in-DEFINITE DEFIANCE

Solo Exhibition By Eric Chan

22 April - 8 May 2016 | SHOPHOUSE 5

in-DEFINITE DEFIANCE is a new series of oil paintings featuring cropped, monochromatic landscapes set within earth-toned backgrounds and edged with an ethereal glow. In this series, the focus is singular - mountains, oceans, clouds - indicating a withdrawal into the rhythm of nature. The subject matter and controlled execution suggest a sense of peaceful resolve while the abrupt cropping and gleaming edges keep the viewers gaze from drifting too far from centre, creating a tension that compels the viewer to find a balance. Of the works, Chan says, "My works are so often personally and emotionally driven, the challenge for me here was to take a step back and focus on the composition using very specific imagery, and push myself outside of my comfort zone while maintaining honesty in my work."

For Chan, an artist who's known for packing his canvases with suggestive imagery and rich colours, blank space and imperfect images are a departure. Using unusual image crops and neutral fields of colour as tools, Chan focuses on the structure and the texture of each work. The usual intensity Chan brings to his work is present but more deeply woven into the process of painting itself. In defiance of his natural instinct for heavily loaded compositions, these works relay a sense of ease and subtle tensions. By approaching the paintings from in-DEFINITE DEFIANCE in this manner, Chan instills balance into his practice.

THE INCORRIGIBLE DISTURBER

by Samantha Segar

“The artist is distinguished from all other responsible actors in society—the politicians, legislators, educators, and scientists—by the fact that he is his own test tube, his own laboratory, working according to very rigorous rules, however unstated these may be, and cannot allow any consideration to supersede his responsibility to reveal all that he can possibly discover concerning the mystery of the human being.” James Baldwin, The Creative Process from Creative America (Ridge Press, 1962)

James Baldwin’s essay argues that the role of the artist is to explore one aspect of existence that mankind normally fears to tread—the state of aloneness. Not the romanticised aloneness of the solo traveler musing about life along the forest trail or the lone sailor tackling the ocean's fury, but the more absolute and stark aloneness that accompanies birth and death, love and suffering, the unavoidable facets of human life that one must go alone, but that humankind so diligently tries to avoid. 

Baldwin believes that it is this very subject, this unpleasant and uncomfortable condition that is the duty of the artist to not just consider, but to cultivate actively, so as to keep humanity from permanently distracting itself with projects and goals, commitments and engagements. This role comes at a price however; the artist cannot pull back the curtain to reveal the unpleasant inner workings of the world without society somehow holding said artist responsible. Thus, Baldwin calls the artist the “incorrigible disturber,” a disrupter of the peace that society deceives itself with in order to evade the bigger issues. 

Touching these tender spots with varying degrees of transparency, work by Malaysian artist Eric Chan (b. 1975, Malaysia) has often lured the viewer in with its stylistic attributes only to offer deeper truths to those who go beyond the surface, that is, to disturb the willing. 

Chan began his artistic career painting abstracts. The style appealed to him because it was all about instinct and spontaneity—composition for the sake of composition. This attraction to the process morphed into what appeared to be an obsession with flowers, fruits and landscapes; lush, moody paintings of tulips and peonies, and blurs of roadside greenery, yet it was beauty that spoke to the ephemerality of life. While his subjects were intoxicating, if a bit deceiving, it was of no matter as they were merely vehicles for his fascination with the way in which he could recreate the visual effects of the camera using paint, bringing an awareness to the divergent mediums and presenting "contemporary ways of seeing, registering and fabricating,” noted Singapore curator Linda Poh.

Chan's interest in the effects of the digital lens led to his next exploration in the exhibition Another Place, Another Time (2007). Here the human figure became the vehicle for exploring the negative photographic image and film still. The haunting monochromatic portraits further demonstrated Chan's technical skill with the brush while the spectral forms hinted at absence and loss, the human life drained. 

In 2010, Romantics of Betrayal saw Chan merge his human figures with dense stage sets ripe with flora and fauna. The evocative imagery seemed fraught with allegories and symbolism, and it was with this series that his work took on a decidedly autobiographical tone. The paintings were highly coded and riddled with theatricality, but undoubtedly narratives addressing issues close to the artist (personal freedoms, censorship, sexuality) as he sought to find a greater harmony between his stylistic intensity and his subject.   

Chan’s 2011 exhibition Wanted: Possession and Rejection saw him introduce the concept of juxtaposing images together to force a narrative. In Pulse, a panel with a nude female torso, heavily pregnant, is placed next to an image of a gleaming urn, floating before a large tree. The cradle to grave idea is achingly raw in this work, but what gives the painting punch is the grossly distorted belly of the female figure. This is no glowing pregnancy; it is an ugly beginning to an all too short life. This exhibition followed the recent deaths of close friends and these emotionally intense works took on a Surrealist tone as they wound tightly around the ideas of passion and torment, private narratives again bubbling to the surface.

The series Beautiful Stories from 2014 extended this idea of prompting a narrative by connecting otherwise disparate imagery, but the tone here was more whimsical and dreamlike. The strong autobiographical element from the Wanted series gave way and the viewer was at leisure to craft their own story from the melancholy figures paired with rich vegetation and shadowy landscapes. 

Chan's evolution as an artist has carried him through a multitude of stylistic phases, yet the consistent element in each has been the work's ability to reveal the state of the artist beneath. As Chan succinctly puts it, "You can see through the work." Artwork has often served as a barometer for the artist; think of Jackson Pollock's passionate and mercurial temperament coming across in his action paintings. However, Chan’s true humor does not manifest itself in a painting’s perceived intensity or degree of drama, but in his ability to regulate his creative process within each piece. The challenge is in balancing the technical and conceptual with his own energy and emotion; it is within Chan’s ongoing negotiation with the work that he reveals, as Baldwin refers to it, “the great wilderness of himself.” The key for the viewer is being able to read this mediation within the work. 

The paintings from in-DEFINITE DEFIANCE are a study in composition and control, the process preferenced above all else. This series of oil paintings features cropped, monochromatic landscapes set within earth-toned backgrounds often edged with an ethereal glow or other defining visual elements. The focus is singular, a withdrawal into the rhythm of nature, and a break from the heavy narrative of Chan's works from recent years. Nature is a common metaphor representing the inevitable order of the world, and these paintings contain a kind-of meditative control in their precise construction and lulling tones. The subject matter and controlled execution suggest a sense of peaceful resolve while the abrupt cropping and gleaming edges keep the viewers gaze from drifting too far from centre, creating a tension that compels the viewer to find balance. Of the works, Chan says, “My works are so often personally and emotionally driven the challenge for me here was to take a step back and focus on the composition using very specific imagery, and push myself outside of my comfort zone while maintaining an honesty in my work.” 

For an artist known for packing his canvases with suggestive imagery and rich colours, blank space and imperfect forms are a departure. Using unusual image crops and neutral colour fields as tools, Chan focuses on the structure and the texture of each painting. The tension in these works is the artist's attempt to find balance with imperfect subjects and empty space without succumbing to the desire to fix and to fill. Within this action he recharges and strengthens his instinct to compose. In this way the works from in-DEFINITE DEFIANCE are reminiscent of his early paintings and his obsession with process, the subject being but vehicles for exploration.  

Chan’s process begins with sketches, he then finds digital images that match or speak to the original compositions. He manipulates the digital files, often stretching and warping the picture until it lacks any identifiable characteristics. Only once the digital image is resolved does the painting begin. While painting is a generally faithful representation of the print, the procedure to ensure the texture from the linen canvas remains visible is an arduous one with up to five coats of primer and two layers of translucent oil applied. The painstaking effort required to maintain the nubby, natural texture of the linen next to the polished finish of the imagery is most evident in Out Black. Here a strip of mountain has literally been ripped from the scene, revealing the grainy natural finish below. A small black cube serves as a remnant of the missing piece and functions as a visual counterweight opposite the mountain’s apex. 

This series introduces an unusual compositional element into the mix, the glowing bar. When paired with nature as subject matter, these shafts of colour or light suggest an almost spiritual presence, but the reality is significantly less celestial. They deny the artist his preferred hardedge and create an ambiguity in the work, leaving an element unresolved. It’s an opportunity for the artist to let go of structural absolutes and regain confidence in intuitive composition. Despite their functional nature for Chan, these luminous streaks encourage a dynamic experience for the viewer. In Line Light, a cube of ocean caught between two gleaming bars, the viewer’s eye floats gently upward toward the paler waters only to ricochet when it reaches the topmost edge, then sink downward into the darker depths to repeat the process with the lower bar; the experience is an ocular game of Pong.

This unexpected levity in the work is new and reflects Chan’s awareness of the intensity he brings to his process. For him the actual act of painting is extremely focused, often executed in 10-12 hour blocks. The physical stamina required for such extended sessions doesn't get easier as time goes on and the limitations of the body have become of greater consideration. Control now means not only creating situations that challenge and stretch his technical abilities, but also knowing and respecting when to lighten up and let go to respect the more corporeal needs. 

The trope of nature is exceedingly suggestive in itself, potentially alluding to everything from Chinese landscape painting to trite motivational posters. Additionally, when the exhibition is viewed in total it is hard to accept that the subjects are inconsequential as the repeated manipulation and disruption of the imagery so strongly insinuates an attempt to control or comment on the natural world. While Chan acknowledges the potential for the work to be viewed in connection with these ideas, he insists that choosing such innocuous, familiar elements simply allows him to preference the composition, as he comments, “There is nothing more fluid than nature.” Indeed, the manifold quality of mountains and oceans seems to only encourage these interpretations. In Existence the viewer is almost humorously denied the mountain’s peak, undoubtedly the most visually satisfying section of any vista. The eye, refused the crest, slides down the snowy drifts and into to glowing bar only to rebound across the canvas and seek the absent summit once again. Is it a nod to the sometimes-Sisyphean character of life or simply an examination in compositional weight, perhaps both? 

With in-DEFINITE DEFIANCE the unusual intensity Chan brings to his work is still present, but more deeply woven into the process of painting itself; the disruption is sub-level. The process is Chan’s opiate—meticulous, repetitive, and layered, pieces are worked and re-worked, the smooth facades belying the strata underneath. In this series compositional control implies the attainment of a certain level of self-mastery, a battle with the self, played out on the unsuspecting canvas. In his essay Baldwin states, “I am really trying to make clear the nature of the artist’s responsibility to his society. The peculiar nature of this responsibility is that he must never cease warring with it, for its sake and for his own.“ By defying his natural instinct for heavily loaded compositions and maintaining dominion over his creative process, Chan achieves a sense of ease and subtle tension in the work, bringing balance to his practice as well as his art. 

Artist:

  • Eric Chan