Posts Tagged ‘art history’
Maimed, melancholic, meta-textual.
A portrait of a young boy missing a limb, the dismembered stump dissipating into polychromatic, painterly wisps where skin and flesh should be – like so many of his fellows. A child sits with a paper-bag over his head; another is poised before what looks to be a row of Japanese soldiers in hachimaki headbands. A boy in a sailor suit and a girl perched atop a tiger-skin rug strike poses — in two different paintings — before renderings of Friedrich’s Rocky Reef on the Seashore. A seemingly unfinished triple portrait includes a re-presentation of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath (the Borghese version), with a filmic projection placed squarely over Goliath’s head, introducing a constant glare of shifting, flickering disruptions into the visual field.
Such is the iconography of enigmatic, near anonymous Singaporean painter Huang Wei.
According to local gallery owner Alan Oei (the man behind Evil Empire and the annual OH! Open House event), who also curated the present show at Valentine Willie’s space in Kuala Lumpur, the story of the discovery of Huang runs like this:
In mid 2009, my [Oei’s] friend Nora Samosir called me. She said her uncle-contractor had found rolls and rolls of old paintings. At that time, I was deeply interested in the Equator Art Society – a group of Chinese Social Realist painters who were largely forgotten. To come across an outsider artist who didn’t even make it into our art history – was an incredible find !
The paintings of strange and maimed children were just completely at odds with everything I knew about Singapore. Me and Nora, and a few others decided to organize a lecture-performance. Nora is a veteran actress so she presented it while I helped with the research about the artist and restoration of the paintings. Part of the attraction was that there was so little material about him – one trunk of personal effects – and I’m not exactly an archivist researcher, so there was a fair amount of conjecture. I became obsessed with this romantic archetype of the melancholic artist painting in his own warped universe.
Of what little is known about Huang:
Huang Wei is a Singaporean artist born in 1914. He worked in his family photography studio even while he was in school. My guess is that his first love was art not photography. He won an art scholarship for instance, and also studied with the famous Richard Walker, art superintendent of Singapore. But his paintings are all heavily influenced by photography.
(From an interview published in the show’s accompanying pamphlet.)
In a nutshell, that’s pretty much it for facts.
And the significance of Velázquez, so tellingly namechecked in the title ?
Cue Huang’s triumvirate from the early ‘60s: The boy in the arch, The boy with the glacier, The girl with the tiger. (See above.) That the three paintings belong in a series of sorts is clear at first glance: Arch and Tiger both feature the back of a large canvas as a salient motif, the first on the right side of the composition, the second on its left, as if the same canvas – visual details also correspond in both works – had been stretched across the interstitial gap. And a rendition of Caspar David Friedrich’s Rocky Reef on the Sea Shore (c. 1824) appears in Tiger and in Glacier: mounted on the wall in the former, as a surreally large copy in the latter. The motific parallels to Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656) are unmissable, if somewhat ambiguous: the canvas with it’s back to viewer, of course; the slant of sunlight moving in from the right of the space in Glacier (Las Meninas is similarly lit); the painting of a painting (like the del Mazo renditions of Reubens in the background of Meninas, themselves depictions of copies, or paintings of copies of paintings); the pendant around the necks of the girl in Tiger and the figure of doña Isabel de Velasco (standing to the right of the princess in Meninas), as well as the tiger’s head in the former, and the dog in Velázquez.
Many of these parallels are perhaps oblique visual references, and less by way of outright similarities, but the fact remains that Huang seems to have been greatly taken with the work of the Spanish master:
When I [Oei] saw Huang’s paintings with these bizarre motifs that present the back-of-canvas, I could only think of Las Meninas. And true enough, Huang was inspired by that painting. I don’t know exactly what inspired him, but he made at least 30 drawings and paintings around this iconic work …… Michel Foucault, the French theorist, suggested that Las Meninas was the first history painting to recognize and embody the idea of representation. The world that exists within paintings (and texts) is not the same as reality. Representation organizes signs and information within different systems.
(From the interview.)
Oei is of course referring to Foucault’s famous disquisition on the painting – far too detailed and extensive to reproduce in its entirety here – which concludes along these lines:
Perhaps there exists, in this painting by Velázquez, the representation as it were, of Classical representation, and the definition of the space it opens up to us. And, indeed, representation undertakes to represent itself here in all its elements … indicated compellingly from every side: the necessary disappearance of that which is its foundation – of the person it resembles and the person in whose eyes it is only a resemblance. This very subject – which is the same – has been elided. And representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form.
(See the chapter “Las Meninas” in Foucault, The Order of Things.)
You’ll have to read the essay for that to make sense, but the bottomline is this: Las Meninas is a representation of representation, a painting in which the praxis of two-dimensional depiction, in all its strategic methods, manipulations and craft, is depicted two-dimensionally – the gaps in the narrative, such as it were, foregrounding the artifice of an aesthetic construction.
And it is that sense of the performative, of a painter painting a deliberately painterly painting, an art historical art, which leaps out at the viewer. The nexus of cross-gazes and semantic lacunae which Foucault identifies in Las Meninas is missing here, but Huang’s work remains imbricated in various layers of citational self-reflexivity, of discursive canniness, of teasing, ambiguous hints and half-truths, of occluded, private spheres of meaning. What, in other words, does one make of the tiger’s head in Girl with the tiger, the feline motif also recurring in The boy with the tiger (c. 1960; below) ? The latter seems to be a self-portrait of a young Huang, if the photographs uncovered by Oei, and included in the show (below), are anything to go by; the juxtaposition of boy and tiger may be an expression of personal preference, or it may be personal in another way altogether (1914, the purported year of the artist’s birth, being a Year of the Tiger). As a creature slaughtered and skinned, lying at the feet of a winsome, comely young thing, does it assume yet another channel of significance we are not privy to ? (A lost love maybe ?) And the allusion to Friedrich ? Rocky Reef is not one of the German painter’s better-known works – what of its inclusion not once, but twice, in two different paintings ? In Boy with glacier, the work has been enlarged almost to the point of taking on the character of a realistic backdrop; the choice of a work sans Friedrich’s trademark Rückenfigur may or may not be of import. Is the boy then to be read as a reversal, of the absent “back figure” (literally) contemplating the sublimity of a romantic topography – here conspicuously turned to face the viewer, acutely aware of the “burning gaze” (as Oei puts it) of the reality beyond the canvas ? And the reduction of Friedrich’s painting to its original dimensions, firmly embedded within a domestic interior, in Girl with tiger ? The wildness of the landscape, in this case a murkily visible presence contained in a frame, a controlled sublimity; the ostensible ferocity of the tiger’s head, in actuality no more than a rug beneath the subject’s feet; even the flowers, resembling rather a naturally-blooming branch, is as carefully cultivated as a pot of bonsai, as aesthetically appealing as a still-life (the geometric angularity of the pot measured against the biomorphic shapes of the plant, the profusion of foliage and flora tapering into a slender stem) – the disparity between the tamed nature which characterizes the girl’s domestic milieu, and the deliberate verisimilitude of Rocky Reef as a backdrop for the boy, seems to gesture at some form of gendered asymmetry at work. Finally, how does one imagine the relationship between the tiger girl and the boy beneath the arch, if indeed the depicted canvas unites the pair ? And the boy with the glacier ? What is his relationship to his fellows ? How does one account for the triangulated iconography suturing the three works ?
As with so much concerning Huang Wei, answers – or even leads – seem to be in short supply at this stage.
Another reiterated motif in Huang’s oeuvre is that of the maimed child: often missing an arm, sometimes an eye. And – again, in the absence of the displaced artist, who cannot or will not speak out of the silence to which history has relegated him – we have only Oei’s word to go on: Alan Oei, who willy-nilly seems to have become a posthumous alter-ego of sorts for Huang, speaking for, or channeling, if you will, in the manner of a conjuration or a possession*, the dead man, the ghostly overtones of that process evoking the no less eerie, spectral entities of Huang’s paintings, haunting the present moment like so many anomalous apparitions. In any case, here is Oei on the topic of Huang’s malformed children:
Huang lost his family – his two children and his wife – at the start of the Second World War when the bombs fell. I don’t know if he was specifically trying to express or sublimate that trauma onto the canvas, but it certainly feels that way. It’s hard not to relate this to the violence of war. However, I do think there is much more than that. Perhaps it’s also the futility of making paintings in a time of photography, of new ways of looking at the world.
(See his interview.)
* Although it has to pointed out, perhaps, that in this case the line between the roles of possessor and possessed are far from clear.
It may be a little difficult perhaps to make a case for Huang’s aesthetics of negation and transformation vis-à-vis photographic technology – the “the futility of making paintings in a time of photography, of new ways of looking at the world” – almost a century after the advent of Impressionism, which emerged in part at least as a response to the new scopic regime of the photograph. Most of his paintings on display here date to the 1950s and 1960s, only a short while, one notes, before the relationship between the autographic and photographic arts was reconfigured again by the photorealist movement, which took flight in the late ‘60s. If anything, Huang’s work seems deliberately anachronistic: harking back to an earlier era of the studio photograph-portrait, adopting a citational idiom teased out from the work of the Baroque masters – at a time when his peers, like the Nanyang school folk, were still indebted to the visual vocabulary of the various Modernist -isms.
Yet, at the same time, Huang also strikes the one as being more … oddly contemporary than many of his contemporaries. (Though ‘contemporary’ in this case may be something of a relative term.) Take The boy with the golden collar (above), the figure quite visibly wanting a left limb. Despite the conventions of portrait painting which informs so much of Huang’s vision, the point at which the human body is disrupted here – the boundary between broken arm and exteriority – is rendered destabilized, ambivalent, heteroclitic. The departure from the nominally naturalistic idiom of the painting is striking: the child’s coat-sleeve has seemingly vanished along with his phantom limb, leaving in its place an abstract mess of thread-like skeins resembling splinters of ripped-off fabric – or, more significantly, brushstrokes that never quite cohered into a recognizable form. The phenomenon becomes even more pronounced in The boy with the emerald sleeve (above): where the rest of the figure’s right arm should be is instead a kaleidoscopic complex of painterly gestures in bejeweled hues, a complex of dripping, bleeding runnels of surreal chromaticism. The motif of the fractured body, then, of the breakdown of bodily integrity, dovetails, at both visual and conceptual levels, with an inflected, irregular mode of mimesis, a grammar of naturalism interrupted by hints of the sort of Pollock-ian painterliness that came to dominate the Ab Ex school – as if, at the very point where the mimetically-depicted human body surrendered its fleshly unity, the means of representation itself relinquished any claims to verisimilitude, assuming instead the abstraction of process-oriented actionism, with the conceptual shift occurring spatially at the site of a corporeal distortion.
Untitled (unknown date), Huang Wei. Oil on linen (and video projection).
Perhaps no other work in the show encapsulates, or crystallizes, the issues concerning the Huang Wei myth better than the untitled piece (above), a seemingly unfinished, undated/undateable canvas featuring a troika of figures including two unidentified personages – although one of those bears a rather uncanny likeness to Singapore’s eminent Minister Mentor – as well as a reproduction of Caravaggio’s version of David with the Head of Goliath in the Borghese gallery. The curator – I think – decided to augment the piece, such as it were: Oei projected video footage of the head of Goliath, said to be a self-portrait of Caravaggio, over its painted counterpart, a projection which assumed the angular contours of a four-sided canvas, thus imposing onto the real canvas a meta-painting of flickering light, with the subject matter of both – Goliath’s, or the artist’s head – meeting in a precisely calibrated position. One, an actual, three-dimensional object, a work sedimented in numerous layers of contextual, iconographic and semantic uncertainties; the other, a thing of light and shadow, insubstantial as the evacuated meanings behind the first. One, an obscure artist unknown in his time and now dead; the other, a curator-archeologist whose personal presence at the site of the first seems in equal parts excavation and intervention.
It’s all almost delectably confused.
First, anonymity as a regulatory force, socio-political instrumentalism at its bluntest: “ … an effect of actions taken against a subject by one invested with greater authority or power. This is anonymity as something done to the subject, acts that take what is most recognizable or objectionable about the subject and diffuse or nullify those parts.”
Now, anonymity as a radical response, a re-direction of the otherwise negational act of erasure: “What I am suggesting in this exhibition is a counter possibility, that when faced with this force the subject as glimpsed in this exhibition could take on that anonymity toward altogether different ends. When the anonymity maintains the trace of individuality rather than erase it, for one, or when anonymity is a sign that the subject is not completely whole or human, and therefore not quite within reach of any attempts to normalize it.”
That’s local artist Jason Wee, who curated Subject Shall Remain Anonymous, on his theme of choice. It’s a suasive thesis. The resonances here are varied and urgent: the revelation of intersecting power structures; the expression of subalternity (especially immediate within the context of Southeast Asia, where autocratic regimes of one sort or another are the norm rather than the exception); the possibilities of aesthetic resistance. The title, as a matter of fact, pretty much sums it up. The use of the imperative – the voice of decree – establishes a differential of authority between speaker and audience, and the omission of an article, whether definite or indefinite, functions as a grammatical elision invoking the contingent status of the “subject”. Interposed, then,between the denial of individual agency by oligarchic systems, and the appropriation of such gestures as, antithetically, acts of ownership and self-determination, are the multifarious strategies serving to occlude the artistic object, the effacement, abstraction, deracination, dispersal, withdrawal, material inflection and iconographic negotiation shrouding it in layers of eloquent hidden-ness.
Perhaps the most direct measure here of anonymity and its modalities is the distance from naturalistic representations of the human body – i.e. how the somatic complex, as the consequence of long-held traditions and discourses of verisimilar portraiture, is simultaneously evoked and erased. Take Maya Munoz’s paintings (above, top), for instance: incognito personalities posed against equally unrecognizable backdrops, both figure and ground constituted by trickles, streaks, blotches, and whirling eddies of paint, the legibility of their subject matter receding beneath the barrage of conspicuous mark-making. Or Jeremy Sharma’s rather derivative contributions (above, bottom). While likewise appropriating the idiom of gestural abstraction, their surfaces submitted to an imbroglio of conspicuous brushstrokes and bleeding drips (de Kooning, anyone?), these works extend the trope of anonymity by a doubled act of obfuscation: the subjects, an astronaut and a racer, are individuals masked – literally – by their respective occupations, any suggestion of subjectivity buried by livery, equipment, signs of corporate sponsorship. The person inhabiting the suit is removed twice over from the spectator’s gaze, rendered ambivalent by both attribute (what they wear) and style (how they’re depicted).
Portraiture is often adduced as that most iconic of signs (along with photography, though not without howls of protest in the latter’s case), a system of corporeal representation foregrounding physical and social semblance – i.e. likeness. C. S. Peirce’s semiotic triad of icon-index-symbol has been discussed elsewhere on the pages of this blog, but just by way of a quick recap: the iconic sign-type is largely premised on verisimilitude, the degree of proximity to its real-life referent. Of the icon, Peirce had this to say: “Most icons, if not all, are likenesses of their objects.” Or: “… firstly, Likenesses, or, as I prefer to say, Icons, which serve to represent their objects only in so far as they resemble them in themselves …” (Qtd. in T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge Uni. Press, 2007].) He would go on to qualify this definition – and categorize three different sorts of icons – but more on that later. The point here is, at its most basic (and reductive), Peircean iconicity is established on similitude.
The second sign-type, the index, is predicated on existential contiguities between sign and object. As commonly understood by art historians, the painterly gesture, qua index, is a trace of the artist’s hand that emphasizes its own processual or constitutive nature, rather than being an image grounded in naturalism (unlike the index). Elsewhere, Rosalind Krauss has said of the index: “As distinct from symbols, indexes establish their meaning along the axis of a physical relationship to their referents. They are the marks or traces of a particular cause, and that cause is the thing to which they refer, the object they signify. Into the category of the index, we would place physical traces (like footprints), medical symptoms, or the actual referents … Cast shadows could also serve as the indexical signs of objects …” (Krauss, “Notes on the Index: Part 1” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths [MIT Press, 1986].) As signs that exist “along the axis of a physical relationship”, indices are marks (like footprints) that act as material indicators of their origins (the foot that made it). One of the primary mechanisms of the semiotic process here, then – Peirce identified several more – is that of cause and effect.
Harold Rosenberg, c. 1950. Image from Archives of American Art.
Clement Greenberg, in 1978. Image from this UW-Milwaukee site.
It is in the break between the iconic (representational mimesis) and the indexical (a-referential action-ism) that the works of Munoz and Sharma locate their various configurations of dis-identification. As Wee notes, anonymity, as a response to the depredations of hegemonic networks rather than being a mere effect of said incursions, operates most cogently when it “maintains the trace of individuality rather than [completely] eras-[ing] it.” Put another way: these paintings of rubbed-out individuals, clad in everyday attire like jeans or veiled behind helmets and buried in hi-tech gear, may seem to proscribe the sort of subjective, iconic specificity afforded by realist portraiture, the departure from verisimilitude dovetailing with notions of social marginalization. Yet the sort of pictorial delineations here function also in the way of indexicality: while retaining the broad contours of figural description, they also employ the sort of vigorous, assertive, dynamic brushwork associated with action painting.* Or, in Harold Rosenberg’s words: “The innovation of Action Painting was to dispense with the representation of the state in favor of enacting it in physical movement. The action on the canvas became its own representation.” (Italics mine.) The self-evident, self-defining gestures of the Abstract Expressionists – to use the label appropriated by Greenberg, who, famously, disagreed with Rosenberg’s characterization – channeled by the present paintings belie the understanding of facelessness as powerlessness, anonymity as anomie. Quite simply, the energy and the authority conveyed by the brushstrokes (as indexical signs) contradict the impression of invisibility (in the iconic register), restoring to the otherwise obliterated, undistinguished subject on the surface of the canvas a sense of puissance.
* It’s perhaps not uninteresting that, apropos of artists working in the year 2012, explicatory recourse is still being had to paradigms established 60 years ago. (Rosenberg’s piece, “The American Action Painters”, was first published in 1952.) Failure of critical response (mine), or artistic imagination (theirs) ?
Yet, even within the conceptual framework of the show – of anonymity as criticality – works like Munoz’s and Sharma’s seem … the least compelling.
The interruption of a mimetic pictorial syntax by the sort of gestural inflections discussed above are utilized to similar effect by various other pieces as well: Mella Jaarsma’s melding of synthetic Cubist forms and Orientalist motifs (Protectors of Candi Suku III; above, top); Ahmad Zakii Anwar’s depiction of a man’s back, the enclosing space thick with a mesh of charcoal pencil-lines (Reclining Figure #13; above, middle); the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t faces of Vincent Leow’s figures (above, bottom). Deviating from the tropes of iconic representationalism seems the most straightforward process of constituting the anonymous – and, by dint of that fact, the most unexciting as well. If anything, those inclusions here which lend themselves less immediately to claims of visual anonymity offer precisely the richest examples of that very proposition. The show, in fact, opens with a classic instance of traditional portraiture, a painting of a nameless young woman (below, top) being the first work in the gallery the viewer encounters:
This exhibition started with a mystery. The gallerist Tolla Sloane showed me a painting by Doris Duke, a commercial portraitist who worked in Malaya and died in Singapore in 1967, who was also Tolla’s grandmother. The portrait ‘Girl in Pink’ was finished in 1955 for an exhibition for the Women Artists of Malaya group, which included Georgette Chen among others. The Malay girl in the painting was not named in any of the exhibition documents in Tolla’s possession, and though we suspected that some of the other artists in that exhibition may have painted the same teenage model, we could not find her likeness elsewhere, at least not in what we saw of Chen’s and her contemporaries’ paintings from those years. She remained a nameless cipher for the ambitions of others …
(Jason Wee, “Subject Shall Remain Anonymous”, in the accompanying catalogue.)
Duke’s Girl in Pink, at first glance, is that which many of its fellows in the show are not: an expressive, suggestive depiction of an individual, rendered with the specificity of detail appropriate to the work of a professional portrait painter ? (Which Duke was, according to the brief bio in the exhibition booklet.) The figure’s softly-limned features, the coy, downcast gaze and ever-so-slightly parted lips; her quaint braids, and the pink ribbons, and the wispy peach-hued blouse with its snow-white collar; the edge of a painting behind her set into an edge of the painting – the cumulative effect is one of class and culture, gentle breeding and gracious manners. So much for the immediately expressive. What the painting suggests, while less discernable, is no less interesting nor significant: a girl of her race and (presumably) religion in 1950s Malaya – the fledgling federation then a mere two years away from full independence – with uncovered head and open neck, sitting for a portrait. The question, of course, is one of wider social mores, of the particular historico-geographical moment in which the image is moored: did Malay-Muslim girls of her age and class, in 1955, wear these things, do these things ? If it’s fair to assume that they generally did not, what sort of inferences may be drawn about the sitter ? Does the deliberate aura of refinement and breeding – of a certain socio-economic class and its prerogatives, in other words – serve to set her apart in more ways than one, and what, if anything, does that say about social differentiation and the practice of Islam in the Merdeka era ?
Grand-sounding claims. The litany of issues above, though, ultimately fails to take into account a crucial point: whether the painting was a commissioned portrait, or posed for by a hired model (as Wee suggests). And it is in that sense, of a fundamental ontological instability, that the girl in pink remains as much an enigma to us as, say, Munoz’s obscured bodies. The portrait may situate itself within a discourse of representational image-making, of pictures as signs that resemble their real-world referents, but, imbricated as it is within a web of contextual uncertainties, the unanswered questions of just who the girl was, and the circumstances of Duke’s painting of her, render the work a deracinated likeness of no one, a signifier of anonymity rather than identity. To return to the idea of the icon: Peirce would go on qualified the concept in a more specific fashion, noting that “An icon is a sign which would possess the character which renders it significant, even though its object had no existence; such as a lead-pencil streak as representing a geometrical line.” (Qtd. in T. L. Short, Peirce’s Theory of Signs [Cambridge Uni. Press, 2007].) In other words, likeness, as it concerns iconicity, is not predicated on actual existence; rather, the resemblance may relate to completely imaginary objects or to ideas (e.g. geometry) instead. An icon, then, may operate along the lines of visual similitude without gesturing at any particular object existing in reality – as, of course, Duke’s girl in pink does here, a nomadic sign anchored to an indeterminate, evacuated entity.
I like the idea of recuperating the anonymous underside of portraiture – itself a kind of intellectual agency. The issue perhaps becomes particularly acute at the intersection of History (with the capital ‘H’) and subjectivity, as is the case here. I think T. J. Clark put it best: “Class is a name, I take it, for that complex and determinate place we are given in the social body; it is the name for everything which signifies that a certain history lives us, lends us our individuality.” (Italics mine; see The Painting of Modern Life [Knopf, 1985].)
Ang Sookoon’s Love is like a chunk of gold (below, bottom), the sole sculptural piece included in the show, makes for a wonderfully apropos note on which to end. The artist introduced a solution of phosphoric acid into a loaf of bread, causing crystals to sprout, and then encased the entire object in resin. The final product looks rather like a mutant cephalopod.
It just sits in its little plastic case, coolly, calmly, self-possessed; it is also the one work here which simply jettisons any form of reference to the human body at all. Non-existence – the most radical form of anonymity ?