Working Class Hero
Solo Exhibition By Jahan Loh
5 - 28 July 2013
In this exciting new body of work, Jahan Loh recontextualizes iconography and pop cultural references to explore a contemporary story, shifting the meanings to explore themes specific to Singapore and beyond. Working in large format paintings, mixed media, and bronze, his graphic comic book imagery introduces new ways of considering familiar narratives.
Jahan Loh: Universal Icons - from graffiti to graphic angels
By Alexandra Chang
COUNTER CULTURAL UNDERCURRENTS
The A.K.A alter ego is one that graffiti artists use to identify themselves to their community and beyond, and the notion of an alter ego with its connotative connections to caped crusaders as well as graffiti taxonomy is one that Singapore-born artist Jahan Loh adopted early on in his career. Working at a newspaper by day and finding time to paint in the street by night, Loh was known as Dazed-J, often drawing a robot or comic graffiti figure wearing the heavy-rimmed glasses associated with Clark Kent, but also the artist’s own eyewear, which came to be a signifier ID in his early graffiti.
As an artist, Loh hails as an underdog on several counts. He turned down a career in law for one in art, earning a scholarship to Singapore's Lasalle-SIA College of the Arts. The overbearing focus on abstraction at the school at the time stood in opposition to his interest in pop cultural icons and figurative forms. In an attempt to come to terms with the constricts of his situation, he created a work which incorporated a negative evaluation from the lecturer in his program and a series of past critiques onto his painting, citing Basquiat as his influence at the time. His work won the attention of a Nokia art award and also resulted in garnering the negative ire of his art department, which barely passed him.
In 2002 Loh broke his scholarship bond and left The Straits Times newspaper to begin a business partnership in Taiwan. In 2004 he started his company Invasion Studios that permitted the artist to delve into the world of hip hop, vinyl toys and music animations. An innovator during the start of the craze that would be collectible sneakers and toys. he recalls: “Thinking back, I didn’t think like the whole thing would become so big… but back then we were still a very small community and people hunting for old sneakers.” Loh began to foray into vinyl toys with Jakuan Melendez of the former 360 Toy Group on Eldridge Street in New York’s Lower East Side. At the time, the area was just becoming populated with boutiques like Alife and Staple Design, and Kid Robot was transitioning from MiniDisco and beginning to sell toys from Japan and China. Vinyl toys came to a new audience and newly developed collector base interested in a lifestyle that incorporated and was encompassed with art. “Toys has always been another dimension when people touch it and play with it,” states the artist.
For Loh, the initial act of creating a toy was an extension of his passion for collecting toys — 12-inch toys and Star Wars figures among them. Like a specific toy or item from childhood, each iconic image carries with it shifting meanings and as the artist notes: “A lot of attachment to these toys, different parts in life, different experiences.” The nostalgia connected with his collecting can later be found surrounding Loh’s series of paintings of objects from youth and innocence, such as his alternative hello kitty paintings from his Cherry Poke series or other kawaii-type renderings of children, drawn from a multinational Chinese consumer electronics brand logo mascot. For each of these works, the subjects are haunted by a notion of a balance of innocence and knowledge, power and naiveté — a childhood that is layered with an adult vantage point and concerns.
In the fiberglass work Hello Pussy (2010), the blue-toned Hello Kitty character is surrounded by a pool of hot pink blood. When brought into the framework of the larger range of the artist’s works, this sculpture parallels the overtly sexualized squatting blue fiberglass female form, surrounded in a red plastic pool of menstrual blood in Cherry Pop Girl from his Cherry Pop series. In Hello Pussy, the work shifts from a more straightforward adolescent gaze onto female sexuality, and instead signals a play on innocence and the layered and multivalent points of view the artist is able to gather through compressing many moments of time into a single frame — all signified by a childhood icon passing into adulthood.
A similar thematic is expressed through Loh’s diptych Sister in Arms/Brother in Arms (2010), depictions of two sets of children in which the left portion of the work is a pair of cherubic manga-inspired girls and the portion on the right depicts a similarly styled pair of boys. The works exude a perceived sense of childhood innocence, each pair holding an ice cream cone and displaying an energetic thumbs up — possibly young Adams and Eves in paradise — bringing along with them a hint toward an impending arrival of paradise lost. The past, present and future combine.
FROM OUTSIDE IN
In the 1990s and the decade that followed, the influence of graffiti became embraced internationally as a counterculture movement that developed to be increasingly more complexly interwoven with lifestyle subcultures and market branding. But as a symbolic outlet for artistic and youth countercultural expression, growing up with idols including Crash and Daze, the idea of 1970s and 1980s graffiti movement and its undercurrents of socio-politico and economic protest that became a point of connection among youth internationally would remain vital as a locus for Loh’s inspiration and identity.
In 2005, Loh traveled to New York to visit the artist Crash to prepare the exhibitions Collision I and Collision II at Jendela Visual Arts Space at Esplanade in Singapore in collaboration with his childhood idol. While he was in New York, the artist was also introduced to the artist Phase 2. Loh remembers Phase 2 as sparking his initial interest in thinking through his Singaporean identity in relation to his artistic production. The artist recalls:
“His asking me, ‘You’re Asian right, but you paint like what we did in the ’70s. So where is your identity?’ When he said that, he really made me think ‘It’s true I’m Chinese I’m Singaporean, but a lot of people in China think I’m Taiwanese, so what am I?’ There was this period when I was really thinking hard.”
Coming out of this experience, Loh began to hold his paintbrush in the Chinese mao bi style and paint his script-based work in black and white, referencing Chinese calligraphic tradition. Yet this comprised only a portion of Loh’s artistic affinities and intersections as an artist trained on the streets in Singapore, Tokyo and Taiwan, as well as art school, and shaped by graffiti artists from the 1970s and 1980s in New York City and its wave of global influence, and the international phenomenon of toy, manga and comic book culture.
After struggling with the confines of artworld and national labels of graffiti and gallery artist, design and fine art, and his own cultural identity, Loh found himself living within the space of multiple overlapping identities with multiple possible potential categorizations. After spending nearly nine years in Taiwan, Loh returned to Singapore in 2011 and created the works for the exhibition Cherry Poke: Reconstituted Philosophies at Jendala Visual Arts Space. He recalls of the time:
“I wanted to break away from my old figurative style, and create a series of still life works which define my nationality as a Singaporean, as I felt that after spending eight years in Taipei, even some China art magazines write that I am Taiwanese.”
Departing from his figurative work, the artist utilized the iconic pink, yellow and blue Ma Ling brand pork luncheon meat can as a stand-in for the intermix of cultural signifiers in today’s Singaporean identities and everyday lives. In the installation for the exhibition, the artist was able to request the company to collaborate on the project and produce special editions of the cans for the show labeled with the titled Reconstituted Philosophies. Surrounding the gallery walls, Loh hung paintings of individual cans, some with tears on the label, some oval and some rectangular, each with their own specific distinctions. A sculpture the size of a coffee table of an aluminum can with no label perched atop four pig legs, welcomed the gallery-goer next to a glass-top counter vitrine filled with the special edition cans neatly stacked within. The exhibition troubles the viewer with questions as to the purveyors of identity and the consumption of such labels. In the case of Loh, his questions in creating the work led to the exploration of his own Singaporean identity and its transcultural intermix.
The works were made in response to an increased wave of anti-Chinese sentiment that felt palpable to the artist upon his return to Singapore due to perceived immigration-related job competition and higher costs of real estate. Loh states:
“I realized that a lot of us are from China, our ancestry are from China, and so luncheon meat, everyone in Singapore think it’s a local produce. I realized although it is made in China, it’s like Singaporean culture. I thought it was pretty fun to use the luncheon meat to talk about the whole culture in Singapore, everything is pretty much contained, but made up from different parts.”
RISING HEROES — EXTRATERRESTRIAL POTENTIALITY
Icons are seen as infused with meaning and held with universality, but such icons also shift their meaning depending on contextualization. Loh notes:
“The deconstruction of popular icons in my new series are done in order to perform not just a critical/philosophical task but also a intergalactic one—to alter our perception of reality and open up new spaces of being and becoming; the possibility of new forms, new bodies and new minds.
Fragmented imagery from different popular cultural sources offer a more profoundly transformative vision, and one in which blurs the categories between the good and the bad, the profane and the sacred, as neither side ever prevails due to each containing the other in an eternal, natural check, or balance.”
With the artist’s new contextualization of well known iconography and pop cultural references, the images shift meaning to provide a space for iteration of what may be culturally initerable due to politics or societal constraints. The images become a vocabulary and their composition, a syntax for possible potential interpretations.
With the recent works Agent M (2010), Agent R (2010), and Angel G (2010), as well as his paintings The Risen (2013) and sculpture of the same title, a large-scale work designed from brass with high copper content to replicate 24K gold, Loh is referencing the religious personages of the archangels Michael, Raphael and Gabriel and Christ respectively. Harkening back to Renaissance religious art iconography, the works are calling to an established art history, pulling with it the weight of the master narrative of art historical iconography and art world acceptance and the perceived universality of such canonical imagery. Yet, the pop cultural imagery and reference to the archangels and Christ as extraterrestrial beings or “alien” is a creative turn that draws from the artist’s interest in the work of Jack Kirby, Asian manga and other Marvel comics, in which Loh grew up deeply immersed. The icon becomes not only one of popular lexicon, but doubly layered as such. The canonical hero also serves as the graphic comics-derived hero. The canonical hero is one that incorporates the related elements of the archangels of knowledge, death, life, resurrection, healing, mercy, repentance, annunciation, vengeance and revelation. The canonical Christ figure and agents/archangels are also equally the underdogs or outsiders looking in, from the point of view of the “alien.” Instead of a one-tiered dimensionality, the implied hero figure is one that contains a complex layering of description.
The alien bodies rendered by the artist in The Risen paintings and cast into the sculpture The Risen exhibits a stylized perspective focused on the powerful musculature of the anatomy, an element found in graphic comic imagery as well as in the works of Caravaggio. The bodies are reclined in a pose as if taken from the cross, yet as the titles imply, they are also rising. The extraterrestrial hero becomes at once the Christ figure, or Prometheus, and harkens as a warning and to the arriving potentiality of what is to come and might be.
The popular imagery that Loh incorporates in his work are icons and symbols that have already imbued within them, traversals of cultural boundaries, bringing with them multiple cultural significances. Loh is himself a transnational artist who has lived and worked in multiple countries. Yet, there remains for Loh, the importance of siting the works within his artistic production as a Singaporean artist, all the while recognizing their transcultural admix. This idea comes together most keenly within the works he produces in his latest series.
The recent work Wizard of Oz (2013) depicts a centrally placed prominent lion figure, much like the Aslan figure from The Chronicles of Narnia, a popular icon engendering notions of innocence, magic, knowledge, and power. Yet perched on his back is a character resembling Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes, who was the Chief Defender of the Faith and keeper of the scrolls of knowledge. He is painted in a style and pose reminiscent of social realism with his arm extended forward in a salute. While there is a site-specific significance to the work, as being located and produced in Singapore, it can also be taken more universally as modernity’s push and pull between knowledge, faith and science. As a symbol of Singapore as the “Lion City,” the lion here has an added layering from such a vantage point as also being held in check by what the artist notes is “ a monkey on its back.”
With Loh’s work, the potentiality of identification and cultural significance exists in multiple ways through the language of shifting meanings that surround the iconic imagery he uses within both specific and transnational framings.
POINT / COUNTERPOINT: TIME, PLACE, IMAGE AND COMMUNITY
Transfixed within the transcultural landscapes of multiple contextualizations for his graphic comics-based and iconic imagery, Loh locates a positioning that crosses and is able to account for a multiplicity of intersecting narratives playing counterpoint within his works. The scaffolding of communities of affinities and definition, nationality and linear temporal framing become broken through Loh’s aesthetics of visuality — layering shifting meanings, he breaks down the artificial categorizations of graffiti, pop cultural and religious iconography and references to the art historical master narrative. Instead what he reveals is the everyday realities of this counterpoint of themes, each playing its own trajectory, each adding, framing and reframing the landscape of the work in how the images are received, how they are intended for reception and how they are shaped and coaxed by the artist to reveal a new possible direction and indication.
His works additionally bring with them a long durée temporality that amasses experience and histories within the single works. At times, these exude a nostalgia and disclose a nod to a childhood passage into knowledge atop this blurred boundary of self-definition and realization — complete with its emancipations, potentialities, and constraints.
Together, The Risen works, Wizard of Oz, his Cherry Poke and Reconstituted Identities point to an expanded vantage of urban realities and modernity and what scholar Nicholas Mirzoeff calls the aesthetics of power, in which the system of visuality of the aesthetics of power reveal the power complex itself.  With Loh, the works function as this “check” or “balance” of power that become a revelation of the power structures of the system of the everyday. His work stands at the juncture of the contemporary now of the avant-garde. Immersed in multiple historical frameworks and possible layers of meaning, Loh signals to a constantly arriving possibility through the point of revelation where past, present and future become joined.
 Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. Duke University Press Books, Durham, 2011.
Alexandra Chang is Curator of Special Projects &
Director of Global Arts Programs, New York University - Asian/Pacific/American Institute
- Jahan Loh