Ground | Background
Hamidi is of a generation that has moved beyond the histrionics of the past over the ideological and stylistic emphasis on form over content, expression over concept and vice versa. What is important for the contemporary abstract painter is to find a personal mode of reconciling the two as part of the process of art:
I’m not too concerned with the problem of the exact relationship between Form and Content in the process of making my work. And I also don’t deny that there is a thought process in generating the form of meaning. And I don’t know what happens after that, because for me form and meaning are two different problems. What we do is to try to reconcile them. Meaning is neutral or has a relative instability, flux; it depends on space and contact. Normally, for me, meaning can take place before and after the process of creating a work. I like to see the connection (the general idea and first impressions of a medium) between my intention and the original goal in a work. I’m happier if a development happens organically, but at the same time there is a kind of control. And what is important for me is the relationship with the material/medium; the first thing one has to do is to engage in a dialogue with the material that we hold in our hand. This develops the relationship between artist and his tools, between form and its meaning.
At base, Hamidi tries to explore what might be the common ground between the creative, the perceptive and the spiritual. Unlike much contemporary art today, Hamidi’s work is meant to inspire, not to shock.
Break Out | Break Through
Interestingly, it was not until he went to the UK that Hamidi began to really explore the idiom and principles of abstract painting. During the five years prior to his arrival in the UK, he had earned his diploma at the UiTM, Shah Alam (1995) and his Bachelor of Arts degree at UiTM, Kuala Lumpur (2000). He says that in the academy the emphasis was on the “study of the ‘Figure’: a concentration on form, proportion, accuracy and [was] too analytical in form making etc.” As such, he didn’t “have a chance to learn and to experience personally the idiom of abstract / expressionism”. This is an interesting point in that the figure would remain so prominent in academism even with the strong tradition of a modern abstract and non-objective painting in Malaysia. Nonetheless, his work from this period consists of singular figures painted in life-size and often from oblique angels, against dark backgrounds. It is clear that even at this early stage in his formal training, Hamidi had a talent for the dramatic in rendering his mysterious tableaus in both form and narrative in what would otherwise be basic academic compositions. Shortly before leaving for the UK in 2001, his work went in what seems a new direction; one that he says was more a form of drawing than painting. In these works, he takes the recognizable down to its essential marks, creating a series of potentially loaded ‘glyphs’, wherein, for instance, he essentializes the denotative form of a bird cage in such a way that it can also suggest the iconic form of the human heart to represent the concept and emotion of love. Such loaded visual puns and recognizable forms were eliminated from his painting by the time he left the UK to return to Malaysia.
While studying in the UK and working odds jobs to keep family and home together, he experimented with materials and the further abstraction and psychic distance from the objective world. His experimentation with materials such as industrial paints and their inherent properties was part of his overall project of trying to give form to that which has no form. In this sense, the spiritual, the abstract, is manifest in moments of ‘Eureka!’ – the moment in which the intangible but imaginable and the desired is momentarily ‘captured’ in a ‘new’ mode of using color and producing form. One such moment of ‘Eureka!’ for Hamidi was when after weeks of experimenting in his backyard with drops of industrial paint onto unprimed canvas that he produced what was to become something of a ‘signature’ stain and spot technique for him. These ‘stains’ create a series of outwardly expanding circles, ending in varyingly diffuse, nebulous, greasy edges. In many of his paintings, these forms float on the space of white canvas like a flat surface wiped with a highly transparent layer of white wash, while in others he builds/drips these circular motifs into layers. This combination of biomorphic shape, diffusion and layering defines a finite space or, alternatively, as opening up an infinity of space suggested by the bare canvas. He had momentarily captured something capable of objectifying what he verbally has alluded to as a kind of numinous existence at the molecular and cosmic levels.
“Transparent Depth” and its constraints
Hamidi’s work is clearly quite varied within each and across all of his series. However, there is also discernable continuity among his three solo exhibitions at Wei-Ling Gallery– Indelible Markings, Alun and Timang-Timang. For instance, he continues with a similarly tender yet varied palette. He also continues with the circular stain soaked into an unprimed canvas, leaving large spans of empty white space, creating a visual illusion of a space of ethereal, floating organic forms. In his Alun series, he created worlds on canvas consisting of the circular stains in manifold transparent, seemingly diaphanous, layers. It seems as if the wind could easily pull apart the tissues and sinew that bind the layers; each one separated by a thin film of resin. These calm, rather pale, surfaces are occasionally broken|bound by web-like strings of glass paint. The overall visual effect creates a paradox between frontality of the image and the feeling of moving into depth – the one can call attention to the other; what at once exists in a frontal position at the same time creates a sense of deep space. This is similar, perhaps, to what Kandinsky and Malevich called “transparent depth”.
To sum up so far, the quietude of his work draws the viewer in. However, one condition to entering the work is that the viewer opens a layer of his or her subtle consciousness. For, the visual experiences of Hamidi relate very strongly to a pictorial tradition that contemplates art from a spiritual or transcendental point of view.
Similar spaces and surfaces from Hamidi’s previous two series continue into this latest series. However, in his work for Timang-Timang, Hamidi visually constrains the realm of the manifold diaphanous layers and its quietude with opaque, semi-blended, horizontal and vertical striations of both high-key color and varying shades of black and gray; simultaneously framing, revealing and concealing the world of so-called “transparent depth” beneath it. In this way, he produces a visual allusion of two distinct spaces or strata within one work: one of seeming weightlessness beneath a world of singularity and gravity. The subsequent psychic vacillation creates a much needed dynamic tension that much abstract painting, including some of his previous works, seems to lack.
Hamidi attributes some of the difference between his recent work and that previous to a change in his working environment, from painting in the backyard of his home to a spacious studio that previously was home to a barber shop. When he moved into his studio the mirrors were still there, creating strange realities through the varied angles of the mirrors that reflected a multiple and refracted reality. Whereas in the past two shows, the natural landscape, micro and macro, had played a major role, in this new body work the dimension of the prismatic view of the natural landscape is seen through the reflective surfaces of things like car doors and windows, and mirrors, which further distort our visual and cognitive understanding of that thing called ‘reality’.
Hamidi has explained that painting for him is a means of expressing, working through, and overcoming a kind of spiritual crisis, a basic human condition. Abstraction arguably lends itself quite well to the potential for artwork to manifest some form of mystical communication that supposedly transcends normal reality, since concepts of spirituality, whether in ‘crisis’ or not, are by nature abstract. As such, and if momentarily presuming that the art making process and its resultant ‘object’ can transcend the ‘baser elements of the human condition’, abstract painting is thought to be (more) universal in its scope and referential only of a universal condition of all human beings: namely, it serves as an attempt to tap into, to communicate with, to commune with a Higher Power, whatever the individual person believes this Higher Power to be.
In as much as the above assumes the possibility of overcoming certain barriers, it cannot be denied that the limitations of much modern abstract (objectification of inner states and spirit) painting (even with nature as its point of inspiration) are precisely its vastness, its lack of measure, its all inclusiveness. The more it distances itself from the outer world of objects, the more it tends to equate all possible realms of knowledge. In other words, its psychic distance and hence ‘freedom’ from the physical, objective world is simultaneously necessary and its primary limitation. Both freedom and limitation stem from precisely the same idea: a supposed universal; that ‘something’ that transcends the discordant images of the time. However, Hamidi’s paintings still cannot avoid, and I don’t think he attempts to do so, some embattled identification within a fraught situation, namely that between the particular or the individual and the universal which supposedly transcends it. In other words, it is a tension between the artist as acting subject who objectifies his or her emotions or inner spirit, and a loss of individuality or self disappearance in the process of abstracting the forms of nature into color and space as part of a human desire and will toward communion.
Amanda Katherine Rath (Penang, 2009)
Art Historian and Art Writer of Southeast Asian Modern and Contemporary Art,
PhD Candidate, Cornell University