Enigma of the Visible – Gunalan Nadarajan

Painting celebrates no other enigma but that of visibility.” – Maurice Merleau-Ponty


Ian Woo’s paintings meticulously exemplify and perpetuate a certain enigma of visibility, specifically that of how things appear, both in paintings and in reality. He confesses that the point at which he first draws or dabs a loaded brush on the surface of a canvas is very rarely characterized by complete awareness of what would ‘appear’. As a series of brush strokes laid down in a seemingly haphazard manner begin revealing ‘something’, the artist may, at times, decide to capitalize on this trouvaille (meaning, in French, ‘chance discovery’) and aid the thing’s ‘coming to appearance’ by conscious efforts to affect and clarify its formal attributes (i.e. outline, surface texture, colour, background, etc.). However, every often he prefers to simply leave these ‘things’ in their nascent state of appearance as to create, what he calls, ‘tremors’ between them and the pictorial space. Looking at these ‘tremoring’ things continuously fuzz at the edges in relation to the tonally ‘muted’ backgrounds, unsettles our tacitly and comfortably assumed certainties about the everyday world of vision. The visual composition of these paintings are similarly unsettling as they purposefully provide visual cues that both gravitationally ground its various elements as well as create a sense of things ‘falling-apart’; a constant jactitation between composition and de-composition.

Painting, is not mimetic of reality, in fact, one could argue it never has been, but rather reveals the investments and conditions that constitute the visual world ‘as it appears to us’. The French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy in his many writings on painting has insisted that paintings cannot but elaborate our enigmatic relationship to the visible. He claims, ‘to paint does not mean to represent, but simply to pose the ground, the texture, and the pigment of the threshold’; the threshold at which we encounter things in our visual world. Since we encounter the world as embodied selves, this threshold that painting poses demands instantiation by and as an embodied resonance. The ‘coming-to-appearance’ of a thing in painting, Ian Woo argues, requires one ‘to be that rhythm’ of the thing, wherein he simulates by his own bodily movements and actions that which ‘wants to appear’. The overlapping layers of strokes suggesting various intensities and loading, the burs and ridges resulting from heavily worked surfaces, the gradually scumbled strokes tracing the exhaustion of loaded brushes, the scattered spattering of thick dabs and the dragged lines of paint that move in untoward trajectories – all bear evidence of the artist’s body pulsating to the rhythms of the visual world. Thus, even while positing painting as a creative mediation between artistic intentions and some metaphysical ‘wanting-to-be’ of the media employed, he seems equally keen to ground painting as an embodied practice.

The value of an enigma is not in its effective (re)solution by some understanding that exhausts its capacity for further speculation, but rather in its artful perpetuation by an infinitely renewed invitation to dwell upon it. Ian Woo’s paintings, are, in that sense, truly enigmatic of the visible.