From the essential landscape to the mythical landscape: new paintings by Ng Joon KiatIf painting is out of favour in the contemporary art arena, then landscape painting has a lower profile still. Yet the impact of a work of art stems less from the artist’s choice of medium than what he opts to say with it. Ng Joon Kiat’s new series, grouped under the heading Green City II: A collective memory of moving images in contemporary painting, and created specifically for exhibition at the Jendela Gallery, contributes to rehabilitating both the language of paint and the landscape genre in a world often prejudiced against them.
Ng is known principally as a landscape painter though his evocations of the land have never been the conventionally descriptive kind. From the beginnings of his decade-long career, the artist has sought to explore the very physicality of paint, the experiential, sensuous and tactile aspects of the medium, deliberately manipulated to pull his audience into the essence of landscape, a familiar exterior view of the world that holds a private, interior resonance for us all. Ng plays with classical oil paint rather than the more easily handled and faster drying acrylic. Smell, depth of texture, subtlety of colour, and especially a potential for impasto are the qualities unique to oil-based paint that draw Ng to exploit it expressively.
Though never essays in mere formalism, past series(1) have seen Ng reveling in the power of paint and experimenting with the medium’s ability to communicate through its tangible characteristics. This new series however marks a clear change of direction for the artist. Still interested in the medium’s embodiment of the tactile, here Ng Joon Kiat uses oil and canvas in tandem with borrowed imagery to broaden his definition of landscape to include cultural landmarks as well as geographical ones. The new series derives from a thought process the artist embarked on several years ago as he pondered the meaning of landscape and representation. Culture and memory surely form our shared intellectual environment much in the way nature forms our physical one, so associating one with the other offered the artist fresh conceptual and visual opportunities.
The outcome of this new trajectory, 19 canvases, presents a number of readings. More complex in reach than past bodies of work, and more plainly discursive, the sequence is divided into distinct sub-series. Several, in line with former studies, engage experientially with the viewer, Ng allowing the medium proper to seduce and toy with audience perception. Here however, Ng has added a component to the visual event in the form of light interacting with paint, a spotlight conversing with the surface of a horizontally-composed abstracted landscape as it dims and intensifies its beam. The painting’s rhythmic ribbons of yellow-green pigment suggest a sun-baked prairie but the reference is not literal for it is less Ng’s hot tones that evoke heat and flat land mass than the slow, deliberate weight of the artist’s meandering hand as it arranges paint on canvas. The glowing light, alternately throwing the painting’s surface into shadow or providing stark illumination, aims less to mimic sunlight as to conjure the powerful effect of the landscape on the senses: intense, sublime, vivid- that no number of repeated viewings can diminish. This work, for technical reasons sited at the gallery rear, might well have opened the show as it effectively concludes Ng’s past medium-based research as the artist moves onto new terrain.
As conceptual as they are painterly, and signaling a clear break with material awareness as the work’s single mode of connection with the viewer, a second and third sub-series command attention.
A large-scale diptych probes the meaning of representation, this time using the contextually foreign to explore the relationship that paint can forge between us here and now, with otherness there and then. Ng’s untitled diptych operates on several registers at once, telling related but different stories: one canvas narrates the landscape, Ng’s unctuous impasto mapping the land without any hint of the picturesque. The second, pictorially representative, juxtaposes a realistically-painted monochrome English castle and swathes of thickly applied vivid-green. Are these tropical fronds, Ng’s Singapore home-flora? Is the castle known to the artist? Or is it only the replication of a photograph of a building seen in a book describing English architecture? Ng’s overlaying of expressive and three-dimensional impasto onto the flat grey image of European stone can be read as a layering of two cultural orders, one of which perhaps imagined rather than known. Through two differing representational techniques, here so closely married, the artist challenges his viewer to consider his perception of connection and disconnection between seemingly diverging but possibly closely associated evocations of time and place. The second of the diptych’s canvases harks back to older works where the landscape is an abstracted crust of impasto that narrates all known vistas, the essential landscape -sea, sky, earth, flora, fire- meshed into a single arena of sensation and suggestion. This second canvas, though thoroughly abstracted, questions the reality of the first. As a whole, the work is obliquely provocative, its medley of signs showing how reality can melt into myth, and how history colours the present and conditions the future.
A second sub-set of four smaller paintings appropriates and reproduces 1980’s Singapore television. Titled Green City II: Nanyang TV program series, the canvases interact directly with Singapore viewers on jointly experienced cultural ground. An ongoing interest in paint’s ability to reproduce is played out here as Ng recreates cathodic imagery even as the latter itself parrots the real, or projects fiction as reality in the form of TV soap operas or propaganda messages. Green City is testimony to our ongoing fascination with re-production. But here Ng uses the ideas of the simulacrum to investigate the meaning of these images – TV spots advocating security, work, earning money, and development-, then, compared to now, some 30 years after their original diffusion when nation building was at its most visible and forcefully intransigent, its success not yet established. Conceptually, the series is neatly thoughtful as it links the construction of identity –fictional by definition-with the duplicitous intent of paint. Finally, the piece offers commentary on the nature of landscape itself, suggesting that the world represented on television has become a substitute for the landscape and our only means of knowledge of place. Thus the artist, rather than abandoning his dissection of the medium, expands its conceptual range to encompass history and society.
A third mini-set Green City II: TV landscape series examines our understanding of the past with its reproduction of historical events of significance but not known to most except through television. The atomic bomb’s mushroom cloud, rendered in monochrome, an acid-hued atomic sky-scape which the artist pairs up with a similar-looking classical sunset vista, the outline of a helicopter hovering over a night-ocean, and a ghost-like presence under a dark sky suggesting a UFO, comprise life as portrayed by our television screens. Ng makes these banally iconic landscapes of contemporary imagined reality his by once again apposing his patches of green/yellow impasto. Ng’s painterly gestures banish the images’ generic flavour, so lending them a poignancy and individualism that enables them to re-conquer their reality. A note of cynicism, faintly autobiographical, permeates the sequence as Ng hints that these mythic, dark landscapes have supplanted experienced knowledge of the world, particularly for audiences who cannot afford the luxury of travel. Again, the artist posits the power of paint as a trigger of individual experience, his abstracted essential landscapes more real, thrilling, and connected to the world than any duplication of the known form.
Rephrasing Ng’s question about representation, perception, reality and myth, the show’s last sequence moves from the essential landscape of sensory experience, to the mythical landscape we construct in our mind. A stylized black-on-green world-map paired with a view of swimming dolphins occupying a small area of the ocean speak more about ideas than physical reality. The world-map is a code, a universally-recognised representation that harbours meaning about time, place and civilization. The second canvas, conversely, shows but a small swatch of time and place, slightly claustrophobic as Ng’s perspective has the viewer looking up at the swimming mammals from below. Both paintings communicate a certain timelessness but are ultimately opposed: the wide world and its understood complexities seen as a two-dimensional map-frieze appears representationally and conceptually unrelated to the hushed and intimate underwater space inhabited by dolphins. But by pictorially connecting two very different experiences of reality and the world, Ng Joon Kiat has propelled his essential landscape into the realm of the mythical, showing how paint and canvas can simultaneously harness the senses and the mind.
Iola Lenzi February 2010
(1) ‘Garden City’, Taksu Gallery, Singapore, 2008; ‘Imagining A Geographical Presence- A Study Of Horizon In Contemporary Painting’, National Museum of Singapore, 2007