By Dr. Zakaria Ali
The newly established Alpha Utara Gallery, 83 China Street, Penang has just opened its Inaugural Exhibition, beginning the 28th of May, running to the 10th of July 2005. Khoo Sui-Ho owns the gallery, and has invited Chong Hip Seng, Eric Quah, James Sum, Tan Lye Hoe and Tang Hon Yin to hang their works together with his. Each artist contributes four recent pieces, totalling twenty-four in all, just about right for the limited wall spaces on the two floors.
Once an oily soot-crusted motor shop, then abandoned to the dogs, the gallery has been elegantly renovated. Many of the original features – the tiled floor, the granite patio, the steep rounded wooden stairway, the tall shuttered windows, the thick cross beams, and the high ceilings – have been retained. Unfortunately, however, these tend to distract the viewer from the paintings. The windows and the tile works keep intruding, for they are art works in themselves, fiercely competing for attention. The viewer has to make quite an effort to ignore them to see the art works, which are varied in styles and maturity that, in the end, he walks out the glass door more than a little exhausted. He appreciates the set up of the modern gallery he has seen elsewhere where the plain floor and the undecorated walls are designed to rivet maximum heed to the works on display.
Khoo Sui-Ho’s “Starry Night 1” and “Starry Night 11” are in one of the many landscape series he is famous for, beginning with the moon-faced figures from the 1960s. The vast expense of the deep blue sky is cut at the bottom by a swath of earthy brownish ochre. Erected in the centre is a multi-coloured goalpost, a man-made structure that seems to defy the overwhelming power of nature. Masking tapes enable him to retain the straight lines, which emit a clinical smoothness that obliterates any semblance of the artist’s presence. These are paintings of ideas in search of purity, marked by a deep respect for the correctness of hues. Khoo Sui-Ho succumbs to the lure of certitude.
Chong Hip Seng, on the other hand, disregards the colour chart altogether, relying on black to delineate the faces of his partial figures, in brief one-line strokes, as in “A Flower for Mother”. The cross-hatchings are contained in a bowl or a stack of fruits, whose identifications, however, are none too clear. This has been the hallmark of his career that centres upon the axis of ambiguity as a form of virtue, and brevity the best of evils. Dabbed in an insouciant way, his work relays the message that its lifespan is as limited as the newsprint it is on, at once debunking the belief that works of art must be made to last forever. His can easily get torn, soaked, burned, discarded, with hardly any sense of loss on his part, because for him nothing is sacrosanct.
For Chong Hip Seng’s teacher, Tang Hon Yin, however, the opposite is true. His belief in the primacy of colours underscores the never-ending search of colour harmonics, one in which, a blue, for instance, displays a wide range of blueness in a disjointed but consistent way. The wave-like wrinkles quiver the surface of the canvas with a measure of uncertainty, teasing the viewer to decide whether he is spying from on high in a slow moving satellite, or watching the gentle waves rippling along the beach in Teluk Bahang on a moonlit night. The viewer is tempted to touch and check whether the valleys and the gorges are for real. Tang Hon Vin’s manipulations of colours are a rich source of narrative whose conclusions revert to the adage that art is colour, colour art.
Returning to Penang to reclaim his roots after decades of sojourn in Australia, Eric Quah thick painterly strokes edge on to depict trees in autumn. In his “Origin B” the trunk dominates in the centre while the reds and the yellows and the violets of the foliage spread out to set the mood for acknowledging the uncertainties of homecoming. Pasted stems and plastic mesh provide the texture upon which paints are layered in the tumultuous expressionist fashion. Clearly Eric enjoys the tactility of paints that are readily smeared and smudged within the confines of the composition. My complain is that the scattering strokes of white seem a little raw and random.
Equally enchanted by Nature is Tan Lye Hoe who sees it not as a friend to rely upon but a foe to be feared. In his “Forces of Nature 1” the surging and swirling tsunami-like waves barrelling across a shore-less ocean are in consort with the churning of an ochre skies, to foretell an impending doom. A red scythe crosses a green scythe in the gurgling foams, each sharp and piercing. This work seethes with unresolved colours that are transparent in many spots and, sorry to say, dirty, having transferred his liquid watercolour technique to acrylics. Hopefully, in due course, Tan Lye Hoe will discern that acrylics can act like oils, readily applied in thick refreshing slabs.
Such is the approach James Sum has adopted in his English sunset series, in which the yellows, the oranges, and the reds compete to be on the surface. The mood of serenity that sunsets often evoke is, in Sum’s hands, merely a means to a violence that is squelched. I say so because the reds are most menacing, like fresh blood smeared on the wall to remind a trapped victim to stay put. The viewer is drawn in but is immediately repulsed because of the way in which the colours blend and dissolve almost at will, disregarding whatever forms James Sum would want to impose. I mean this to be a plus sign, for James Sum captures details in nature as a study in the unpredictable.
This is a good show that is worth a visit. So folks in Penang and elsewhere should come and see and then relax over ice cream and coffee in the small two-table patio cafe tended by no other than Khoo Sui-Ho himself.
Dr. Zak collects verbs, mixes Prussian Blue and Hooker’s Green to get his black, and studies peoples’ feet as they walk in the mosque on Fridays.
First Published: 21.06.2005 on Kakiseni