About Face
by Nadiah Bamadhaj

The first time I was introduced to Bee Ling’s work, I did, in all honesty, recoil from it. However this was neither due to its quality nor her drive and commitment to the work, but my assumption that Bee Ling and I were approaching art from ideological opposites. The work I am speaking of is her “On Moving Out and Moving In” series, which she executed during her stay at the Rimbun Dahan artist-in-residence program in 2005, while I was there as resident ‘spouse’ of another artist.

I had long held the notion that in order to be taken seriously as a woman artist, I had to steer away from any subject matter that could be construed as stereotypically female. Confronted by the food, cups, plates, and other domestic objects of Bee Ling’s “On Moving Out and Moving In” series, I immediately read the work with the same chauvinistic discourses that reduces ‘serious art-practice’ to ‘stereotypically female’, thereby revealing the ridiculous irony of my own brand of feminism.

The best insight into an artist’s work is through a method highly underutilised in most artworlds – to get to know the artist as a person. As time passed at Rimbun Dahan, the development of my friendship with Bee Ling and the insight into her personal and professional struggles provided a completely new reading of her work.

From my lonely planet of female independence I watched her grapple with the familial pressures on her as a married woman. From the many and varied expectations of her as ‘daughter’ and ‘sister’ from those who had nothing to do with her upbringing, to her womb becoming a public-listed company, I saw that the institution of marriage may have nothing to do with who you married, and that the treatment of domestic objects in her paintings may in fact be an outlet for these conflicts in her domestic life.

With this insight, the forms in Bee Ling’s paintings began to vibrate like a kitchen in an earthquake. Glasses rang, rambutans screamed, and the outer plane of paint threatened to swallow its contents and throw them back up again. And I felt very privileged to know her.

When Bee Ling began to email me images from her current “Faces of Paradox” series, I saw the connections to her previous work immediately. Technically, the work carried the same investment of time and thought in the layering of paint and form, the same meticulous concern for the resolution of the picture plane, and the same persistence that categorises her work squarely into what I call ‘not-3-day-paintings’.

From my readings of her previous work, I saw her move from ‘object’ to ‘figure’ as an inevitable evolution in the business of articulating human conflict. However to say that Bee Ling now articulates these conflicts through the use of human faces rather than domestic metaphors would be, in my opinion, superficial.

The significance of the shift in Bee Ling’s new work is the externalisation of her point. Her paintings are now opinions that want to be heard.

The canvas is worked with a combination of forms and planes, agitated and chaotic, and at the same time constricted within monolithic faces, large and looming. Both face and forms are worked over to reveal degrees of emotional and mental conditions. Arbitrary Rulers I and II live up to their names with facial displays of unearned authority, its colours bright and naive, whilst Constantly Repressed I and II are grotesquely featured, with tones both sluggish and beaten.

The Meeting is paradoxically multiple. In this painting two groups attempt a coming together, and yet are painfully divisive. Each face displays a particular stance, yet layered over with other expressions, other agendas, other intents. Nothing is clear and no one is as they seem. This theme is extended further into Mass Gathering I and II, where numbers and visual noise is increased into a state of faceless babble.

Of particular interest to me in this series is Pride. The face is composed in haughty condescension, but its layering suggests the visual equivalent of a mental break, surrounded by the colour of shame. It is the height of Bee Ling’s expressions of paradox.

When I initially posed the question to Bee Ling, “Why faces?”, she said it was from reflecting on the face of her newly born son, Choy Yang, and its limitless potential as subject matter. I would however go a little further to say that motherhood has provided Bee Ling with a little more grit and resolve, a touch of fearlessness, that has allowed her to articulate her concerns ‘head on’. “Faces of Paradox” is no longer a dialogue of metaphors, but an open critique of the state of things.

Nadiah Bamadhaj
June 2008