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Who Is David Hockney and Why Is His Latest Work Getting Dragged by Londoners?

Up until this week, I had never heard of David Hockney.

“Preposterous,” I hear you huffing. “How can you not know one of the most influential British artists of modern times?”

Well, pardon me for being an uncultured swine, but while I like and appreciate art, it’s not exactly necessary knowledge for me to pay my bills. So yeah.

But I digress.

To the uninitiated, David Hockney is an English painter, widely considered to be one of Britain’s most celebrated living artists. His early works often featured swimming pools in Los Angeles — where he lived in the 1960s — and they were his signature for a long time. In 2018, a 1972 artwork dubbed “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” broke records at a Christie auction by selling for $90.3million (RM3.7bilion) — making it the highest price at auction for a work by a living artist.

To put it into perspective, the Selangor state government of Malaysia (where I’m staying) had a revenue of RM2.32billion in 2019. Which means that Hockney’s one piece surpasses the revenue that the richest state in Malaysia makes in an entire year. (**If you want to see how a $90.3 million painting looks like, click here.) In recent years, Hockney has transitioned to creating whimsical digital pieces using his iPad.

Over the years, there have been numerous debates on why Hockney’s works are so famous, and whether or not they’re worth the price they’re paid for. Now, I know that art is a very subjective thing — what you like may not be appealing to others. Personally, I do like some of Hockney’s works — they have a very Picasso/Matisse-esque quality to them. But I also know how the art world can be… biased in their way of valuing things (more on this later) — and there comes a point where as an ordinary person, you seriously question if some of these artists (and those in the art society) aren’t just… you know. Trolling the masses.

Recently, London’s mayor unveiled Hockney’s latest work at Piccadilly Circus as part of the #LetsDoLondon campaign, to revive domestic tourism and encourage Londoners to get out and support local businesses. It certainly got people buzzing — but not all of the noise was positive:

British people had a field day in the responses. (Swipe right for more)

While the majority took the mickey out of the painting, there were also those that thought it was a smart and provocative move. Yet others believed that people were making much ado about nothing.

Meanwhile, young artists have also joined the conversation, calling the entire campaign a ‘missed opportunity’ for the mayor’s office to not only help struggling artists and businesses, but also showcase London’s diversity. Some have shopped works of their own onto the space where Hockney’s works are currently being displayed. *Look up the hashtag #letsdolondonbetter — there are some seriously amazing artworks here!

While Hockney’s piece was apparently done for free, the mayor did spend £7million on the entire campaign — which no doubt included marketing and the engagement of an agency and what not to a) promote and b) put up the posters. Which, to many artists whose livelihoods have been affected by the pandemic, is a double slap to the face because Hockney has not lived in the UK for a long time (he’s based in the US). Perhaps the only possible good reason for choosing him over everyone else is the clout that Hockney has — so in a way I guess the work achieved its purpose to create conversations, because like I said: I didn’t know who Hockney was until recently.

This brings me to the next point which I mentioned earlier: how we value art today.

If you’ve ever watched the horror/thriller movie Velvet Buzzsaw starring Jake Gyllenhaal, it’s a brilliant satire of the art world today. In the film, Gyllenhaal plays a seemingly independent art critic, who gets pulled into the world of price fixing after his girlfriend — who works for a prominent art gallery owner — discovers cache of haunted paintings by a dead artist. They decided to display the paintings, to great success, but as greed and avarice take over, the trade off becomes deadly.

While the story’s plot is pretty outlandish, its portrayal of price fixing — and how critics, gallery owners, and buyers are basically complicit in ‘valuing’ how much an art piece is worth — is accurate imo. Take Mr Hockney’s latest piece for example, and this article. It is well written, full of praise like “a great piece of public art” and seemingly thought-provoking points like how public art usually adheres to ‘safe, sterile taste of private developers keen to bring artistic flair to artificially created public realms void of people or life’. And it makes you think, hey, maybe there IS more to this. They sound like valid points.

But I guess if you asked a child what they would see — without the pomp and flair and fancy words — they’d tell you like it is: it’s a doodle. One that they could probably make, given the right tools and materials. Eg: 5-year-old Rob makes a painting. Parent: “It shows how artistic he really is. Look at the composition. The brilliant pairing of colours. It’s sublime and it expresses the human condition.”

“Why’d you make this piece, Rob?”

5-year-old Rob: “I dunno. I just like it.”

Anyway, what this environment creates is a small, select group of ‘elite’ artists whose works are considered extremely valuable, and you have the rest of the artists — whose works by the way are no more or less than others — but are undervalued and taken advantage of. I personally know artist friends who struggle to make ends meet despite how talented they are, because there are clients who constantly want discounts, aren’t paying them fairly, and think that art isn’t ‘worth’ anything. These same clients would gladly pay thousands for a prestigious piece from an artist who somehow managed to market themselves better.

A sketch I made. Value: priceless.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, the art world as we know it today has lost its true meaning and purpose. When they say art can be anything, I didn’t think these people would literally take it to heart and spin in that way lol. There’s that artist Maurizio Catalan who duct taped a banana to a wall and someone paid $120,000 for it. There are also a series of paintings at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that comprise of completely white pieces. According to SFMOMA’s website, the primary reason for the artist’s creation was to “create a painting that looked untouched by human hands”. The site later goes on to say that they have an important place in art history as precursors of Minimalism and Conceptualism.

Yeah… you keep telling yourself that, buddy.

Maybe I’m dumb. I’m not a professional artist or an art critic. But what I see are blank paintings, and a lot of ways to describe why they’re revolutionary, ground breaking, amazing. It reminds me of the story of the Emperor and his New Clothes, where everyone was too afraid to call out that the emperor was parading around naked; instead clapping and applauding because everyone around them was doing so. It took a child’s innocent eyes to call it for what it was.

What do you think about Hockney’s work, and art today in general? I’d love to hear if you agree or disagree with my views, especially if you’re an artist. Let me know in the comments below!

Visiting The National Visual Arts Gallery (Balai Seni Visual Negara), Kuala Lumpur

 

Note: Photo heavy post! 🙂 

I needed some me-time last weekend, and malls are so boring… so I hopped off to the National Visual Arts Gallery in the heart of KL. Once known as the National Art Gallery, it was opened in 1958 and has played host to many international and local art exhibitions.

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Image: Wikipedia

 

 

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Spread across two floors and four galleries, the spacious building belied its age: clean and well kept, with a spiraling ‘stairway’ in the center. Despite being a weekend, there were only a few visitors. A far cry from how crowded malls in KL would be on Saturdays. The thought saddened me a little.

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The gallery is currently running the Mapping – Malay Land: Formation from the Colonisation. It chronicles the evolution of Malaysian art from its colonial days in the 1880s.

All Malaysian students learn of our colonial history, when the British occupied Malaya, so names like Frank Swettenham (the first Resident General of the Federated Malay States) are familiar. What I didn’t know was that Swettenham was also an avid explorer – trudging through jungles, rivers, befriending local Malays, learning of their culture and writing books. Since cameras would have been difficult to carry around on jungle treks, Swettenham and his team of British officers – George Giles, William Samwell and William Daniel – created sketches of what they saw/experienced: like a picture journal. And they were good at drawing, capturing culture and daily life in minute details.

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“Cutter Kestrel in a Storm” by William Samwell (1893) depicted the arduous journey the crew had to face – as they navigated the ship through thunderstorms, trying to stay afloat against the wrath of the sea. In the background, the hilly limestone islands of the Thai-Malaysian border are visible as a dark, foreboding mass.

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“Shooting the Bamboo Rapids, Landak River” (1890) is another one of Samwell’s works. In the painting, people are attempting to cross the Landak River (in West Kalimantan) on little boats, where the rapids are treacherous and boaters are seen falling off into the white waves.

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(Top) Rajah of Telubing At his Shooting Range (1893), and (bottom) Market Place Telubing & Fish Market (1893) both showed scenes from rural Telubing, where the locals go about everyday life. In the former, the king looks over a vast paddy field with his subjects behind him and what appears to be two British officers. Rifles are set into the ground. In the latter, a British officer stands out on the pier in blue and white in stark contrast with the village and its villagers which are coloured in shades of brown and dark green. The landscape is wild, lush and tropical, bursting at the seams with wild undergrowth which are a drastic flight from the soft, English countryside.

It must have been very strange and exciting for these white men to be in a foreign land so different from their own, and to learn of its ways and cultures. Part of it comes down to romanticism. The pompous ‘white man’s burden’ – in that they tried to bring ‘civilisation’ to what they saw as ‘savages’, is quite apparent, even in Swettenham’s writings.

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A more colourful piece, Dyak Campong Kapan Landak River (1890) shows what I assume to be a traditional Dayak longhouse. The Dayak are tribes of people in parts of East Malaysia and Indonesia (Borneo). They lived by the rivers and lived off the land, hunting and gathering. The scene Samwell painted was a pretty one, showing the locals going through their daily activities. Chickens and livestock run around the bottom of the elevated longhouses, while villagers carried on – playing with their children, cooking, carrying items.

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George Giles’ April 13 – Breakfast (1885) was done with pencil on paper, and is remarkably well preserved. In it, several British officers are seen lounging around a table in the middle of a tropical forest, enjoying a smoke and a meal. Giles travelled with Swettenham, and both of them were often subjects in the sketches. While Swettenham (on the right) looks at home in a wide hat, traditional sarong and a cigar, the bureaucratic British officer on the left is seen in full regalia looking rather uncomfortable in the unfamiliar surroundings.

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Original Historical 1821 Aquatints of Penang by William Daniell (1821) was probably one of the oldest paintings in the room. In it, there is a building that looks like a farm in a nicely landscaped countryside – similar to what you’d find in English paintings – except the plants in the background are tropical, with lush, dark green hills.

I was amazed at the amount of detail captured in all these colonial-era paintings. Since these explorer-painters did not have cameras to work with, they had to catch everything in memory and on canvas – which makes it all the more fascinating.

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Moving on to Gallery 2, which was dedicated to the 1900s and beyond. There was a boom of artistic expression, especially from the immigrant Chinese community, who formed art associations and societies of their own.

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Chinese Junk – Straits of Johor, O.Don Peris (1930) 

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Newspaper clippings, reporting on art development and exhibitions in the region.

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Self Portrait, Yong Mun Sen (1941) 

An immigrant from China, Yong was part of the Penang Chinese Art Club. During the Japanese occupation of Malaya, the Japanese heavily discouraged (by heavily discouraged I mean they would basically beat the sht out of you or kill you) associations and cultural activities of any kind, so many of its members resorted to burning their paintings to get rid of evidence. Some of these, like the above portrait, remains.

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Kilang by Kuc Ju Ping (1958) showing a bunch of factories or an industrial area. Notice the paintings have adopted different colours and styles in this era.

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Malaysian scenes are not the only subjects, but also Southeast Asian culture, like Balinese Dancer by Khaw Sia (1954). 

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Paintings became more playful, colourful and even cartoonish as artists explored new styles – like Rangkaian Bumbung Attap by Lee Joo For (1959). 

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It’s true that art imitates real life – and what I really liked about the paintings on display at NVAG is the colourful cultures and history that makes Malaysia such a diverse country. Chinggay II by Tan Chiang Kiong shows the Chinggay festival in Penang which happens every year and is a big celebration by the Chinese-Hokkien community.

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Works by Lai Foong Moi. Although some of these artists are Chinese, I like how they have such a good understanding of the different cultures they are painting. Lai, for example, paints about Rumah Panjang and the Ibans of Sarawak using Chinese painting techniques.

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Puppet Show by Lim Mu Hue (1955) show an aspect of Malaysian Chinese life that was very popular in that era – cheap entertainment in the form of puppet shows.

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Self Portrait by Lim Yew Kuan (1951). Born in Xiamen, China, this dashing young painter is forever immortalised in this self portrait. It was the ‘selfie’ of that era, I guess.

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Jalan Yap Ah Loy by Chia Yu Chian (1985) is relatively new compared to its neighbouring paintings and shows the bustling KL street – Chinese-shops in colonial buildings which KL is famous for, traffic, black and yellow taxis (which have become obsolete) and observation of city-life in the 1980s. The road is still there, but I guess much of it has changed.

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Ibu Dayak dengan Anak by Tay Chee Toh (1968), a beautiful wood carving done in black and white.

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Vivid colours in Carrying Fish by Peter Harris (1960) 

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Semangat Tanah, Air dan Udara by Patrick Ng (1959) was one of my favourites in this gallery due to the sheer amount of detail. Literally translated to ‘Spirit of Earth, Water and Air’, there were three main scenes in the painting. In ‘water’, a woman walks on lily pads, on ‘earth’, a man seems to be gazing up to the sky while his companions prostate themselves on the ground in varying worshiping poses, and finally in ‘Air’, what seems to be an angel looks down with her arms spread, as if reaching for the man on earth. There are two god-like figures on the right and left, in what I think represents the sunand moon. There are also many other characters hidden in the scenes, like the half-submerged, naked couple at the bottom of the lilypads who appear to be in a passionate embrace.

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Paintings are not the only thing you can find in NVAG as there are plenty of sculptures as well.

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Kuning Semalam by Grace Selvanayagam (1965) was one of the few paintings done by Indian painters in NVAG. Despite being just watercolour on canvas, it appeared to have that wax-like effect similar to batik prints.

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Wayang Kulit Kelantan by Nik Zainal Abidin Nik Salleh (1959) showed the rich and colourful culture of the Kelantanese shadow puppets.

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Minah by Dato Mohd Hossein Enas (1958). Minah is a term to describe a typical Malay girl, and in these two paintings, Hossein has captured the beauty of the local Malay woman perfectly.

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Another shadow puppet painting – Wayang Kulit by Yusoff Abdullah (1960). 

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Untitled by Zakariah Noor (1960) – Malay culture condensed into a stretch of painting: with traditional wau (kites), bullock carts, joget dancing, top spinning, keris battles, kompang (drums) and other traditional instruments being played.

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Chinese-style paintings, but using local subject matter ie (left) instead of bamboo forests, the artist has used rubber trees, which was one of the major imports of Malaya back then and (right) instead of a Chinese village high up in the mountains, we have a quaint Malay village surrounded by limestone hills and swaying coconut trees.

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The last gallery, which was ‘modern’ art, was where I got completely lost – because I didn’t understand the pieces! ;-; Most of them were sculptures, and some were downright weird-looking. Since the place was empty, I got quite creeped out by the reachy-gropy black figure in the front.

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A cement piece called Berdua (couple) by Lee Kian Seng… which looked like a giraffe and a cow nuzzling each other got shot through the stomach with gigantic elephant slugs. Yep.

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There was one of those old black and white TVs in an old TV cabinet in a corner.. which made me jump coz it started to play music out of nowhere .

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Manja by Dato Ibrahim Hussein (1960) was an abstract piece. It wasn’t unpleasant to look at, but I had to concentrate really hard and taking the title to mind, I have come to the conclusion that it’s a mother cradling her child (the two fat blue things on the left are thighs and the child is coiled around her in purple ???)

I’m sorry, but I can’t appreciate this kind of ‘modern’ art. It just feels like they’re doing whatever the hell they want, splashing paint left and right, and calling it art. The so-called ‘art critics’ have done nothing but exacerbate this trend by calling it ‘revolutionary, modern, breath of fresh air’ blablabla. They actually did this experiment where this art professor showed his students a piece of ‘canvas’ with splotches of paint on it and had them appraise it. Most couldn’t tell wtf it was so they complimented the piece, saying it was ‘full of expression’, ‘beautiful’ etc… until the professor told them it was his work apron.

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After my expedition to the galleries, it was time to leave. But not before checking out this giant world ‘map’ done in extremely detailed stencil sketches and showing different scenes from around the world – from Aztecs to Mayas, nature, jungles, tribes to modern cities, metropolises and ancient ruins.

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Just outside the main building is a small side gallery which has portraits of Parlimen Malaysia – the previous Agongs (kings) and our Prime Ministers. Photos were not allowed here though.

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So lemme take a selfie instead.

 

I had a great afternoon exploring the National Visual Arts Gallery. Super insightful and inspiring to see the works of art, especially those done by people long gone. They are immortalised through their pencil and paint strokes on canvas for future generations to see and learn from.

NATIONAL VISUAL ARTS GALLERY (BALAI SENI VISUAL NEGARA) 

23B, Jalan Bachang, 51200 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Tel: +60 3-4041 8720

Opening hours (Daily): 10am – 6pm

Admission: FREE

 

Inspiring Stories @ The Best of You Exhibition 2015

Who, or what inspires you to be the very best that you can be?

A family member, a friend, a hobby, a passion?

This is the question that the people behind the Best of You 2015 exhibition asked Malaysians and Singaporeans. And they have delivered hundreds of brave, touching and inspiring stories, to be shared with everyone from October 28 to Nov 1 at IOI City Mall, Putrajaya. 

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These are stories in writing, photos, art, music, and film, by everyday,ordinary people. Stories by people like you and me. Which is why when I was going through the displays, some really touched my heart and had tears welling up in my eyes.

There was one about how this woman broke free from her traditional Asian boundaries to pursue a career as a scuba diver. As an Asian kid in a traditional household, conforming has always been an issue, and I admired the writer for her courage.

There were many who talked about their parents, and how their sacrifices has made such a difference to the lives of their children, and how their resilience and love has brought out the best in them.

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One of the most touching sections was the one where members of the public got to take polaroid photos and write a short caption to go along with it.

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Art pieces by ‘The Leaf Man’.

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Photographs by Humans of Kuala Lumpur.

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There were art pieces by both amateur and professional artists, expressing their stories through paintings, portraits, carvings.

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So if you’re not doing anything over the weekend, come check out The Best of You 2015 exhibition at IOI City mall, Putrajaya. Find a story that resonates with your own. And be inspired. 🙂

 

A Tale of Two Countries: Watercolour Works of Singapore and Malaysia

Malaysia and Singapore are like two sides of the same coin – sharing culture, cuisines, language and a diverse ethnic makeup. This was documented in ‘A Tale of Two Countries – Singapore and Malaysia’ by Singaporean artist Seah Kang Chui at a week long art exhibition, which ran at Soka Gakkai Malaysia in KL. The show featured over 50 watercolour artworks by the veteran painter.

*All artworks are copyrighted to Seah Kang Chui

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Seah has 40 years of experience under his belt, and it shows through his colourful paintings. A central theme to all his artworks is the depiction of rural scenery in Sg and Malaysia, from villages to old, heritage buildings. Some, like Lau Pa Sat Market (left) convey a deeper message. Seah said he deliberately painted the high-rise buildings in the background using a blurred style, to signify the ‘faceless’ modernity compared to the old market’s rich culture and history.

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Singapore River

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An old bridge in Singapore, with the ultra modern Marina Bay Sands building in the background.

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If you grew up in Malaysia and Singapore, many of these village and jetty scenes would be familiar. Seah captures the simplicity and essence of kampung living, so much so that looking at his paintings transports the viewer to childhood memories of running around barefeet in the yard, chasing chickens while coconut trees swayed in the breeze amidst a backdrop of traditional wooden houses on stilts – or climbing into long wooden boats and watching fishermen docking at rickety jetties in the evening.

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New Sarawak state assembly building’ next to the river.

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Paddy field in Sekinchan transports the viewers to this agricultural town, famed for its endless yellowing fields of ripe paddy and blue skies.

Seah’s fondness for rural scenes came from his own childhood, as he grew up in a village.

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“I often paint on the spot. If I can’t finish it, I take photographs to be continued at home,” he said. Sometimes a painting may take several tries.

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Heritage buildings are also a favourite subject – like the Christchurch Melaka (left).

It was amazing to see how skillful the artist was with his brush strokes.  I can’t claim to be a high culture person, but I enjoy looking at art I can understand and which connects emotionally with me on a deeper level, instead of random swishes and abstract notions.

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