“Sound and Vision … is a presentation of artists working in conditions of abstraction, highlighting the means of composition in their art-making that engage with notions of repetition and rhythm, tonality and intensity, and unity and dissonance, and how these are being interpreted in artistic practices across mediums.” [Press Release]
It is inevitable that adults see abstract art with much suspicion. After all, much of abstract modern art looks like something a child could do. Except young children can’t really paint abstractly, and their paintings are often ‘narrative’, in a way that there are stories told as the paintings are made. Ask any parents who have kids attending pre-school, or read art historian, Jonathan Fineberg’s The Innocent Eye: Children’s Art and the Modern Art (1997). In Fineberg’s Innocent Eye, he uncovered and discussed children’s drawings collected by many known modernist artists and explained why we value children art. Fineberg examined the formal qualities of children’s art, and revealed influences by children’s art on early abstract painters, and certainly not the other way round.
Interestingly, there had been artists who tried to paint like children. Jean Dubuffet, Joan Miro, Cobra artists, and Paul Klee to name a few. In Singapore, Ben Phua’s paintings, Vincent Leow’s early paintings, or Angie Seah’s early drawings can come to mind. There are probably artists who still try to paint like children. Many artists in the past and present praise the ‘innocent’, unclouded vision of childhood and children, and these visions become muses for them to emulate, in a bid to evoke perhaps a romantic notion of ‘innocence’, expressive directness, simplicity, and perhaps universality across cultures. To some artists, they believe that their ‘inner child’, or ‘child-like sub-conscious’ are an un-tap creative force. To say that all abstract art is child-like would also trivialise what we know about our unconscious mind, and how artists have tapped on them to make art. Trivialising abstract art exposes what we don’t know about our subconscious minds too.
With this in mind, I tried to look at the artworks in this modest exhibition with an innocent eye.
The artworks were hung in a manner that emphasised the visual quality similarities between the paintings by different artists. I had mistakenly thought the sculptures by Wyn-Lyn Tan was by Ian Woo, because certain colours were similar to the paintings by Ian, and I remember he had a series of large, graphite line drawings that were very ‘sculptural’. The inclusion of Zulkifle Mahmod’s wall-hanging sound sculptures were a pleasant surprise and addition to the works on show, making the visual experience more enlivening.
But close observation by connoisseurs will recognise the differences of methods, colour-palette and media used by the three painters and 1 sound artist.
Ng Joon Kiat favoured a toss of graphite dust in his acrylic palette. They make his paint speckled, just enough to prod your curiosity. He used the skin of paint to create subtle variations in surface texture, and an incredibly harmonious and refreshing pastel colour range. We see less mass and lesions in these paintings than Ng’s green series which are marked by generous paint. Here, the cartographic surfaces we see in the green series erodes away, revealing more subtle yet luscious spreads of the palette knife, and wintry colour.
Wyn-Lyn Tan’s canvases appear to be doused, blotted and smeared effectively to create ink-like, and batik-like surfaces. Her odd stone-like sculptures resembled post-painting relics, perhaps enshrined in resin. From some angles, they look like ink landscape paintings, where the atmospheric perspective leads the viewers’ eyes calmly into the surface of the painting. They are meditative, where some strokes flow or ebb, and were fascinating to stare at. The colours resemble natural mineral shades found in stones.
Ian Woo’s canvases on the other hand, appear calculated in a different way: deliberate colour-contrasts are laid side by side to create an unusual surface that refuses to sit still. Everything is unfamiliar. Just when you think you can recognise a shape by following its contour line, it ends abruptly and throws your focus. The visual effect is unsettling, and conversational: each stroke talks to the previous one, responding to it, coaxing it to reveal something it doesn’t already know.
Zulkifle Mahmod’s sound pieces can be viewed as de-constructed paintings made with copper piping laid in a maze-like pattern. They show their structures, raw and bare. They refuse to lay flat, uses the shadow cast by the pipes to form an alternative surface of the work on the gallery wall. When all three sound sculptures are turned on, the syncopated rhythmic thump on copper pipes is piercingly loud, amplified by the walls of the space, yet mysterious as I tried to find a pattern or melody to the sound. They reminded me of three groups of people having their own conversations at the same time, growing louder, then quieter, overlapping at times, and other moments where they are eavesdropping curiously, waiting for the other group to finish. They could also sound like 3 monologues, that happen to sound like “call and response” at certain intervals.
If children’s art can teach us anything, it is to look at things with innocent eyes. Doing so will yield surprises. If that were one of the artists’ intentions, then I say they have done so successfully.
Works by Zulkifle Mahmod, Ng Joon Kiat, Wyn-Lyn Tan and Ian Woo
Curated by Michelle Ho
FOST Gallery, 10 November – 30 December 2018