IVAN LAM – Getting Past Pushing Paint Around the Canvas

Ivan Lam on Painting… So Far
Ivan Lam’s paintings are a sure form of figurative abstraction, a repetitive method of trial and error and the reliance on precise method that furnishes the viewer with a visual paradigm of subtly balanced areas of colors and geometric formulations.

To describe Ivan’s body of work as contained, predetermined formulas, albeit remarkably successful ones, and always obviously labored, is apt to do them injustice…

In spite a very constant view of Design and new technologies – Ivan is acutely aware of art histories and traditions which, combined with his fascination with editing the icons of today, as well as an inventive use of color, brings to all his work a warm connection which seems at odds with their very considered execution.

From the earliest light boxes which relied on silkscreen transfers in positives and negatives of black and white and grey from over a decade ago to the painterly colorscapes of this current exhibition.

Yet Ivan Lam’s works possess an enormous sense of pictorial means and emotive strength in spite of a palette and bravura that refuses to rest on any sort of expressionist skill.

His calling has always been toward an innovative and mechanized combination of painstaking understanding and innovation of new technologies within the contexts of older mediums, popular iconography and a constant calling toward a painting style that might be referred to as organic forms against hard edged backdrops.

At a period within our Malaysian art movement where the dominance of painting due to art historical factors and contemporary realities such as the art market is demanding its supply, Ivan Lam refuses to be a picture-maker who is content to push paint around the canvas.

His intent – flagrantly entwined in the contemporary narrative – is to say new things by reinventing the painting medium in striving for a visual language that is distinctly his own.

As a consequence, Ivan Lam is giving Malaysian art – audiences and practitioners, a style of work and process unlike any other which is immediately familiar to Kuala Lumpur.

While there certainly is a preference with many Malaysian contemporary painters at this moment to explore the relationship between text and icon; Ivan’s versions have mostly resisted the expressionist drama of drip and splatter for their drama.

A consummate explorer of style and effect, paintings like Eye (1996) and Gray Target (1996) may have, very briefly, pondered on gesture and drip as background device, Ivan quickly finds his forte in the cool and calculated sense of compositional patterning in mixed media works like Breakfast (1997) or Corner (1997) to convey meanings through the artifacts and icons and signage in his bold color paintings.

In these paintings, the editing of the image and their arrangement are secondary to the design and formal considerations of color. The viewer brings to their interpretation whatever each symbol or signifier means to them.

Works that follow like Cross-Eyed (1998) are broken down further, simply reveling in the act of choosing images for the silkscreen and putting them together in random play of symbology and very personal autobiography. It is almost as if the story the artist is interested in is more tied into how the work is made.

Furthermore because the final image of most of Ivan’s series of works have become so simplified, so lean, so distilled and markedly minimal in character, one is less aware of the painstaking method of layers and drawing that go into all his works even those which rely on the silk screen which has set him up as one of the more unsung, innovative modern Malaysian printmakers.

But Ivan is certainly not a minimalist.

His ability to convey abstraction in spite of using recognizable forms, symbols and motifs for their geometrics have always been meant to communicate.
The added dimension of pushing the limits of the silk-screen not only from the point of view of scale and technique but also innovative applications on new surfaces like Perspex and their use of artificial light in very sentimental works like Estranged (1999) places this Malaysian artist outside the ambit of painting for the sake of a painting.

Ivan’s temperament seems attuned to the solitude of Japanese mysticism and the excitement of Japanese Manga, distilled from a keen interest and knowledge of Far Eastern painting and philosophy set against the grunge vitality of the Now.

The artist’s unapologetic appropriation of the contemporary through popular cultural iconographies and current events – the signature quip from Don Maclean’s American Pie as an abstract foreground to the burning flag in a work like 911 (2001) continue to reinforce the artist’s insistence that even with regard to seminal turning points in world history, he is willing to forego their currency of content for the supremacy of the aesthetic experience.

Text is explored purely as a visual device if you are not interested in their meaning – it is left up to the viewer – if you don’t want it to their meaning can be simply relegated to background noise.

In works from this same series, Emptiness (2001), Ivan extends his reverence for the elegance, restraint and asymmetry of an Oriental aesthetic in a successful meeting of the pragmatic Western abstractionist and the Eastern landscapist.

But Ivan is also acutely aware of the pitfalls and potential clichés involved in playing on signs of duality and opposites when merging styles and tradition preferring in using color theory and drawing and the composition of found images to express his interest in the juxtaposing of the Here and Then rather than dwell on the East and West.

Even in works like Tamara (2003) which is his ode to the famed Japanese printmaker the intention is less tied in to the imagery rather than exploring the means by which their replication can be replicated in a scale that contemporary technologies enable.

Following these initiatives would be the continuing contemplation of current technologies and mechanization as tools for the contemporary painter and how it affects the making of the objects as well as its presentation from a point of view of effect and style.

Seeing the need for artists to be recorders of their time – not purely because of their topic – Ivan embarked on CMYK – a sadly underrated series of paintings that intended to replicate the printing process – by hand, dot after obsessive dots in 4-colour perfectly aligned systems of marks. The CMYK works provided for Ivan the scientific exploration of how the eye reacts to how and what colors are placed next to each other.

This relationship would prove crucial to the making of the works in this current exhibition, Ivan Lam: After All These Years…

With works like Beautiful Mistake (2005) as well as the Masters Series which reflect his acute awareness of artistic parentage and art histories, the intention was also to attain an effect of the mechanical and purposely erase the signature of the artist to a point where as far as the viewer is concerned the object was machine made. Therein lay their success.

Ivan’s deconstruction process – from his earliest discovery of the print process as a student while working in a T-shirt shop in distant Maine to the exploration of the printmaking medium in Fine Art and industrial printing techniques as well as the new industrial paint technologies he mastered on the way has definitely resulted in a distinct new way of making paintings.

The exhibition Xplode in 2003, a beautiful wandering showing of disparate range of styles, techniques and subjects – from the precise automobile profiles like Mini (2003) to the rich realism of Black Maria (2003) and the graphic resonance of Ripple (2003) – marked the purging that Ivan had planned from the beginning.

As with all his varied and individual series where Ivan is concerned there is always much to learn – for him as an artist making his work and for us as viewers receiving his images.

Not only is his body of work an important part of the history of art in Malaysia but it presents a great session in the practice of painting as a serious science and methodology which places it as new and contemporary medium.

Ivan Lam: After All These Years…
Over a decade ago, Ivan Lam began painting and printing in his now signature photo-realist style of silhouettes and blocks of color.
His new works in After All These Years… continue to feature croppings, close-ups, reflective surfaces and striking light contrasts that allude to photographic sources with the added dimension of tremendous and dynamic scale.

The exhibition sees Ivan resplendent with the knowledge of the effects which the technological tools he has mastered, but returning to a process where all he will rely on is painting in its most traditional application.

This was what the process of the CMYK works meant to the artist.

His subject-matter has remained constant – a very clever coming together of contemporary facades, popular icons, current affairs and autobiographical references resulting in images and meanings which for Ivan refine a contemporary vision of Malaysia and the world.

12 major works and two years later, Ivan tells us the story of star-crossed lovers who break up and moved on. They get back together and she dies in childbirth… holidays, eating out, foreign holidays – snatches of the tender memories of any relationship peppered liberally with autobiographical detail and sweet nostalgia.

Every frame that is frozen is a part of the artist’s experience through entry points into it have been careful to avoid any specific beginning, middle or end.

While the inclusion of text, quotes and captions that Ivan has eloquently used in the past – revealing his very obvious interest in contemporary culture and concern for current affairs – they are absent in these works. Ivan nevertheless successfully maintains a level of the poetic that is so indicative of his entire body of work through the imagery or even simply in the titles of paintings like Flower, You Never Forget My Birthday (2005).

More than the story itself, Ivan seems interested in the devices needed to tell it.

This exhibition, Ivan’s first in 3 years demonstrates his on-going independence from the production of painting in its conventional and traditional sense. Although his style is still precisionism, he has persisted in his exploration of graphic, abstract and design concerns.

His work maintains the connection with Photo-Realism; however, his process has changed as far as the reliance to the silk-screen is concerned.

In works like LCCT (Never Wave Goodbye) (2006) he uses the photograph as a starting point for his work, but his paintings develop slowly from meticulous pencil drawings where compositions and formal relationships are worked out.

The works in this show, as with past series – in varying degrees – present a kind of narrowing of his range of media, relying less on his famous mastery of the formal science of printmaking. Through his painstaking and calculated act of painting – the definitely obsessive act of layers and strategic placement of pigment – Ivan has always modified color, strengthening contrasts and setting moods.

His colors relate to each other in single chromatic additives – red, greens and yellows held together by whites and blacks… colors invented by the artist himself through the use of new industrial technologies and carefully tagged and referenced like religious objects.

While it has its sources in very Japanese design, Ivan strives to achieve color – especially in the context of these works – Russian March (Promise me You will Hold My Hand) (2006) – as a means for defining and regulating forms in a way that defines their relative importance within the narrative as well as their aesthetic.

In his painfully somber Mum & Child (The Pain is Unbearable but I Must Go On) (2006) in spite o the stillness of the setting as well as their precise readings of form and color values, there is an improbable expressiveness, the creeping in of hue against flat blocks of color that conveys an improbable sensuality and warmth which is at odds with the precise nature of the execution. It is a quality hat runs through the body of work as it successfully does in most of Ivan’s paintings.

The compositions employed in these new paintings like Surgery (Sorry Sir but We Did Our Best) (2006) and Sushi Bar – The Place Where We First Met (2005) boast a new accessibility. Like windows into grand vistas, the scale is life size. The paintings in this series draw the viewer into the picture space. The strong horizontals and verticals, in a semi-grid, make the image legible and immediate.
The paintings become signs themselves.

Ivan hasn’t always used angles to accentuate and add excitement to images; past works have often reveled in a purposeful flatness in the handling of depth and space. The paintings in this broad narrative for which any painting can be an entry-point, feature dramatically receding walls or structures of enormous and wide proportions immediately becoming closer to human perception.

He definitely continues to explore camera-vision possibilities in his appropriation of subject for reference, but his vision has always been a selective on: the interiors, the march, the buildings appear revitalized, cleaned up and in sparkling repair.

If they aren’t in perfect condition, Ivan gives them the treatment and finish and often strengthens them by using them as formal devices around which the compositions are organized.

Ivan Lam: after all these years… is a wonderful culmination to a decade long search by the artist which few practitioners are willing to invest in these days.

The artist does not see himself as an archivist holding images for posterity as so many figurative painters rely on as a romantic hook for their viewer.

His relevance is rooted in contemporaneity, conveying a very particular feeling for contemporary Malaysia, capturing elements of bravado and dazzle, of the banality of the urbane as well as the drudgery and predictability of everyday life in the face of a larger world filled with conflict and difference.

These qualities are most strongly suggested when all the pictorial elements come together, often a summation of composition and color coordinated form, coalescing motifs or entire pictures of personal significance to Ivan that also strikes a universal chord.

Ivan Lam is a painter who will continue to innovate and push accepted boundaries within his practice as well as the larger Malaysian and regional art movements.

As art lovers, we will continue to watch, connect with and enjoy his work immensely, I know, for a long time to come.