The Real Search for the Abstract
An Artist’s Statement in conversation with Jolly Koh

I am happiest when I am painting in my studio.
That is why I make these things – making themmakes me happy.
Once I was a writer, then a curator, intermittently both, agitated and frightened, often confused, too fat, too sweaty, mostly conciliatory.
And always tired.
But when I am painting, I too am a warrior. I am brave and honest (and thin) – I see my version of the world clearly and am able to engage with it, to joyfully deconstruct it, to shamelessly indulge in the craft of Painting.
However, it seems that to say that my art-making process is a happy one, and that the works can speak for themselves is not enough. It certainly isn’t clever enough.
So this is a kind of artist statement… conveniently in conversation with Dr Jolly Koh.


Since I was a younger artist, I was luckily influenced by mentoring relationships with seminal figures in Malaysian modern art like Jolly Koh.
Ibas anartistic `notion’ was a starting point; invading Mr Jin Leng’s sanctuary on alternate Sundays when I was a sixth former; Deepavali visits by Tuan Syed to my parents’ house, Piya’s frequent tirades about my writing;Robert Nelson and Ken Smith in Australia who made me stand up straight and be a painter.
And always, Jolly,a constant mentor, an unforgiving critic, my forthright friend, a painter’s painter.
And before every solo – his precious, dreaded crit of my new work.
This newsolo exhibition My God is My Truck, Heroic Portraiture from the Far Side of Paradiseis the culmination of two decades of painting around the issue of how I fit in this place- as a Malaysian, as anIndian Malaysian, as a fat Hindu married to a short Methodist and for a time -a Sri Lankan man born in Malaysia but living in Australia. In short – a modern Asian man resplendent with overweight, cumbersome post-colonial baggage.
JK: I am generally very impressed with these 15 new works. It is even better than the last show and that is good, an artist’s work needs to grow and develop – the worst thing that one can do is look back on your work and find that you wish you were making work like you used to. With these new works your aesthetic sensibility is much stronger – you seem much more conscious of conveying a rich abstract quality and a dynamic sense of design. Your use of the medium for itself andthe reading of form through drip and splatter has developed even within the course of this body of work itself and I wait with anticipation to seehow all these approaches will develop further.

What is the justification for figurative painting like mine that leans towards portraiture at a time when the social narrative is often categorized and dismissed as banal andpropagandist.
JK: I wouldn’t worry about justifying your portraits – today’s art practice is very pluralistic. I would just worry about the quality.


As far as my training as an artist and my consequent practice is concerned, I am bound to the enduring power of the painted image and have worked consistently to forge effective and fresh approaches to contemporary figuration and historical themes.
In my approach to making art, I continue to develop a range of aesthetic tools – recurring motifs, text, color symbolism, the framing devices of temple carvers, stain-glass makers and comic book artists – embellishments, decoration and construction even – that hopefully bestows my portraits with a richer aesthetic vocabulary.
JK: That’s where their attraction lies – in their artistic treatment.

What do you mean by artistic?
JK: Your figures are the result of the paint medium and the brush. This is in contrast to the figures created by many contemporary artists where the image is a direct copy of the photograph that reminds me of cinema billboards of the 50s and 60s. I think your way of creating the image with paint and brushis creativebut then, I personally don’t like the literal and mechanical photographic copies with pseudo dramatic effects of artificial lighting.
Malaysian artists (might I add collectors too) should look at figurative paintings in the global context and to study the works of international contemporary figurative painters like Marlene Dumas, Peter Doigand Luc Tuyman. The elements within their works that pushes their figuration beyond convention and tradition (not that thereis anything wrong with convention and tradition) is the abstract quality within their works.
To go back further, take Picasso and Botero – try and distill what is good about them and it is again, always an instinct for the abstract quality that always transforms the humdrum and banal. These elements are much more evident in your new works especially in how you merge the abstract qualities with gritty realism, humor and irony.

I work predominantly from photographs as well – ones which I have taken, torn out of magazines, news photos, the internet, famous paintings… there is very little working from life here.
JK: Artists since the late 19th century have used photographs, fromDegas to Picasso – but their resulting images are anything but photographic.

Who are the examples of artists in this region who can illustrate what you are talking about?
JK: If you look at Masriadi’samazing paintings – their strength lies in their very designed picture planes as well as their very considered abstract quality – every brush-mark is dedicated to design and the aesthetic sensibility is very high. He is one of the few artists who showhow creative figuration can be, in contrast to the humdrum photographic copies. Another great figurative artist in our region is the late Yeh Chi Wei who now has a retrospective in SAM.


Having worked and lived in both Malaysia and Australia, I am interested inbroad perspectives of home and the world beyond.
Combining these perspectives with the autobiographical, my work stems from a personal response to or experience of my subject matter, whether dealing with these post colonial issues of multicultural Malaysia or Asian migrant life in Australia or the war in Sri Lanka seen from the comfort of my living room while eating kacang and drinking Coke (Diet, of course).

One would think that these broad perspectives would exist in the realms of a common experience that transcends specific ethnic, social or religious perculiarities. For instance I am often told that the work is too personal or too Indian or that their meanings are too tied to the political or to the local. Do you think they are too content specific?
JK: To say that an artist’s work is too personal is idiotic. What’s the alternative, a God-like impartiality? Of course an artist’s work should be personal, that is the best part.
An interesting issue for me is what a viewer reads into your images. One part is the personal, that is to say, one’spersonal history and subjective feelings would affectthe interpretation of your images. The other part – just as important – are the social and political beliefs that exist in our society.
Those beliefs and ethos would influence how a viewer would read your images. Given the overt communalism that exists in our society now, your images of communities on the fringe, presented with dignity and in many instances imbued with pathos and irony can be confronting.
I personally find this refreshing in contrast to works by other figurative painters.


With all my work, the intention is for the works to depict or capture moments of truth with equal measures of intensity and tenderness, of hope and despair, of fact without judgment – irrespective of their ethnic details.
The weave of the personal and the political, while largely unintended, arises from an interest in observing the deconstruction of the Dream –whether the American version or our Malaysian model. It is a contemporary realitywhich I have chosen to narrate through a multifarious existence made up of fairy tales and Enid Blyton, the Beatles and P Ramlee, FOX News and Mahathirism, One Malaysia and nursery rhymes, letters from home and studying abroad, the American President and nasilemak – all of which have also shaped our common childhood and adult cultures completely. How can these commonalities not transcend the incidental ethnicity of their details? Does the work fail if it can’t connect with the viewer?

After my last show, a journalist asked me if I felt MY work was racist. What do you think?
JK: From what I see these paintings are merely depictions of fact – there is no innate racism in the work. The contemporary Indian subjects you portray do not spout Indian dogmatism and superiority – there are no warriorsin your paintings, nor underlying racial agendas but rather statements of fact that are rooted in the here and now.
Just because your works depict Indians doesn’t make you a racist, for God’s sake. Racists are people who think that they are superior merely on grounds of their race, or people who make racial distinctions when they are not relevant.
Often figuration in art is used as propaganda – the warrior, the portraits of people in power and the reenactment of seminal moments in national Histories. Aggression and racial superiority are all too often the cornerstones of this kind of 20th century figuration namely in Aryan art and Stalinist painting. They are also, too often, agenda driven especially in many current Asian approaches to figuration that are tied to romanticized mythologies and traditions, used to depict a yearning for times gone by. It is almost tribal and ethnic rather than national.
To those artists who depict a narrow ethnicity, I ask where is the 21st century Malaysian?There are no English contemporary painters, for example,who are painting pictures of Robin Hood or King Arthur today, for the very good reason that if they do they would be laughed out of court.

But my work does rely on very Hindu iconography and decoration in almost painfully romantic terms.
JK: Yes but tradition and religion is read within the context of a contemporary social consciousness and the immediately personal- both are meant to reinterpret value systems within the context of the here and now and not dwell on the Hindu superiority of the past or the return to feudal structures.
And my work is sometimes seen within the context of glorifying violence. 
The depiction of weapons within a tongue-in-cheek play of women soldiers, of monkey-kings and monkswith machine guns and grenade launchers are my very obviouscommentaries on the futility of violence, often in the name of all that is good and gentle.

The painting of a monk with an M-16 in his hands is rife with tragic satire and ludicrous irony, the folly of modern man – of TRIMURTI gone mad, that we must destroy in order to create and preserve… concepts and narratives that are really about contradiction.
JK: Why do you refer to your work as narratives? Surely all these works are not intended as part of a storyboard. To dwell on a story strips the work of its mystery and with your work as with any successful piece of art, the atmospheric and mysterious is much more valuable then the specific. It seems that it is very fashionable to talk about the narrative but I think it is a mistake to describe works like yours as narratives. Besides, the narrative refers to the genres of film theatre and literature with a beginning middle and an end.

But aren’t you being too specific – isn’t the idea of narration the fact that these works stand like a stage with players and a backdrop – could an assemblage read as a complete story?
What is so harmful about this categorization?
JK: Even a series of works in an assemblage isn’t a narration – in a film or a book does the director or author sit and explain the whole sequence and intention of the work? No they don’t … if the story and meaning has to be explained to a viewer then the work has failed. The narrative is not a painting’s intent– it must first be read in the context of its aesthetics before it is judged for its meaning.
So, figurative paintings like yours are not narratives – they are depictions of particular moments of truths in contrast to the narratives of a novel or movie that have durations in time.That is why it is so important to make exceedingly beautiful things in themselves. The power in your new work doesn’t depend on their story or what they mean, they are powerful because they capture the atmospheric and are evocative of some emotional mood.
In this way the image may bring a narration to the mind of the viewer but that is not your doing, it comes from their response to the work. As I have explained earlier, the `narration’ comes from the viewer’s own history as well as the social climate in which he lives but the painting itself stands in all its silence, majesty and beauty.


There was a time just a few years ago when you would be hard-pressed to find any features on painting in a copy of Modern Painter. I picked up a copy at the newsagent’s the other day and was surprised to find Painting’s return of sorts – whether in its current reinvention or in its art historical context.
Is Painting still dead, is it back?
JK: It never went away – foolish people have talked about the death of painting since the advent of photography more than a hundred years ago. Yet it continues to be a vital art form. Just refer to our own art movement – it continues to be dominated – whether they like it or not, by painting. More often than not video and installation work is included in an exhibition line-up more for its currency and with the exception of a few key artists who accept the value of aesthetics, many of these types of work are badly made and conceptually clichéd.

But what is the point of making something that artists have been makingfor 600 years?Of pushing paint around the canvas?
JK: That’s like saying, why write another novel or even a poem? Look at the way figurative painters are pushing their genre – I mentioned a few at the start of this conversation – globallypainting is vibrant, dynamic and evolving – they are all pushing boundaries but are very aware of tradition and new approaches to aesthetics.
Duchamp’s defiant act may have sparked a wonderful debate for the longest time. However, the implication that anything can be art renders the concept of art useless and redundant – it is puerile and stupid and sensationalist.
Art as a concept is useful in so far as it makes some things art and others, not art.
How we make art and what we make it about depends on the personal circumstance and motivation of the individual artist. Painting is your means of expression and unless the transition from one art form to another happens naturally and after committed understanding of the expression, how can you pick up a video camera and make an art film simply because it is the trend. Better to reinvent and push the boundaries of the medium you know and love rather than appropriate new art forms badly, just because it is fashionable.

So in the end – do you think that we are all simply creatures of our time and circumstance?
JK: It is all about circumstance. When I was in art school,I learnt painting – I am good at it and I enjoy it. I am open to all other expressions and ways of making and of extending my own painting practice as well.
I count myself lucky that when I was in art school, painting was still the preferred medium. If we were in art school today God knows what would happen to us.
Me? I am happy that the art I practice is descended from the European master-painters and not the urinal.
So am I.