The Sundaram Tagore Gallery at the Gillman Barracks can be counted on for interesting exhibitions and Dear Painter which opened last week is not any less. Curated by June Yap, it features nine artists based in Singapore who explore the idea of painting through their works. The title of the exhibition is inspired by the series of paintings that the German artist Martin Kippenberger commissioned to be made in 1981. Titled Lieber Maler, male mir which translates into Dear Painter, paint for me the series consisted of 12 paintings which were produced by a film poster or billboard painter known as Mr Werner. The paintings were based on images supplied by Kippenberger to the painter and through this series of work he questioned the authenticity and agency of the artist as well as the reality of an artwork as a composite product of inspiration, production, exhibition and patronage.
According to Yap, the works in the exhibition are an exploration of the formal, conceptual and material developments in contemporary aesthetics as defined through painting and the continuation of experimentation that has been produced through exchange and influence. Much like Kippleberger, whose body of works included paintings, sculpture, photography and installation, the exhibition Dear Painter also includes works in a wide variety of media. From Jane Lee’s striking installation to Shubigi Rao’s playfully philosophical drawings the exhibition encapsulates most of the media that contemporary artists work in today. All the works in the exhibition have been specially commissioned except Kai Lam’s installation Behind Blue Eyes (1991). When asked about her selection of artists, Yap explained that the artists were picked based on the potential of painterly reading in their works, even if their practice did not include painting. The artists were asked to look into the subject of painting and explore the materiality, concept and challenges of it and then create work that could possibly be read through painting. Yap also added that while the artists were given these parameters, it was not necessary for them to even approach the subject of painting and they did pretty much what they wanted to in most cases!
The most interesting works in the exhibition are Shubigi Rao’s five drawings. Playful and philosophical at the same time, the works present a mixture of fact, fiction, half truths and hoaxes through a combination of text and image. To separate one from the other takes one through an elaborate and convoluted mind game: George W. Bush and Descartes come together in Solipsisms for Descartes, from G. W. B.; and Jonah Lehrer’s revelations are compared to the biblical whale that is being dissected in a search for the truth in Fictioneering for Jonah. Rao, who has worked with a variety of media in the past, uses ink in these series of work as she says that the title of the exhibition reminded her of opening lines in a letter. Choosing to focus on the word Dear, her five works are in essence conversations or love letters, as she calls them, between and to a variety of people and creatures both real and imagined.
Jane Lee’s inclusion in the exhibition is to be expected: her oeuvre explores the essentials of painting – canvas, frame and medium in the context of contemporary art. Solid Turn Liquid, is an eye-catching installation in her signature style – of two canvases that have escaped the frame. Connected by a blood-red puddle of colour, the work can be read in multiple ways especially since the exhibition marks the 50th anniversary of the island state.
And while Lee’s vivid work needs no frame, Warren Khong frames his in stark white; using light and reflection to produce restrained effects of colour on the wall. Khong’s previous works have explored the aesthetic of beauty through manga but here he investigates painting using light as a material to produce the scene in his ‘paintings’.
The weightlessness of Khong’s works is in sharp contrast to Francis Ng’s After Fontana. The 500 kg plaster installation, which was produced in China and arrived just a day before the exhibition’s opening, exudes an element of performance. The obvious reference is to Lucio Fontana’s (1899-1968) slashed artworks which were intended to break the two dimensionality of painting; but here the mammoth 3D work, with its elaborate classical frame and blank canvas, is almost theatre-like. The gaping hole in the canvas asks one to see , via the act of looking, what lies beyond the art.
Also in the exhibition are video works by Chun Kai Qun and works that reference both photography and visual effects by Martin Constable. Qun’s The Wait Without Waiting juxtaposes two videos each depicting opposing states of being. The scene in both is exactly the same – of a petrol pump in the foreground and taxis approaching and passing by. The only difference is in their availability, the brushstroke of a green or red light signalling opposing states. Constable’s work Explosion of Heat, In My Dark Siberia appears to be a painting of a solitary hand holding a lit match; but is actually a digital photograph overlaid with oil paint. According to the artist “the lit match presents as a fulcrum, an entity than can swing either way: to destruction or life giving warmth”. The title of the work is a line from Charles Baudelaire’s Afternoon Song which Constable says he first encountered in a title of a painting by the British artist John Murphy and which he has always liked. His re-use of it is a “subliminal reference bounce” which can be seen across his works with paintings referencing films, and films referencing other films.
Constable’s interest in destructive imagery is evident in A Matter of Life and Death which uses technology to create a painterly panorama of an airplane crash scene from the 1946 film of the same name. At first glance the scene appears static, but closer examination reveals that it has been overlaid with digitally animated elements which replicate the depth and fullness of a painting. All his works investigate how the boundaries between painting, photography and film have blurred and now overlap.
While painting today may not always be present in the galleries in its traditional or expected form, the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 has most certainly not heralded its death as the French painter Paul Delaroche supposedly remarked upon hearing of the new invention. It has just evolved and re-invented itself.
Dear Painter runs through October 25, 2015.