A ‘Filtered’ overview of recent works by 11 contemporary Malaysian artists

This exhibition brings together recent artworks by ten contemporary Malaysian artists. The artists and their artworks were selected based on an open-ended thematic notion of being ‘filtered’ or the process of ‘filtering’. This essay will briefly explicate the theme and review how it has been multifariously personified, epitomized and expressed by the participating artists.

The words ‘filter’ and ‘filtering’ can be read under three different domains – mental, emotional and physical. Generically, ‘filtering’ may relate to the act of straining, sorting, separating, extracting, absorbing or secreting unwanted elements from a particular physical substance, idea or emotion in order to clean, distill or purify them. The word filter in a photographic term denotes an additional device attached to a lens, normally used to impede unwanted glare from distracting a picture. Physically, if a camera lens is taken as one’s eyes, the filter can be taken as contact lenses or eye glasses that may assist in achieving a clearer vision. Our mind is the CPU of mental and emotional filters. We are engaged in the act or process of filtering across the mental, emotional and physical domains of our life. The act of filtering can thus be read as an embodiment of our effort to attain the essence of a substance, idea or emotion. Ideally, to filter is to reach a clearer vision, the true Light or spirit, the heart or the fundamental nature of our mind, body and soul as well as things around us.

On the opposite spectrum of such notion of cleaning, distilling or purifying is the act of partially concealing, deceiving, distorting, changing, modifying or altering a particular physical substance, idea or emotion. Instead of attaining the true Light or spirit, or the quintessence and the heart of things around us, we may unintentionally taint, contaminate and veil a particular substance, idea or emotion through our own mental, emotional and physical filters. Different ‘filters’ or processes of filtering may thus yield different visions, perceptions and impressions. Our own unique mental, emotional and physical ‘filtering device and process’ (or conditioning) will determine the way we see ourselves and things around us. Our reality is thus conditioned by the way we filter loads of information that we receive in every moment of our life. Each of us is the embodiment of our own unique ‘filtering pattern’ or stamping. Each of us is connected to others through intricate patterns and infinite webs of filters across physical, mental and emotional domains

How do we determine what kind of filter will clean, distill, and purify and which will taint, deceive, conceal, contaminate, alter, distort and veil us from acquiring a clearer or purer vision as well as understanding of the fundamental nature of our mind, body and soul?

One who understands his or her own process of mental, emotional and physical filtering will be one step closer to his or her true Self. But how does one filter one’s own act of ‘filtering’ without stumbling into an Escher-like infinite paradox? Is there a ‘higher’ filter that can be readily employed to assist us in attaining the ultimate Truth? Is there an ultimate Truth? What is the ultimate Truth? Does the ultimate truth reside in our conscious physical domain and filtering device, or do we have to acquire a specific mental and emotional filter in order to attain the ultimate Truth?

Are we struggling to swim across a stormy sea of infinitely tainted, deceiving, concealing, contaminating, altering, and distorting filters? Are we drowning ourselves in such filters as we engage in the contemporary art scene?

Perhaps we may begin by taking a small step of trying to decipher how others filter themselves through their artworks.

Marvin Chan’s paintings feature three standing figures in frontal position to directly confront the viewers with their masked or ‘filtered’ faces. His use of oil paints on canvas displays not only his painterly skill in rendering human figures, but also conveys his passion in immersing himself with traditional painting techniques. His predominantly scumbling and impasto modeling technique exudes an air of classical and naturalistic touch to the whole pictorial scheme, making his works appear quite distinct in comparison to other more experimental and mixed-media approaches preferred by many contemporary young artists. His figures are nevertheless contemporary, stylistically rendered through a combination of social and pop realism. The composition is simple, symmetrically straightforward, centralized, balanced and purposely static to induce a sense of dominance and to allow the viewers to confront his subjects directly on eye level without any obstacle. This is further augmented by a flattened space through ambiguous wall behind the figures without any suggestion to move inward. The viewers are thus directed towards the isolated subjects, forcing them to identify and engage with the subjects in an ‘interface’ minus the faces.

Marvin’s metaphorical interpretation of the notion of filtering refers to different masks that people put up to cover their true faces as well as to portray their preferred characters and roles. In the case of his works, Marvin has chosen the masks of a white rabbit, a brown bear and a smiling clown to conceal the faces of his figures. The masks and their supporting signifiers may perhaps be intended to personify archetypal characters, without any specific national, religious, political, cultural or even ethnic index. The white rabbit may connote a meandering, naïve and conservative youth lost in her own rabbit hole with only her pet to provide a sense of security. The blond lady in her tight outfit may imply an obscured childish desire to be cuddled and pampered like a cute ‘teddy’ whilst forgetting the fact that a bear is still a ‘wild beast’. The fake clownish smile may conceal an evil plot as implied by the gesture of the clown’s hands. Such setting creates a formal and stable yet disturbed and muted mood in which the viewers may engage in a guessing game of hide and seek, as far as ‘filtering’ an identity and representation are concern.

Anurendra Jegadeva or J.Anu borrowed Indian astrology and utilized a juxtaposition of iconic deity, a barber shop, and a crystal ball. J.Anu’s mastery of his chosen medium and technique is perhaps comparable to Marvin, especially in emanating a sense of traditional painterly skill and discipline. Anu’s ‘chisel-like’ modeling technique is probably more personalized and less generic, stylistically stamping his unique form of social realism. Like Marvin, Anu’s visual rendition is bold and contemporary but more challenging in terms of pictorial composition. In fact, Anu’s visual drama is augmented by his tight spatial treatment and carefully-considered placement of pictorial elements. Despite the metaphysical and serious political as well as social undertone, his work is deceivingly pleasing and easy on the eyes.

J. Anu is already known for his emphatic portrayal of Indian clichés, sadly taken by many as ‘by-default’ setting for the daily drama of a large majority of Malaysian Indian community. By choosing to juxtapose Indian astrology with such clichés, Anu has provided a more ethnically, culturally, politically and locally-specific index for his viewers to decipher. Without going into further reading of his indexical signifiers, Anu’s chosen subject is itself a statement of intent and reflective of ‘insignificant’ others in the social fabric of Malaysian society. As we frantically race towards the challenges and opportunities of the 21st. century, there are also fragments of our society that are frozen by paradigmatic stagnancy and paralyzed by stigmatic social clichés. The free-market liberal economy that has been brought by global capitalism may have created a ‘survival of the fittest’ environment in which the ‘least prepared’ and ‘weakest’ may be ‘filtered’ and left behind. His narrative implies the dichotomy of choice, chance and fate, filtered by the complexities of relationship, religious standing and political affiliation.

Khairul Azmir Shoib’s (or Meme) employment of gothic and isolated human caricatures in grayish costumes, postures and facial expressions creates a surreal, sad, low key, monotonous, gloomy and dark mood for his psychological ‘diorama’. Meme’s stylistic stamping is eclectic and can be referred to many sources, from Tim Burton and Raja Shahriman to Japanese Mangga, Harry Potter, Medieval Europe, Malay legends and Islamic cosmology.

Despite his eclectic cross-references and imaginative ‘story-board’ visualization, Meme is truly in love with the art of ‘story-telling’ as inspired by the tradition of Wayang Kulit. In fact, Meme’s dalang-like interest has allowed him to forge his inclination towards linear narrative and film language with the pictorial idiom of a singular non-linear painting. His ‘still’ works are best read in series. Meme is nevertheless an accomplished technician and skillful draftsman who is not only passionate about the art of story-telling, but also excels in visualizing his stories through intricate characterization, imaginative scenic, set and costume design, as well as dramatic film composition.

His work can be taken as a form of homage to the metaphysical underpinning, dramatic richness and narrative uniqueness of the Souteast-Asian Wayang Kulit tradition. His work can also be read as a filtered and reincarnated version of such tradition, with its emphasis on a cosmology of multiple domains or otherworld-ness, surreal and archetypal characters, psychological drama, and the ‘halus’ or intangible aspect of humanity as filtered by the universal pairing of light and dark, good vs evil.

Zulkifli Yusoff’s bold, monstrous and demonic caricatured portrait with a cynical and wicked smile was meant to invoke a domineering presence of someone along the similar vein of Maharaja Rawana. This main malevolent and malicious spirit epitomizes sin, vice, immorality and obnoxious character that persist throughout the history of mankind. His narration and architectonic pictorial plot is littered by multiple iconic images taken from various sources – thus acting as supplementary signifiers or index for the viewers to decode. His references can be localized, regionalized and internationalized. The calendar for example, may universally imply a passing time or event in history, while the archaic coins may connote economic domination. The race horses with jockeys are perhaps suggestive of a highly competitive sport in which power, speed and physical agility are crucial in maintaining power and survival of the fittest.

Zulkifli’s print and collage techniques are purposely simple in order to provide a structural base for his more forceful, vigorous and bold rendition of the main subject. The colors are mostly pure and intense in middle key range with white as a contrasting chromatic element. Despite the historical reference, the chromatic mood and stylistic appearance are contemporary, pop and eclectic. The space is forcefully flat, predominantly geometric and grid-like, thus creating a highly cold, calculated and mechanical setting for his energetic and expressive subject to dominate the composition with its nasty presence. The whole composition provides a lingering feel of suppressed anger, cynicism and mockery that may have filtered Zul’s own interpretation of the notion of abusive power. Notwithstanding a controlled composition in his recent works, Zul still manages to provide a glimpse of his personal idiosyncratic manic expression that he was known for during the early stage of his involvement in the local art scene.

Nooraziman Paiman’s absurd, imaginary and mutant figures, acts and scenes serve as a ‘forebearer’ of meanings as well as counterpoints for his quotations taken from several prominent figures who were engulfed in several ‘hot’ issues in the local newspapers. Surprisingly, Paiman has chosen a considerably tame water color technique to convey his voice. His chosen medium and layering as well as wash techniques impart a light, fresh and translucent quality to the whole pictorial scheme. His child-like and naïve stylistic drawings emanate a strange mix of comical, jovial, funky ambiance only to be twisted by dark humor and perhaps crude or raw mockery. Paiman’s stylistic stamping is also eclectic, a mix bag of surrealism and dada with pop fantasy. The colors are bright, cheerful, fresh and contrasting. His composition is predominantly centralized and organic with his main subjects proportionately taking the center-stage in an ambiguous space marked by dynamic repeated patterns. The ambiguity also creates a dreamy sense of being no where, without any trace of cultural or social register.

Paiman is a master of satire and cynical visual pun. His series of recent works in this exhibition refers to the editorial power of the local mass-media in which original sources of information may be filtered, de-contextualized and freely misinterpreted. Such an open-ended filtering may create a media and public fiasco in which new readings may surface out of no where. Paiman’s semiotic play also induces multiple readings and meanings in which the original contexts where rendered elusive or in the case of his works, totally absence. One is left to meander in a state of permanent deconstruction.

Paiman’s choice of quoting ‘hot’, politically sensitive and popular local issues appears deceivingly random. Nevertheless, his choice is suspiciously predetermined, and perhaps intended to add some spices and biting whimsical impact to his works.

Roslisham Ismail aka Ise appropriated a photographic portrait of Azhari, the late Malaysian terrorist who were killed in Indonesia. Ise used a mocking ‘wanted’ poster that may remind one of a typical scene in an American cowboy movie. Perhaps inspired by his close affiliation with several clusters of young artists in Indonesia and his recent sojourn in Australia, Ise’s seemingly tongue-in-cheek proposition can be read in several different ways. Technically, Ise’s digital print is extremely raw and purposely unoriginal, but not without a ‘Duchamp-like’ touch to serve as a cynical twist. Despite his proven talent in drawing, Ise has decided to kill any trace of his technical deftness through a direct and rudimentary digital print. By appropriating an already existing popular graphic lingo, the viewers can be lead to immediately focus on decoding Ise’s visual pun. The semiotic play between Azhari’s photo with the poster language and altered texts unveils a more sinister reading of Malaysia’s and Indonesia’s positions in the so-called global war against terrorism.

Ise’s visual temperament and generic attitude are almost similar to Paiman – a crude, unsophisticated, at times naughty and coarse inclination to satirize and mock what would normally be taken as a deadly serious issue. In doing so, he imparts a disturbing combination of impersonal, non-committed, highly detached and uncouth reading of a seemingly alarming issue of global terrorism with a touch of vulgar street subjectivity, disdain, and youthful derision of the weigh of such issue.

The resulting mood is a feeling of being ridiculed for taking such an issue too seriously or being shamed for subscribing the issue according the filtering of the American propaganda machine. Within the context of global capitalism, even war and terrorism can be taken as an effective form of ideological contestation in which absolute power and economic domination are the exclusive rights of the mighty. Ise’s crude mockery can also be related to the politics of representation, where those who are economically and politically subservient can be misrepresented, demonized and stereotyped as a ‘global treat’.

Ironically, as Malaysia proactively engages and propels itself in the complex and sensitive matrix of global capitalism, the lingering legacy of Azhari may end up becoming her most popular global export. Ise’s risky ploy may also be received by some as ill-mannered, rude and offensive to the government’s commitment in fighting terrorism and religious fanaticism.

Hasnul J Saidon appropriated a portrait painting by the late Hoessein Enas to infiltrate the idealistic and romantic rendering of a passive Malay woman with a contemporary and cosmopolitan twist.

Ivan Lam’s slick rendering of a scene of a ‘toll plaza’, a bottle of hennessy V.S.O.P with self-referential textual proclamations unveils a normally obscured motivation and commercial infiltration of the local art-scene. Technically, Ivan employed what appears to be a combination of stenciling, hardedge and realistic rendering in acrylic. The shinny plastic quality of the surface texture compliments Ivan’s employment of cosmopolitan graphic language. Stylistically, his work is marked by pop realism, and filtered by a very clean, lean and glossy visual treatment. The composition is minimal and asymmetrical, tightly composed by a rectangular grid on both sides of the paintings. The colors are fresh, brilliance and bold, with a clearly-demarcated contrast between the white surface with the pictured scene and object. The written texts are meant to be read as some sort of statement or signed proclamation. They were also carefully placed as pictorial elements to further augment the contrast between the deep spatial feel of the picturesque scene with the flat white space. The overall schematic feel reminds one of a ‘high-definition’ advertisement page in an urban lifestyle magazine.

Conceptually, Ivan’s work refers to the highly filtered world of contemporary art scene in which personal desire and idealism clash with the commercial imperative of sustaining a career, brand name, lifestyle and the constant need to grab opportunities. The reference to the toll plaza and criminals in denoting a practicing visual artist as opportunity seeker is perhaps symptomatic of the increasingly complex political matrix of the contemporary art scene. No longer determined or influenced by official government cultural policies, today’s contemporary art scene is increasingly dictated by the ebb and flow of the global market and its local echo. Sleek brand development, lucrative business contracts, clever political maneuver, global networking, glossy and persuasive marketing, clashing egos and masked insecurity, rapid urbanization, promise of an economic security if not luxury, social status and stature are fast becoming regular features of today’s artistic practice. Superficial and hedonistic preoccupations, obsession towards instant spectacle and material gains are also drowning the traditional sentiment of practicing as a visual artist, especially in the urban centers. Ivan’s sentiment is reflective of the often hidden predicament encountered by today’s local young artists.

Ahman Shukri Mohamad’s formalistic dexterity is complemented by his iconic rendition of an engine filter drowned by a hazy and highly filtered surface texture to convey his idea on urban pollution. Shukri is widely known as an adept visual composer and proficient formalist. He is also admired for his capacity in producing aesthetically pleasing visual poetries. His work for this exhibition features a repertoire of layering, dripping, splashing, dry brush, screen print, and many other techniques that have been normally employed to typify his usual pop and abstract signature. His composition and spatial treatment are ambiguous, shallow, and highly layered with organic substances scattered or floating all over the pictorial plane to create a very busy, active, hazy, murky and smoky ambiance. The colors are muted and grayish in the range of middle and high key register. The image of engine filter and the accompanying text are perhaps employed to serve as formal compositional elements more than semiotic proposition. As anticipated, Shukri’s formalist preoccupation strikes more than his emotional sentiment or temperament. Expectedly, Shukri’s literal engagement with the notion of ‘filtered’ is quite straightforward. Nevertheless, the work project an ironic and paradoxical reading of ‘engine filter’ that is supposed to impede emission of carbon monoxide only to implicate more damage to the urban environment.

Sabri Idrus is another formalist and explorative inventor who presents a seemingly open-ended abstract painting. The work can be referred to as a form of filter of ‘penapis’ in Malay domestic kitchen setting. The object ‘penapis’ (filter) is physically implied by the crossing between horizontal and vertical lines made of threads of bamboo skin.

Sabri is a master technician and proponent of expanded media as implied by his inquisitive and immersive engagement with his chosen medium and technique. He speaks through biomorphic abstraction, using a mixture of coffee stain, polyester resin and plastic pigment. His abstract expressionistic rendition is further amplified by the contrast and crossing between horizontal and vertical linear mesh at the center of the work. The use of sepia and honey brown with a contrasting high-key creamy register creates a very natural and organic look to the work, perhaps referring to nature (as well as human nature). The whole mood is somber, old, archaic and stained.

Tapis in Sabri’s term, refers to an act of censorship. Such act has its paradoxical opposite which in turn, has the capacity to bring forward an ironic twist. Indiscriminative freedom is no different than blind censorship. In relating censorship to the object of ‘tapis’, Sabri reminds us of the fate of the raw material left behind after it has been filtered.

“Something fishy” by Hamir Soib borders on being minimal due to its unfinished quality, however, there is more to it than meets the eye. The work is a satirical look at an incident that blew up over the purchase of a Botero painting by a Malaysian corporation. The spontaniety with which this work has been made, makes a mockery of the amount of money that was spent on the Botero painting, and has allowed him to exorcise an issue that has been lingering in his mind.

The act of filtering, as explicated in the earlier part of this essay, embodies two opposing but complimentary possibilities– to distill and purify as well as to contaminate or further conceal.

Which spectrum of ‘filtering’ do we belong to?

Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah
May 2007