If Paintings Could Talk – Adele Tan

If paintings could talk, what would they say? This state of encounter could be especially vexing for abstract paintings, those expressive canvasses which seemingly have no need for figuration nor narration. For Ian Woo, the spurning of illusionistic semblances and the mythic autonomy of the modernist painting, resurrects in their stead the communicative condition of painting via other means. While it may be a clichéd truism that painting has its own language, Woo does not think his paintings completely self-sufficient in themselves. What become titles to his paintings are also the varied voices that punctuate his canvasses, the literary supplement to the painted surfaces. The titles do not however interpret the paintings, nor do they articulate any definitive statement from or about the artist. They index or disclose a form of personality, time and space to each painting, providing a reminder to the viewer that the work of art belongs to and comes from the world, and by the same extension, that not everything belongs to the world of painting.

Rather than becoming revelatory, the textual addenda to Woo’s canvasses compromise or thwart the authorial certainty of the painter and the viewer, but at the same time, they also unveil the multitude of layers that inform the work of art, all of which may be conversant but not necessarily coherent with each other. His titles are utterances that appear suggestive, assertive or cautionary but are also simultaneously perlocutionary, in that the effect produced upon the viewer is that of an affective solicitation which sets in motion feelings of fear, amusement or arousal. One of Woo’s paintings makes the ambivalent demand “Speak to Me”, a reflection of either the frustration of the viewer confronting the hermeticism of an abstract painting, or one that seems to issue forth from the work of art and which asks the viewer to enjoin him or herself as interlocutors. In another case, the titles themselves speak as if they were two halves of a sentence (“They Came in from the Sides” and “While We Slept”). This is not to say that there is a narrative consistency or continuity through Woo’s painting titles, and they are often at oppositional relations to each other, but that the work of painting seems to gain a concatenative dynamism, where any one painting, title or speech act does not have to only work on itself but is constantly referring to, making claims on, assimilating or collaborating with its adjacent counterpart, which could also include the supporting wall, frame and ground.

How one thinks about the way titles work in Woo’s painting also informs the way one thinks about how the artist makes his paintings. Woo’s paintings are however not siblings to each other, a presupposition that they originate from one master progenitor. His canvasses are rarely taken as singular and complete or proceeding from one genealogy, but held in a conversation (and at times this could be an argument, a mode of inquiry) of structural or chromatic affinities. A colour schematic or an order of the tonal range is imposed by the artist – black-grey-green segues into dusty pink brown and then picks up the previous accents to crescendo into yellow. Yet at the same time as one realises that Woo has implemented an organisational mechanism, we also see that he is introducing the power of free association, a dialogue of commonalities and disjunctions, of overlapping realities rather than the seamlessness of one reality. Much of this Woo gleans from his observations of the quotidian, or as he calls it “analysing the debris of the everyday” where one of his favourite images is that of a disused green tea drink can featuring an illustrated leaf on its label and which is then seen to be supported by the tendrils of a plant and having the real leaf enveloping the drink can and performing a mimesis of the painted leaf. What intrigues the artist is that different parts could also be one and the same thing or that in his Cézannesque turn, finds that things are connected at different planes or on the same plane but are wholly or partially hidden or occluded from consciousness. If one detects in Woo’s works a certain likeness to early forms of digital painting, this can also be attributed to his abiding metaphor of the moiré effect, whereby a perceived distortion or flickering glitch occurs when two contrasting elements or repeated designs are superimposed but fail to relate, thus generating another pattern distinct from its components. As such, the narrative and energy of the painted surface often gets disturbed by something else that comes along and then becomes truncated, though only to be continued elsewhere in the same painting or in another work.

Many a time, Woo’s tactics of painting make him appear as if closer to a dramaturg or theatrical scenographer, staging and plotting the space of the painting, developing the axis of action, building up the relevant tension planes and directional spirals. Yet it is hard to predict how Woo moves from one point to the next because his paintings proffer no one-point resolution. This is not the classic dichotomy between organic chaos and implemented structuration. Any condensation of action is intentionally provisional and there is an itinerant, contingent series of parts provoking other parts. The buildup towards the edges of the painting could easily be seen as the hurtling explosive gesture or a retreat leading to internal collapse, or it could also portend the possibility of extra-painting, the signification of painting that happens beyond the painting’s edge. And indeed as Woo asks: “How can a painter move his own painting?”, which is indicative of a refusal of pictorial stasis and a desire to incite a transformative condition in the viewer who also is propelled to psychologically and physiologically take up changing positions, needing to move back and forth to take in the image, and to be “moved” with an emotional charge.

Therefore, if Woo’s paintings could talk, they would be propositional, liberated from the tyrannical foreclosures of abstract non-referentiality. There are no heroic proclamations or lyrical declamations, only the humble lingering of hesitancy and curious skepticism. The painting and the artist are always inhabiting the position of “to be”.


Adele Tan received her Doctorate in Art History from The Courtauld Institute of Art and is currently Curator at the National Art Gallery, Singapore. Her research focuses on contemporary art in China and Southeast Asia, with a special interest in performative practices and new media.  She was Assistant Editor at the British art journal Third Text and is a member of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) Singapore. In 2009, she was a Global Art and the Museums Fellow at ZKM. Her writings are published in numerous exhibition catalogues and international journals.