My gallery cares about my masterpiece once it leaves the studio
by Anurendra Jegadeva
The success of a national art movement depends on the intricate coming together of several key components.
At the top of this pyramid are naturally, the art object and the artist who is making it.
The aesthetic quality of our work, its trend value, conceptual strengths and how it connects with its audience – all part and parcel of the artist’s process – factor large in how our careers as artists develop.
Then there is the art collector. Whether they are institutional, corporate or a private patron, the art collector – undeniably, whether we artists care to admit it or not, sits comfortably at the second rung of this equation.
Subscription to an artist’s work is especially crucial within the current ambitious climate where the reinvention of traditional aesthetics and the extension of new ways of making art seem to be the standard by which an artist’s practice is measured. There is no denying that as a result, the cost of making art has increased expedientially since the days of simply pushing paint around a canvas.
As such the role of the collector and the financial incentives they provide is a crucial factor in enabling artists to firstly – make a living – but more importantly, push the boundaries of the work we make.
Everyday banalities like the buying of art materials, exploring alternate media, the increasingly complex fabrication of ideas all mean that these financial incentives, the so-frowned-upon `commodification’ of the art object, play a crucial part in how we extend the parameters of our art-making processes. And of course, in a larger context, even as these incentives enable us to expand our practices, it also lifts the status of our very dynamic art movement to the level that we aspire to and as far as I am concerned…. deserve. It is a precarious balance – this necessary relationship between making the work we want to make as artists and satisfying the demands of the art market which provides the platform for our work to be valued, seen, considered and disseminated to broader art audiences. Within this scenario, the private commercial gallery provides the crucial bridge that introduces an artist and his work to a collector, but to some extent, also helps to create an invaluable distance between the artist, their art object and the demands of the marketplace.
Furthermore, within the specific context of a Malaysian contemporary art movement, the role of the private or commercial gallery is further extended. This is, by and large, due to the fact that the various other offshoots of our local fine-arts infrastructure are either dormant, sporadic, overworked or simply inept.
And because these other components of our fine arts infrastructure which include state run or corporate owned art institutions, educational facilities, the media, curators, writers and artist initiative soften fall short of their functions, the private gallery in Malaysia has increasingly had to pick up the slack and try to fill that gap.
The more serious of these private galleries end up playing this much bigger role, going beyond the mere sales of artworks for purely financial gain.
In fact for more than a decade, these private galleries have inherited the larger role traditionally held by national arts, cultural and heritage organizations in both discovering and developing stables of artists as well as showcasing their works extensively locally and internationally. Obviously, in the absence of the umbrella bodies fulfilling their role in promoting Malaysian art credibly, each gallery ends up promoting their line-ups as the often-contentious prominent figures in contemporary Malaysian art. Which if one cares to look at positively creates a healthy climate of competitiveness within the movement. For ten years now, first in its incarnation as the Townhouse Gallery and then as its self-named brand, Wei-Ling Gallery has excelled as one of these more important and committed repositories and platforms for the appreciation of contemporary Malaysian Art in the country, in the region and beyond.
Through vibrant exhibition programs; the sourcing of fresh talent; the publication of exhibition catalogues and artist monographs that provide vital documentation; as well as by organizing overseas exhibitions and participating in international art events like art fairs, Wei-Ling Gallery is amongst the few galleries which continue to fill the void left in the afore-mentioned absence of active and credible art initiatives put forth by the official art institutions. Furthermore, Wei-Ling Gallery was established at an opportune moment in the life of the contemporary Malaysian art scene. In Kuala Lumpur ten years ago, there was only a small pool of serious private galleries and a peppering of picture houses and frame shops masquerading as art galleries. Even as the subscription to Malaysian contemporary art seemed to wane in the face of an interest in what was seen as other `more vibrant’ South East Asian art movements, and the more prominent local galleries began to expand their venues to places like Singapore, Wei-Ling Gallery seriously concentrated on the showing and selling of works by local contemporary artists. Since then, the gallery has developed invaluable relationships with – first and foremost – a growing alumni of Wei-Ling artists; and of course with the key public and private sector collections, individual patrons as well as new, younger collectors.
Through their numerous publications, they have also shown their commitment to the documentation of events and works that have been exhibited at their venues. To date the gallery has published an impressive back-catalogue of art books, exhibition catalogues and artist monographs that not only record the works but through commissioned essays and articles attempt to create some form of art historical dialogue or discussion so absent from our art movement today.
In the last few years, the gallery – always in a state of growth – has also expanded its original premises and added a new arm to its operations with the opening of Wei-Ling Contemporary at the Gardens Mall. At the same time it has also been actively showcasing Malaysian contemporary art on a more international platform, taking Malaysian artists and art abroad with shows and events in Singapore, China, Hong Kong, India, Pakistan and Taiwan.
In spite of all these invaluable initiatives, all meaningful relationships – whether personal or professional, between artist and gallery – are inevitably fraught with the usual tensions and negotiations of who benefits most from that relationship.
Yet, over the last decade the gallery has nurtured a stable of artists that is invested and constant and as happy as we artists can ever be while still complaining.
As an artist, I am also gratified – and all the artists in the Wei-Ling Gallery can attest to this fact – that our freedoms to express ourselves in the things we make have never been curtailed or compromised in the face of the salability of the work or the political correctness of its content.
Whether from a thematic and conceptual point of view or as far as aesthetic considerations are concerned, Wei-Ling Gallery is more vested in the artists commitment to high standards of creativity as far as the their process is concerned rather than in the controversy of its meaning or shifts in established styles and mediums that may jeopardize its sale. But let’s put aside all the politics of art, the incessant complaining by artists, the cost of doing business and the demands of the market.
In the end, the most important and enjoyable facet of a gallery like Wei-Ling Gallery is without a doubt, the seminal and beautiful artworks that have passed through their doors over the last ten years. And it is a really impressive line up that not only feature some of the most prominent figures in Malaysian art but best of all, some of their most breath-taking works.
Among the most prominent contemporary artists in the Wei-Ling Gallery line up is Ivan Lam. A constant observer of the brave new world around him, Ivan’s work takes the everyday – whether it is people waiting at the LCC Taxi Rank, the quiet inside of a Chinese Restaurant, the thick aftermath of a maternity room or the life-sized blue-print of a street car in Yellow (the artist likes his toys) Ivan makes them heroic and extraordinary. Stripped of the tendency for nostalgia that most artists draw from, his versions of the contemporary world told through the very distinct voice of our growing middle-classes are presented with a flourish of style, the innovation of material and a surprising love for the labor of craft.While his works resist nostalgia and in their making or the obviously classical use of material, works like I Called But You Were Engaged (2009/2010) nevertheless reveal his acute awareness of his origins both as a young Malaysian man and as a committed contemporary artist always poised at the very edge of the contemporary.
Zulkifli Yusoff is another stand out practitioner whose stature and practice has certainly added to the gallery’s own reputation as an important venue for contemporary Malaysian art. Zul has extended the artform of painting to incorporate drawing, printage, assemblage and sculpture. Throughout his long and illustrious career, going back to his award-winning Immunity (1993) installation, the artist continues to push the boundaries of the contemporary in how he makes his work. While his works draw from the nostalgia of both, memory and history, the immediacy in works like his Reformasi Series lie in the fact that they are always undeniable responses to current events and states of mind. Then they are stylistically expressed in an aesthetic that is a happy merge of classicism and modernist expressions and materials.
In more recent works like Dari Mata Turun ke Hati (2008) and Bobby (2008) or Different Skills III (2008) Zul continues to successfully layer colonial-nostalgia and icons of longings for the past with its subtle implications on the fundamentally Malay contexts within which he lives today. Wei-Ling Gallery’s line up also features international artists who are fast becoming a legitimate part of the Malaysian art scene.Most noted is Amin Gulgee, the acclaimed sculptor from Pakistan whose work swings between the weird and the beautiful; the irreverent and the sublime; at one moment painfully funny and suddenly wonderfully sad. Calligraphic line, face molds from creepy doll heads and geometric puzzles are rendered in golden red copper and steel, parts of perfect mammoth forms balance precariously on their points. With his most recent room sculpture Charbagh (2011) the artist creates a towering construction of copper leaves and mirrored panels, transforming the room it occupies into a kind of Royal garden. Here, staring into the abyss of reflections one can either contemplate or descend into madness, all the while invoking the name of the Almighty – God is Great! God is Great! God is Great! Then there are the prominent husband and wife tag teams of Ahmad Shukri Mohamed and Umibaizurah Mahir and Yau Bee Ling and Choy Chun Wei.
In discussing them together as husbands and wives, it is not my intention to diminish or trivialize their individual practices to the cutesy or gimmicky. The truth is, their practices so inform and enrich each other’s that it seems futile not to recognize their influences on each other, intellectually and aesthetically as revealed in the gallery’s group shows where their works can be seen in vicinity of each other.
In fact Umi and Shukri actually had a joint exhibition at Wei-Ling’s entitled Toys in 2006.
Umi is one of Malaysia’s foremost ceramic artists. In her earlier Toys exhibition, she presented the delightful Gerabak Series, imagined organic forms decorated with hand-painted, exquisitely realistic botanical illustrations that take your breath away. Lined up like carriages on the way to some enchanted forest they possess a tactile quality that is simply irresistible.
Too delicate? Watch out for Hybrid!
With Hybrid, her next solo exhibition at Wei-Ling Gallery three years later, her pretty flora forms morph into 30 cuddly, dangerous fellows. Her new Sitting with Genii series – jewel-like creations that continue to find their inspiration from children’s toys courtesy of, one would assume, her children, also refer to her role beyond artist – that of mother and homemaker.
Her skillfully mutated ceramic toys constructed from the suggestion of favorite children’s toys – part duck, part elephant, part machine and laughing clown heads – all perched on high-chairs. The artist is much freer with these work, the forms and their postures much more spontaneous, the brush strokes now broad and painterly and confident, all of which reveal a maturity that lends innovation and originality to her ceramics medium.
Ahmad Shukri, a founding member of the Matahati art group is a painter who is intrigued by the possibilities of layering. His picture plane sare rich with collaged textures and motifs and drip that he then consolidates through the over painting of iconic or popular images and abstract forms. Dealing with a myriad of issues – from dead tapirs in his neighborhood to American imperialism, works like The Messenger reads like a narrative of the world we live in.
As with many Malaysian artists of his generation, Shukri’s work continuously deals with issue of identity, place and his experience of the larger world around. The same issues guide the sentiments in a work like Who Let the Black Dog Out? II&III (2006), inspired by the spectacle of dogs playing in a park and splashing in a pond at Martha’s Vineyard where he was doing a residency.
While Umi and Shukri’s works take very different paths as far as medium or sentiment is concerned, there is a subtle aesthetic that permeates both their works. Umi for example seems to have appropriated transfer techniques that add to her very painterly and layered approach to how she coats her forms. Conversely especially in Shukri’s Kedai Hiburan series from their joint Toys exhibition, the artist seems to incorporate delicate flower or fish motifs that are almost purposely decorative and in turn – reminiscent of Umi’s contoured surfaces. Similarly with Bee Ling and Chun Wei – both accomplished, thinking painters of rare distinction – their individual practices take very different approaches.
Bee Ling’s figurative work has always dwelt on the family and the autobiographical since her early stylized figurative narratives and colorful still-lifes. The recent works see a distinct departure from the old Bee Ling figure-types. Her 2008 Portraits of Paradox exhibition witnesses a real shift from the clearly defined compositions of the older works, finding resonance in the overlapping colour field portraits like Arbitrary Ruler (2008) or Mass Gathering II (2008). With these portraits Bee Ling plays with broad swaths of opaque greens and reds and blues, using an intricate weave of marks to define each portrait.… give in to their purely abstract quality and a Grid begins to emerge.
Which brings us to Chun Wei’s signature mammoth canvases that seem to refer dense urban life. His abstract paintings combine collage with thick squares of pigment – repeated and built upon with the claustrophobic neurosis of a town planner having a nervous breakdown. Drawing from what seems to be very classical approaches to color and tone, form and structure, Chun Wei gives us an intricate weave of seemingly arbitrary squares and rectangles and triangles in repeat that lend a richness of depth and movement to abstract works like Built And Illuminate (2007) and Trappings (2007) that depends on the Grid to define their structure and composition.
With his solo exhibition Here and Now (2011), Chun Wei expands on his rich abstract surfaces, collaging them into three dimensional standing sculptural forms, tall towers and squat duplexes made from the bits and pieces of our everyday consumer lives.The artist assembles fragments of toys, tickets stubs, ticker tape, and other recognizable bric-a-brac, combining them with a collage of text and fragments of photographs. All of which isreinvented and realized into nothing more than the building blocks for his abstract structures. The dark, brooding member of Wei-Ling’s line-up is Chin Kong Yee. A consummate painter’s painter, Kong Yee is a silent observer, the perennial outsider cigarette in hand, who carries-on the age-old tradition for artists to travel and contemplate the places where people live and work and play.
The artist’s vibrant cityscapes distorted as if seen through a fish’s eye have evolved as he ventures to locations further and further away from home. His ability to fragmentand fracture the picture plane conveys to his works fleeting moments captured through the rendering of bits of taxi and other passing cars, or suggested in the segmenting of human torsos and legs and hands.
These dramatic moments are further enhanced by the almost instinctive abstraction and stylized compositions of famous architecture and its ordinary inhabitants captured in the periphery of vision.
Kong Yee’s experience of locations large and small; far and near, famous and obscure – from Prague to Paris or Barcelona to Stuttgart, Turda to Bangkok always find him returning Home. And of course, his paintings always finds him returning home to the happy and the familiar – the yellow sands of Dungun and Merang, the luscious, luscious green of the Taiping Lake Gardens, processions in Batu Caves… this is the happy and the familiar. And suddenly, in works like Queen Street (2004) or Breakfast at Penang Kopi Tiam (2005), the artist is no longer an outsider looking in.
His recent New Landscapes series showcases large, multi-paneled vistas of nature – a departure in itself – that can be then reconfigured in varying vistas.
The idea for a work not having to be defined solely by the location of the architectural subject begins earlier on with Duomo (2008). A concave view of the famous square in Florence, it is a painting in free-fall which can be hung any-side-up, revealing the artist’s fascination with the abstract quality of a work.
Speaking of the abstract quality in a work, at a time when figuration seems to be the norm within the art scene, in Perak, a small legion of the faithful led by artists like Hamidi Hadi explore pure abstraction. With Hamidi Hadi, it would appear that their reason lies merely in the act of painting and nothing more. For him the painting is about painting.
But the wonderful penchant for colour and line and texture and movement and anonymous form layered within his complex picture surfaces unavoidably make them as much about pure beauty. In the course of his three exhibitions with Wei-Ling Gallery, we have bourn witness to the breath and range of this artist’s ability.
The tentative tenderness in works like Nilam (2006) and Sigh (2006) gives way to the raw savagery of 2009’s Timang exhibition only to find confident resolution and glorious peace in the very, very exquisite beauty of works like Antara’s How Amazing if I could fly (2012). With a line-up of represented artists that are not limited simply to painters and sculptors, the gallery’s stable of artists also includes some of the most well known Malaysian printmakers.
Kim Ng is an accomplished and passionate proponent of this innovative medium both as a practitioner and an educator. As the scope and defined parameters of conventional printmaking change dramatically -printmakers like Kim, armed with his special brand of grace, intelligence, lyricism and unassuming skill – stand out for the richness of image and different surface treatments as well as print techniques that his works offer.
Large works like The Ground We Share (2008) – while being succinct statements about the political and the social climate in the country – revel in a lovely aesthetic, that while surprisingly painterly, never betrays its print-making origins.
His exquisite range of aesthetic treatments of his subjects, the way the abstract is layered with the real in works like Dislodge and Genesis, (2008) and the beautiful blurs of gait and movement in his wonderful, wonderful Streetwalker Series (2008) makes Kim one of our favourite artists in the gallery’s line-up.
Juhari Said is perhaps our most ardent spokeperson for the tremendous potential that printmaking offers to artists irrespective of their chosen discipline. And he has the portfolio to back it up.
A senior artist of considerable reputation, Juhari has been at the forefront of his medium and plays a seminal role in both education as well as the fine art infrastructures in Malaysia.
In 2007 he gave us Okir at Wei-Ling Gallery. An exhibition of around twentyfree-standing totem-slabs, the artist extends the wood-cut medium to the point where it insists on being within the ambit of print-making, refuses to be sculpture but certainly enjoys that medium’s rich tactile personality – you want to walk amongst them, to touch their shiny surfaces as you decipher the politically implied in the cock-fight within.
But if we are interested in the artist as a political commentator there can be no one as vocal as Nor Azizan Paiman.
His seminal exhibition Malaysia – 365 Days of 2008, made up of 365 painted cartoons on torn pages was compiled into one of the gallery’s most impressive publications. Drawing from local political news reports, the artist made one satirical drawing a day – their statement, the event and their players depicted as monsters in ludicrous and inhospitable settings.
A conceptual artists of rare honesty, Paiman has always pushed the boundaries of his multifarious practice, using diverse mediums and improbable materials according to the message and meanings he intends to convey.
Aside from its established line-up of artists, Wei-Ling Gallery has also intermittently hosted some important exhibitions by prominent Malaysian artists at pivotal moments in their careers. Yusof Ghani’s controversial Biring exhibition marked his return to the mainstream. Matahati celebrity Hamir Soib’s Imbasan in 2007 marked his first solo exhibition with any gallery. And of course, Mind the Gap, Bayu Utomo’s major comeback exhibition following his 18-month sojourn in the United Kingdom. One of the main tasks of a commercial gallery in remaining current and relevant is the continued sourcing and nurturing of new young talent.
To ensure that the pool of artists are continuously refreshed and that the works exhibited continue to evolve and develop in tandem with changing trends in Art, the private gallery has to work tirelessly to keep abreast of new artists and the potential in their works. Wei-Ling Gallery has been extremely proactive in their efforts to work with new and younger artists with exceptional potential.
Through a range of group exhibitions, their 18@8 annual galas’ and smaller solo or dual exhibitions the gallery has showcased and identified artists like Munkao, Chen Wei Meng, Lee Toon Hian, Azril Ismail, Gan Tee Sheng, Cheng Yen Pheng, Justin Lim, Dhavinder Singh, Yim Yen Sum, and Al Khuzairie to name a few, all of whom feature as some of the most interesting young practitioners in the contemporary movement today.
Ten years ago when Wei-Ling decided to open her own gallery, most of us were skeptical about the newkid-in-an-already dead-locked, established and small industry.
With determination, commitment, good business sense and a lot of vision her gallery has grown in tandem with a flourishing Malaysian art movement, making hers, a credible and prominent platform for contemporary Malaysian art both here at home and in the region.
Happy 10th Anniversary!
Anurendra Jegadeva is a writer, artist and curator who lives and works in Malaysia.