Extreme Portrait (Part II): Beyond Face and Value
“Are we to paint what’s on the face, what’s inside the face, or what’s behind it?”
Artists around the world have been exploring portraiture through various perspectives, direction, medium and techniques over time but there is no definite answer to satisfy the question once posed by Pablo Picasso. In Extreme Portrait Part I, we have seen how portraits are used by participating artists as a medium to express their personal views towards a specific issue; be it public or personal. Part II however lingers on the observation of the artists on a variety of human characters in our surroundings.
Personal Identity in This Time and Space
The philosophy of personal identity lead by John Locke in 1975 suggests that identities were constructed on the basis of various traits, knowledge, experiences and even shared values (for example; gender, race, religion, nationality, community and etcetera). These qualities however shift shapes to accommodate changes over time, parallel with the changes in education system, politics, social and economic growth in a particular space.
James Joyce once wrote in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man” published in 1914 that goes; “This race and this country and this life produced me. I shall express myself as I am.”
From our geographical and psychological context, Malaysia has embarked on a progressive path to improve the social and economic standing of the country and its people since her independence in 1957. Development and high rates of the economic growth were combined to significantly reduce poverty and unemployment levels, as well as address other socio-economic imbalances for one purpose; to produce a society imbued with cultural and human values.
With the promise of socio-economic opportunities and gender equality, women leave the comfort of their domestic household management to take a more crucial position in the society and business in order to make a living. In her artwork, Louise Low raises gender-based issues where men are given more preference than women in occupational structure. She too highlighted the practicality of women camouflaging a man’s world through a portrait of a person hiding behind a camouflaged-pattern lingerie, just like what a soldier and a chameleon would do to achieve their goal. Camouflaging to her, is not about pretending to be inferior. On the contrary, it is to serve one’s true intentions without losing touch with one’s inner self.
Gan Tee Sheng and Cheong Tuck Wai both see the faces as an inescapable representation of a voyage, from childhood to old age. Gan Tee Sheng‘s split second shot of an old man staring directly at the viewer, begs us to relook on the value of life. Could it be that in our strive to keep pace with the economic development, we have become self-centered individuals who cares more about material and less the relationship amongst the society especially the elderly who needs more love and care.
Cheong Tuck Wai’s portrait reflects the importance of preserving the memories in our daily struggles and making a living in a fast-paced world, through his known technique of using oil, acrylic and image transfer, burnt on canvas. Disintegrated within their surroundings, both “Old Man 7” and “In Reality. In Memories 3” has an effect of desertions, discard and dissolve; allowing viewers to ponder on the sitters’ inner thoughts, which at times reflects the artists’ stance and concern towards the missing pieces of our modern lives.
Viewed from a different angle, Haafiz Shahimi and Jamil Zakaria both perceive portraiture as self-reflection, questioning the mentality and attitude of an individual in the passing time. Inspired by the theory of identity by Gottfried Leibniz and Immanuel Kant, Haafiz Shahimi agrees that time is a crucial entity in defining identity. But he believes that one’s time on earth is different than the other, and wonders what will happen when it ends. Are we ready when it happens? And how do we prove our existence? Known for his pyrography print, Haafiz painstakingly printed a series of vertical lines using burnt metal rod on canvas which was constructed into a portrait of a man, burning in his thought. Using different medium, Jamil Zakaria’s monologue is a depiction of an old man with a long beard, formed by chicken wire. Like Haafiz, Jamil too poses questions through “Berusia”; of our responsibility and accomplishments in our lives thus far.
The Self is Moral
We often think that beliefs, memories and roots determine our identity, but to some scholars, it is the moral character that really makes us who we are. When memory fails us, the only thing that makes ourselves intact is the concern of the principles of right and wrong.
Literally depicted from a Malay proverb ‘talam dua muka’ (a two-faced person), “Talam I” and “Talam II” conveys Khairul Izham‘s thoughts on an individual through a spontaneous and continuous drawing using acrylic on canvas. But rather than slamming, he asks the viewers to try and understand the other side of the story before making any judgments. Life as Khairul sees it is a stage full of actors, playing their roles for many reasons unknown to anybody else.
True to his identity, Syahbandi Samat’s portrait still lingers on a mythical character; Pinocchio, and just like any mythical anecdote, “Pesan untuk Hati yang Reput” conveys a reminder on moral values. Through his known technique; ballpoint rendering on canvas, Syahbandi wishes Pinocchio to always remember that although he is finally transformed into real human, his heart remains the same. He is what he is; regardless of the change in appearance. For that, Syahbandi emblazoned an invert inscription on the inside of Pinocchio’s wooden chest, a reminder from his creator;
“hati kau akan reput (your heart will rot)
tapi tidak sereput (but it will not be as rotten as)
hati manusia tulen” (the real human heart)
Contrary to most portrait painters whose works narrate the beauty and other significant qualities of the sitter, Al-Khuzairie Ali looks at the hideous side of the human character which gave an impact on other being in the ecosystem. Scientists around the globe agree that extinction is actually a natural and common phenomenon of the universe. In the past, the extinction rate was balanced by the evolution of new species, but the current, human-caused extinction is happening so fast that the evolution cannot keep their pace. The question is, will human survive this natural cycle or we too will face extinction at some point. This is what Al-Khuzairie tries to portray in his “Caution” series.
Whilst most artists uses a visual representation of portraiture, Yim Yen Sum and Azzad Diah (in collaboration with Edroger Rosili) took a creative turn which is seldom ventured by other fine artists in Malaysia, a conceptual approach towards the idea behind the theme.
“Is there anything else you can tell me about him?”
“No. Like I said, he was funny looking. More than most people, even.”
“What about the other fella?”
“He was a little older. You know, he looked like the Marlboro Man.”
“Yeah. But maybe I’m saying that, you know, ‘cause he smokes a lot of Marlboros. You know, like a subconscious type of thing.”
Above is the excerpts from the film Fargo (1996) directed by Joel Coen; the scene where two prostitutes were describing two suspects when asked by Marge Gunderson, a local police chief while investigating a homicide. Azzad Diah and Edroger Rosili perceive the words as a visual to envision someone’s facial and character; representing the subject beyond social, gender, economy and political attribution. ‘Name’ is however the most effortless but a significant word to characterize a personality. Using composition scenes from Jacques Louis David’s neoclassical paintings, (extracted from the “Oath of the Horatii”, “The Death of Socrates” and “The Death of Marat”), “Bobbi” is the manifestation of the relation between the subject and its value in their own convention.
Like Azzad Diah, Yim Yen Sum also looks at names, as the most unique and universal identification to distinguish one individual from another. “Him I Her” is a wall installation using 234 pieces of name cards in various sizes wrapped in gauge and pinned directly onto the wooden panel. Yen Sum believes that human character does not stand individually, but rather they are conjoined into a bigger picture, shaped by a group of human individuals that we call ‘society’.
Not every portrait is created as a testament towards a certain issue or agenda. Most well known portrait paintings from the history depicts nothing more than just beauty of the sitter through the artist’s distinguished technique. In this case, the execution process itself becomes the narrative, articulating the artists’ self-expression through technical rather than the subject matter.
“Self-Portrait” is a print work by Sabihis Md Pandi as an extension to his “Magician” series, a response to current issues. Created through one of the oldest and traditional method in art-making, the technical speaks louder than the narrative itself, embracing our gaze with awe and wonder. This portrait is produced through a repetitive routine of the carving on an MDF board and printing on canvas using different colours; silver, red, yellow, blue and black, among other colours. Each of them were printed in different layers, indicating the intricacy, precision and delicateness of the technique, and of the maker.
Soot is the sole medium used in Mohd Bakir Baharom’s art-making since 2003, exposing a unique characteristic and identity of the maker. “Diam Hitam” is actually Bakir’s self-portrait which was achieved using the ‘fumaging’ process; a technique popularized by Wolfgang Paalen where impressions are made from the smoke of a candle or kerosene lamp on a piece of paper or canvas. In Bakir’s case however, he utilises soot from a diesel lamp which was partly thinned through rubbing to attain the desired form or contour. Juxtaposed against an empty background, the evolving and entangling biomorphic form of soot marks evokes a sensuous mystery to the viewers.
Encompassing a fine sculptural sensibility for the creation of three-dimensional artwork; Sun Kang Jye has been practicing a less conventional approach towards portraiture in his art-making, treating the canvas as a new form of sculpture. Based on his practice of creating objects that functions on ‘liminality’; he keeps on creating a transition between two opposite elements in his works – between embossed or engraved, creating both positive and negative imagery on both sides of the unprimed canvas.
Having unfolded all 28 portraits by 28 young and emerging artists in the industry, it is a necessity for us to stress out that Extreme Portrait was not intended to provide the viewers a direct answer of what is portrait and how it should be represented in the modern content and context. Rather, this exhibition questions our understanding of portraiture as a genre, from the viewers’ point of view. When we first drafted this exhibition and list down the artists, we foresee the potential and possibility of the artist to come up with something extraordinary in tackling the theme by looking back into their history and unearthing their previous series. Whether the artist is a portrait painter was never an issue. The idea is for all of us to look at portraiture from a different perspective and by doing so, it is hoped to broaden the perception and representation of portraiture in Malaysia.