WANTED: possession and rejection

solo exhibition by Eric Chan

11 November - 11 December 2011

By Lindy Poh

The most prescient of curators assessing Eric Chan’s first gallery show in the late 1990s would not have anticipated taxidermy emerging in his practice some ten years on; but then again, the arc of Chan’s development has thrown up some fairly unexpected shifts and turns over the decade.

Chan was rapturously received and rhapsodised as one of Singapore’s ascending contemporary painters in the late 1990s - a position hard-won considering how the goliaths of cutting-edge painting in Singapore were mostly engaging abstraction and expressionism or their variants. Chan had none of the marvellous dripping-and-gouging-of paint in his canvases; he didn’t have the velocity or ferocity of gestural, painterly techniques that were associated with early Suzanne Victors, the expressive collage-paintings of Baet Yeok Kuan or the awesome, visceral layering of Milenko Prvacki’s monumental pieces. His work was unapologetically representational and he seemed endlessly inspired by flowers, fruit and street scenes. Chan’s canvases were not just technically accomplished or uncommonly beautiful (the tag curators and artists seem most contemptuous of), they were wonderfully calibrated and exuded a languorous sensuality, tempo and atmosphere akin to the spirit of a film noir still. Not surprisingly, Chan’s art was an irresistible counterfoil to the dominant cadre of artists extolled at the time and during the 2000s.

In the primer years of Chan’s practice, he deftly side-stepped criticisms that he was painting ‘pretty flowers, still-lifes and landscapes’. His premise for his image-making processes was cogent and persuasive – his methodology simulated the action and visual effects of a camera lens. Chan’s hallmark ‘motion blur’ in his paintings - achieved by dragging his brush across still-wet paint to create smearing – mimicked the blurring effects of a camera using a long or slow shutter speed or panning a subject or a handheld camera phone taking out-of focus shots.

It was of course the powerhouse German painter Gerhard Richter (b.1932) who gave us ‘the Blur’ as early as the 1960s and his influence on Chan’s work is indisputable. It was however, an influence confined to stylistic and technical processes – Richter’s conceptual preoccupations did not infiltrate Chan’s early works in any deep way nor did it shape Chan’s subsequent artistic development.

The nucleus of Chan’s practice continued to be lodged in photographic, video-graphic and filmic aesthetics over the years, reinforcing the contention that his works were less about ‘pretty subjects’ than about contemporary ways of seeing, registering and fabricating images - filtered through Nikon lenses, webcams, computer scanners, Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and a spectrum of Mac software and apps.

Chan deployed grisaille – (painting in monochromes or primarily grey hues) in many early pieces to suggest the tonal effects of vintage photographs and archival films. He also explored ‘digital conversions’ to achieve the striking spectral look of film and slide negatives with their inverse visual effects. These made their debut in the exhibition 'Another Place, Another Time' (2007) at the alternative indie space The Substation, curated by its then Co-Artistic Director Lee Weng Choy. Lee, reputed for his rapier critiques and curatorial authority, provided crucial intervention at this particular juncture of Chan’s development.

Chan was experiencing the double-edged effects of his ‘commercial success’ in the art market. Unabated interest from corporate and private collectors freed Chan from financial pressures, empowering him to paint full-time; but the same interest was also intrusive and crippling to his artistic progress. Collectors demanded the same riffs and chords from Chan, and Chan had been growing weary of performing to and for this quarter.

'Another Place' marked an intrepid shift from Chan’s evocative flowers and cityscapes and later, the 'Romantics of Betrayal' (2010) series continued with more elaborate narrative structures. The 'Romantics' portfolio demonstrates a more free-wheeling dealing of art insider references ‘universal symbols’ and allegories. Exposing my Flaws...[2010] juxtaposes a black woman, self possessed with gaze unflinching and exposing a breast, with a yellow canary, the symbol of freedom and emancipation. Other layerings occur with Chan’s composition that poses Bernini’s sculpture Anima Dannata (Damned Soul) [1619] facing off an ‘inverse’ image of a portrait of the Chinese Emperor Qianlong by the Italian artist, Giuseppe Castiglione. In another, red cardinal birds (suggesting political intrigues) and a sparrow (signifying simplicity) sit on an emperor’s shoulder.

AUTOBIOGRAPHIES AND OTHER FICTIONS

Whilst Chan’s works of the late 1990s and early 2000s were emptied of explicit narratives, the 'Wanted' cluster of works introduce autobiographical elements and charged issues of censorship, alternative sexual orientations, libidinal energies and mortality.

The self-portrait Reflections of Truth [2011] evokes stop-motion film sequences where Chan’s figure shifts incrementally. His head is wrapped with his t-shirt (recalling Magritte’s shrouded Lovers series), camouflaging his identity and also obscuring his view of the world around him, a world that incidentally holds an inverted ocean. It is probably the most explicit the artist has been in referencing himself in his work, although he has deployed other devices like the alter-ego or a separate persona on previous occasions.

One of these alter-egos is the rabbit/hare that appears at various points, underscoring vulnerabilities or evoking a hunt or chase. In the Romantics series, the artist appears as a three-dimensional giant paper hare/rabbit as well as in his painting Reflecting Upon my Greatest Desire [2010] where Chan depicts the marble statue of Venus and Adonis [1795] by Italian sculptor Antonio Canova (1757-1822).

The Canova sculpture has been popularly celebrated as the epitome of idealised (heterosexual) love, immortalising the couple in an apparently tender, intimate moment. The body language of their embrace as been scrutinised by art historians, and the moment identified as the mortal Adonis preparing to leave for a fateful hunt and an enamoured goddess Venus attempting to detain him. She turns his face towards herself and drops her robe but her Adonis is not persuaded. The writer Isabella Albrizzi (1760-1836) observed on the part of Adonis in Canova’s original sculpture - ‘how languid is the pressure of that embrace! How unconcerned that look!’ – recalling us to the myth of how Adonis was far more interested in his hunting pursuits than with Venus.

Chan inserts himself in the midst of this psycho-drama as a larger-than-life presence. He is the hare (the alter ego) that is both voyeur and prey in the hunt that Adonis is leaving Venus for. The hare, looks on with diffidence, its nose near Adonis’ crotch.

The paintings in 'Wanted' are spiked with autobiographical references but are not always explicit (and the viewer need not be privy to these elements to read the pieces effectively). Many are conflated with issues of open-ness, censorship, freedoms, of resilience and tenacity.

Temptations of Pride [2011] picks up an innocuous photograph where two males are posed together, with the only hint of any kind of intimacy in the placement of the stick held by one of the figures. This kind of de-coding exercise appears in several paintings in the 'Wanted' portfolio, but for the most part Chan is more preoccupied with creating an uncanny atmosphere – oceans are inverted or appear from nowhere; paper airplanes and boats are wafting around in this sphere. In Written Memories [2011], A wistful waif of a girl looks out at paper boats in the open sea and in Of Discretion and Play [2011], paper airplane signifying liberation, circle a silenced protagonist whose mouth is crammed with soft beautiful ribbons.

PLACES IN BETWEEN

It is likely that the passing on of a few of his close friends from serious illnesses had prompted matters of mortality to emerge in Chan’s interviews, his written notations and his work. Death and mortality have been brought into proximity in recent works to an extent and in ways not previously seen in Chan’s practice.

Death is heroicised as a moment of bliss and release in Chan’s appropriation of J.L. David’s iconic painting La Mort de Marat (The Death of Marat) [1793] in his painting From Within A Moment of Despair, I Found Bliss [2010].

In Pulse [2011] Chan bifurcates the visual frame and uses symmetry as a kind of neutraliser. Life and Death are in levelled out as parts of a larger scheme of existence, and neither appears to triumph as a stronger or better state. Life begins as pulse, is protected and contained in a womb and it exits with no particular fanfare - its expiry contained in an urn that is curiously similar in form to the vessel in which it arrived. We are left to read it as detachment or serendipity.

Oblivion [2011] and A Place In Between [2011] allude to interstitial or ambivalent states, with death as an undercurrent. The latter depicts a figure searching his pulse, with the famous funereal monument (the Blessed Ludovica Albertoni [1674}, in the Altieri Chapel in Rome) by the sculptor Bernini, depicted just above this figure.

Death assumes a more violent note in Pleasures of An Unnatural Nature [2011]. There is guilt, indictment and a militant pistol-to-the-forehead execution. In the background, a water-lily blossoms, its subtle colourisation in the otherwise monochromatic composition recalls ‘Pleasantville’ effects - the Gary Ross 1998 film that had selected items or people gradually colorised, shot by shot, in otherwise black and white sequences. Ross’s monochromatic landscape signified an unthinking homogenous existence, and the spreading colour infecting people and things was an indicator of sexual awakening and social consciousness. The yellow lily of Chan’s painting exerts a similar subtle resistance and beautiful defiance in the face of judgement and punishment in the realm of black and white.

Perhaps most unsettling in Chan’s exploration of mortality is his use of taxidermy in his recent works. Whilst taxidermy has appeared in contemporary art for some time – to powerful and spectacular effect in the installations of Cai Guo Qiang (b. 1957, China) for instance, and in more a macabre fashion (with some downright nasty pieces) by Sabrina Brewer – it remains a disconcerting turf for many. In Bondages of Desire [2011], Chan’s taxidermied ducklings (including a mutant one with two heads) tug a wooden horse, as if right out of children’s book, luring us with their initial kawaii (Japanese for ‘cute/adorable’) appearance. The allusions to Troy and betrayal have their roots in Chan’s earlier Romantic series where the artist took on the subject of treachery and self-betrayals. Then he experimented with cut-out butterflies and a large paper hare/rabbit, but has since graduated into using the real thing (albeit in their stuffed form). It is possible that the taxidermied creatures are less linked with the artist’s thoughts about mortality than about achieving certain graphic and psychological effects that have everything to do with illusions, deceptions and revelations.

Chan’s current series, 'Wanted: possession and rejection' carries on the impulses that dominated 'Romantics' but show up new stylistic strains that could be tracked to the neo-surrealist genre. These pieces assure us that his technical dexterity and visual sensibilities have not only not flagged with time, but have entered a new register altogether with more ambitious compositional structures and a more fearless use of colour and tone. And importantly, these paintings indicate Chan’s openness to taking new risks, and pushing his own limits in his artistic development.

Lindy Poh is an independent art curator, writer, and art lawyer based in Singapore.

Artist:

  • Eric Chan

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