Dreaming, waking, painting; Ian Woo’s pleasurable evasions – Kelvin Tan

All Art aspires towards a realm of sensations.

Perhaps Art is useful in that it evokes in us a sense of emotional and thought-provoking awareness never realized before. For some of us, the pleasure is all that matters. But we take these sensations for granted.

Sensations are hard to define, particularly in Art. For where do these sensations come from and why? Art is probably the artist’s way of carving a ‘graph’ of sensations in part, so that it becomes an inscription of his state of mind. Or the point of his evolution.

Dare we bring in the whole notion of consciousness – that great unknown and mysterious entity most say is lodged in some part of the brain. Works of art frustrate in their subjectivity, in that the analysis of any state of consciousness in the work only blurs the distinction between what is true or false. What is good or bad. It becomes a matter of Being. How much have we decided to work, read and absorb in the work, and at the same time maintain an integrity of self-analysis as much as analysis of other works.

Consciousness indeed is a very complex and difficult idea or subject, especially when it comes to Art. All clichés of modern Art or terms we use to denote genres of ideas are in some ways tied into the current trend of what consciousness is. We have made some progress in brain science and analytical philosophy, but the whole question of what is the concept of mind looms almost as large as before.

In Art, we have the freedom to truly create what we feel, albeit open to the vulnerability of a sometimes misunderstanding, conceited and ignorant world. But that creation, conscious or not, is in some way immersed in a myriad of philosophical, historical perspectives. In many ways, this awareness or lack of it, can be traced in the work, as much as in erudition. As much as a relativist will try to convince you, a lot in existence can be verified.

Art, in many ways, does not lack dimensions in introspection. Whether those introspections interest or not, they attempt to bring us to a place we’ve never been. Do we learn or feel anything, is a separate issue. Whether our lives deepen is a serious consideration for the truth-seeker. Perhaps the range of our intensity for profound discernment of works of Art relies on the intensity for our quest for Truth.

We have a clue to what it feels like to be in a place of artistic contemplation in the mind of an artist in the work of American poet Wallace Stevens, in his much-celebrated poem ‘The Man with the Blue Guitar’.[i]

A dream (to call it a dream) in which
I can believe, in face of the object,
A dream no longer a dream, a thing,
Of things as they are, as the blue guitar
After long strumming on certain nights,
Gives the touch of the sense, not of the hand,
But the very senses as they touch
The wind-gloss…

In Stevens’ poems, we get this feeling that he is interested in what goes on between the artist’s consciousness and what finally emerges in the work. The processes are profound in that it gives us a semblance of an artist’s consciousness. Creating implies a certain realm of dreaming and yet the work realized is no longer a dream. But what is the process? What is the ‘touch of the senses’? Where does that touch come from? How does the dream transform into original aesthetic ornament?

In the paintings and drawings of Ian Woo, the question pops up everywhere. This dream-like state of creating that creates a work that one suspects has only a deceiving dream-like quality about it. But the form and method of this dream-like state has changed in form through the years.

In ‘Language and Location’, an exhibition that featured his paintings as part of his qualification for an M.A. degree in Fine Art from Winchester, paintings like ‘Fantastic Painting’, ‘Before I give an answer I see a flower’ (1995), a plain light pink canvas is etched with painted inscriptions as if to only imply rather than state an aspect of the artist’s mind. Then, a near-finished painting is jarringly blocked by a shock of pink, almost as if it was an attempt to destroy the finishing of a work. A work refusing to be complete. Yet complete in its incompleteness. The effect is stark, but minimal.

Then in 1999, Woo takes a different stance in ‘Topographies’, an exhibition name that seems ironical. The painting ‘Tanjong Rhu’ remains static, for it is stacked with numerous coloured images that seem to be blocking out the space of the canvas. The colours are lurid, yet appeasing, as if Guston dropped to say ‘hi’. One is dazzled by the colours, but can’t put down what is really happening. What is the artist trying to clutter. Or does he clutter without wanting to clutter.

Truth is, in the end, the artist is to a great extent trapped by his lack of control over his creative methods. He is often overwhelmed. For Woo, the turning point was in ‘Mental Images’, his 2000 exhibition and ‘Cluster’, the muted follow up in 2001. In these works, the arousing, striking colours have now elevated to a state of vertigo. The images are much more intensely packed, and the forms are screaming out at you. They are images relying on the differences of the varied forms. They are twisted, scribbled, manipulated into shapes.

Disjointed. Rendered out of place. Could it be that the artist can’t sit in a proper place in time for too long? Could it be that the overwhelming of the senses resists him from settling into a mode of painting?

Is Ian Woo still restless? Or was he ever? Is it a form of evasion if only to restore his genuine innovations, rather than as an end to itself. His new work refuses to answer it. And that perhaps is the answer.

Woo’s ‘evasions’ are a need to present a new way of seeing. To do that entails not seeing what your mind unconsciously sees while creating. To be beguiled and affected by forms without a specific analysis of what the forms are and why they fascinate. To bring you to a new place without answering you why. Because there is no reason to do so.

In his new works on paper, we see his creativity now refined in its intricacy, muted in its conveyances of colour. We see a subtlety of the weaving of thought, mind, colour and inscriptions. But most importantly, we see words.

The words on his work are the titles. ‘Office Romance’, ‘Butterflies and Marigolds’, ‘One Day Contact Lenses’, ‘Samurai Movies’. The words are made to blend with the painting and yet they don’t. They jar and yet they don’t. They delude, because they seem caught between the line of the readable and unreadable. ‘Butterflies’ reads like ‘Bitter lies’. ‘Samurai’ reads like ‘Samula’. ‘Quiet music’ reads like ‘Oui’ something.

Thus, the mystery of words. They, to a certain extent, make things clear in life. But they can distort and blur our mind from really understanding anything about the world. The world of language is made more unknowable by Woo juxtaposing them with a complex myriad of refreshing, appealing watercolour paintings that give you the impression that they are fast fading away. Almost like Tuyman’s paintings – they state a horror that is painted like they are about to disappear. But they never do. In Woo’s paintings, the horror is replaced by a search for some forms to better articulate a state of mind inexpressible by mere communication.

Woo’s new paintings on paper reflect from a distance an intimacy. But an intimacy that is kept distant by his refusal to get closer to the other side of intensity, like in a Bacon. His paintings are like a harbour from the noise outside. It speaks by refusing to speak. By letting the colours, words and incongruent connectibility encourage us to contemplate what it all means. What it means to paint and why paint. Between the words and the images, Woo gives us such a wide field of interpretation that it becomes a euphoric analysis of how open the imagination can lend itself to analysis.

Yet, Woo’s work is personal, in that the works don’t allow any sentiment and doesn’t allow you to feel anything but a pleasure of the senses connected to a realization of space, time and its relevance in the whole tradition of seeing differently. In ‘Between carpets’, there are nothing but words. Almost as if the artist prefers not to be second-guessed.

The diversity of this new set of paintings on paper are both wide-ranging and enjoyable. In them, we see an artist constantly adding to his open-minded palette, ideas that are taken from virtually the whole of the great traditions. Yet at first glance, we can easily miss it. It is far insufficient to say it is influenced by this or that. Woo’s paintings invite you to eat at the table, enjoy the meal, relish the dessert without necessarily asking where you bought the ingredients, or why chicken and not beef. Or who the chef is. It is a reunion dinner. Come and partake of the pleasure. When you see the wonderful oceanic rounds in ‘Restaurant Near the Sea’, or the beautifully insipid ‘Quiet music’, or the subtly metaphoric ‘Lizard Surprise’, we see the Artist playfully mixing his astute knowledge of painting with the wider techniques of austerity and cheekiness. But we never know which is which. An austere cheekiness? Perhaps, but also an indication that the artist is in very tight control of his craft. But not of his vision. Of course. We leave that to the painting. The work. The evasions.


Kelvin Tan is a musician who’s released 9 solo albums. He’s also the writer of All Broken Up and Dancing, and the Nether(r);R, and 3 plays all performed by Aporia Society, a multi-disciplinary Arts group he co-founded with actor/director Wong Kwang Han.


[i] Wallace Stevens – Selected Poems. Faber & Faber. Reprinted 1986. Pg 52