Patrick Caulfield would have been interested in depicting flatness, and illusionary space. The foreground, consists of numerous nostalgic, grey-scale figures in various poses. The paintings depict our Minister Mentor, Mr Lee Kuan Yew in his youth and private leisure as a family man – a child, a young man, a husband, a father and a grandfather. These paintings were perhaps based on images from his numerous biographies or portraits for articles. Taken out of context, and thrown into an ambiguous flat background, we are force to speculate the original location the image was primarily situated. The new image, is dislocated. They have uncannily candid poses that are most intriguing to observe. This adds to the stark contrast of the politician identity this family man wears, a moot point of this series of paintings: to paint another perspective of the serious man we are acquainted with, mediated by the mass media. Here, we are shown a different interpretation, a family man.
The most successful paintings in the exhibition, is a pair of paintings depicting Mr and Mrs Lee posing in front of the Bridge of Sigh, St. John’s College in Cambridge, United Kingdom. The first painting, depicts the couple in their twenties, and the other, twenty years on. The sfumato successfully blurs the hard edges of his clothing and gentle wrinkles, bringing focus to an optical and painterly blur in balance. The expressions are relaxed, catching an exquisite likeness to what we know the public figures to be. The body language is telling, from a youthful slump to a sombre, confident stance. The grey scale painted couple is distinguished from the light lilac background of a duotone image of the Bridge of Sigh.
The Pop-styled use of a plain, bright background also places Ong with other Singaporean painters such as Eric Chan or David Chan. Like Chan, the plain background derives its influence form silkscreen pop art and the intention to isolate the subject matter. This is stark contrast with the socio-historical paintings of Chua Mia Tee, Lee Boon Wang, or Koh Sia Yong. Like many of the other contemporary Singapore painters, the flat background is borrowed stylistically but used to different effect and on different subject matter. It is too early to tell if this is a new stylistic innovation in painting in Singapore, as only time can tell. One can imagine that flat backgrounds are an easy way out to depicting a claustrophobic background, cluttered with activity. The flat background also simultaneously resembles sterile, clinical, studio passport photographs. A flat background does facilitate scrutiny of the subject matter. The association to kitsch or psychedelic bright colours is unavoidable but not intentional. Kitsch, an extant, outlandish appeal to youth culture, here they are not. In ‘MUJI’ aesthetics, one should consider them as minimal and more wabi-sabi in aesthetics than cost-time-cutting measures.
While a little more is desired in depicting likeness or absolute authoritarian attention to realism, the paintings as a series resonates what it sets of to do: examine on canvas, the image of the leisure of the man so iconically linked to our national identity. In that sense, it touches on issues of privacy and publicity of public figureheads. How much do we have a right to know, and not know? But one must admit, as paintings do brilliantly romanticise the subject matter These scenes are doubly selected: by the photographers that took these, omitting others, or excluded by the artists ploughing through grey-scaled photographs-illustrated biographies. One might have been more intrigued by a universal exposition or dichotomy of private versus public, leisure versus work. But by that interest, perhaps it would have been more useful to examine the lives of more people, important or less important.
As a first solo, this exhibition represents a step out of the shadows in a long while for the artist. As a first step, she could not have picked a more subtle but edgy subject matter that interests us exactly for the same reason the biographies interests us.
Arts House Gallery
31 Mar – 4 April, 2010