Island Vernacular – Christopher Cook

Islands tend to have complex language situations. Typically there will be an identifiable base language and a number of other tongues that have arrived either through trade or conquest, and that variously intermingle, impose, or demark. These multiple languages fray at the edges through generations, and the resultant mix is a finely nuanced indexical store of historical, cultural and psychical development.

If we consider contemporary painting as something of an island – as many critics would have us do – a remote outpost of mute philosophical musing, it would at least appear to be an island free of language issues. Painting’s default reading is as universal idiom, transiting international boundaries with ease, any concern over misinterpretation long since impaled on the rocks of postmodernism.

Those intimately involved in the discipline continue to see it differently. The act of painting may well be conducted in seclusion and silence, but it is in no sense remote, generating ideas as much from current experience as from its own history, and deploying discrete language streams available within the discipline in pursuit of urgent emotional truths.

This exhibition of recent work by Milenko Prvacki and Ian Woo, two painters from the many-islanded, island nation of Singapore, demonstrates the continued vitality of a painterly practice in which subtle language streams are recombined into a persuasive vernacular.

Against the backdrop of a modern island culture continually re-forming and redefining itself, their images challenge notions of identity through a continual sifting for new meanings.

Prvacki and Woo are well established in the Singapore art scene, both having recently held major solo exhibitions at the ICAS in LASALLE College of Arts, for which curator Charles Merewether researched the experiential, philosophical and cultural influences on each artist.  This exhibition in Plymouth presents a different challenge, bringing the two artists into critical juxtaposition for the first time, to appreciate convergences in their work that illuminate current dilemmas and predilections in contemporary painting. The exhibition also encourages a consideration of how Singapore, in its isolated connectedness, provides a strangely appropriate environment for their practice. It is important not to oversimplify  – to explain either of these artists as representative of a progressive Singapore would be to miss the point as much as to suggest their work bears direct relation to their individual formative experiences. Neither artist ignores these connections, but both have also spoken of the liberating exile of painting, an island-discipline in which language is continually tested and expanded, and within which personal discovery and transformation can take place.

The nation of Singapore has four official languages: English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil, but uses English as the language of government, law, and education. It is however the native tongue for only one-third of Singaporeans, and for only a quarter of Singaporean Malays and half of Singaporean Indians. Not just for this reason might it be described as an archetypal postmodern city: frequent religious festivals reveal a vibrant ethnic and cultural efflorescence amidst the humdrum functionality of a global economic powerhouse.

Indian theorist Gayatri Spivak maintained that a Deconstructivist methodology was essential if postmodernism was to become the force of global social enfranchisement it was capable of being (though she doubted its western originators were truly interested in this). Things must be taken apart properly for relational recombinations to be relevant. This stance flips a postmodernist tactic from one based on irony and distance to a more urgent cause, and is useful in approaching the work of Milenko Prvacki and Ian Woo. Yet if the socio-cultural fluidity of Singapore, in embodying this vision, provides both painters with plentiful source material and plenty of room for manoeuvre, the question becomes: how might they navigate their way back to meaningfulness?

Spivak offers a way forward: “Culture seems to me to be a negotiation between the transcendent and the profane, the worldly. Culture in my view must have an intuition of the transcendental.”  (Conference paper to European Institute for Progressive Cultural Policies, 2008)

One aspect of self-inquiry that painting continues to address effectively – perhaps more effectively than any other discipline – is its capacity to encourage simultaneous interplay of material and cerebral, an interplay that appears key to our humanity – the most lucid experiences of selfhood requiring both registers. For these two painters this interplay provides a route to what might be termed the ‘transcendent’ in their work.

In What Painting Is James Elkins offers a striking analogy between ancient alchemical practices and painting. In alchemy the struggle to turn base matter to gold, and the desire for spiritual enlightenment were considered elements of the same action, just as in painting (argues Elkins) the manipulation of crude pigment and the search for emotional truth are coincident. This insight emphasis a venerable connection – take 17th century Chinese artist Shi-Tao: “Painting is the result of receptivity of ink: the ink is open to the brush: the brush is open to the hand: the hand is open to the heart” and it is why, if painting is something of an island, it remains, like Singapore, at the hub of things.

Prvacki and Woo both deploy methods that incorporate a degree of chance, prioritising an astute ‘seizing upon’ of serendipitous moments. The notion of ‘waiting to see how the painting emerges’ is a common turn of phrase among painters – as if, quaintly, the artwork were independent of its maker. Perhaps the phrase is used to evoke communications between conscious and unconscious, but a delight in the potential for surprising oneself is significant precisely because it teaches and develops the (alchemical) link between material and cerebral, encouraging quick-witted self-reflection.

Although an appreciation of the possibilities of painting is powerfully shared, it is necessary to note differences between the artists too. There is, for instance, a generational difference, and a difference of circumstance: Prvacki’s departure from a fractured Yugoslavia can be distinguished from Woo’s decision to train in the English art college system, but both have had to come to terms with diverse cultural realms, and this in turn has led them into personal interrogations of Western and Eastern painterly traditions in order to consider their own place in the world.

In this respect Milenko Prvacki’s 1999 sequence “a new visual dictionary” made around the time of his permanent move to Singapore, is seminal. The title perhaps refers to the Italian ‘vocabulario’, as the works concern themselves not with definition but a widening of vocabulary. His ‘methods and materials’ series extended this inquiry into a more visceral realm, subjecting borrowed motifs to cross-examination, particularly those from post-war German painting (where Baselitz, Kiefer, Immendorf et al were refreshing German Expressionism with a sense of humour and irony). This masculine inquiry was tempered by a parallel testing of terrain explored by female artists of the 80s and 90s – a painterly weaving and stitching, the integration of text, and also by the richness of his new home:

Nature and history – in particular the swollen landscape, dense environment and colonial past – have had a very big influence on the intuitive and intellectual make up of Singaporean artists. The cocktail of social and cultural traditions has also been important: so long as we understand that these are positive contrasts, this is an extremely rich field to explore, play with and contemplate.” (Interview with Binghui Huangfu, 2002)

His recent works have a more playful, taxonomic aspect, evidencing Walter Benjamin’s observations on our human need to collect in order to establish an identity, and t might be argued that recent work provides an antidote to (European) destruction, reinforcing object-ness through the astute use of shallow space and shadow, and reveling in formal resolution.

The ‘swollen landscape’ of Singapore is present in Ian Woo’s work too, but the fecundity expands to include unlikely prompts from virtual and historical realms. On a visit to his studio high among factory blocks in an industrial cum brothel district area of the city centre, one of the island’s routine afternoon thunderstorms is in progress: lightening bolts snake between the towers and shake the windows, causing his place of refuge to seem more battlement than ivory tower. In recent work, an adroit flicker of the brush allows itself be distracted by the city, and by an interplay of culture and cultures, but is also relentless in addressing questions of identity and language. Woo is a practicing musician, well aware of convergences explored by Kandinsky and those who followed. His shifts in tempo and scale are judicious, and the gestural cadenzas can be breathtaking, seemingly untrammeled by system or structure. An interest in Indian miniatures as well as Chinese calligraphic painting demonstrates the cultural fluency of an islander, but any homage is done with sufficient wit and élan to return it to currency. Vivid colour combinations evoke the tropical environment, but his use of grey tonalities as mediator perhaps owes something to student years in England. As in Prvacki’s work there is an understanding that to suspend image (and so viewer) in a state somewhere between figuration and abstraction provides great potential, allowing for maximum interplay between material and cerebral/transcendent. This is not done without qualms – Woo is conscious of the deadening effect of a generalised ‘figstraction’ that trades potentiality for the husk of style, but his demand that practice be an occasion for self-examination keep the images vital:

Complications and even confusion are rather useful tools as far as I am concerned; I actually need them as an initial platform to bring forth a desire to be involved. Complications can be structured to allow engagement.” (Interview with Beth Harland, Winchester School of Art, 2006)

The ubiquity of communication devices allied to natural curiosity ensures that painting follows the greater trajectory of globalization (and concomitant assumptions of universality), even though it continues to be viewed as an obtuse means of self-expression when compared with words. Prvacki and Woo exploit this paradox, enabling them to increase expressive range even as they accumulate a vernacular capable of rendering unexpected connections. These new paintings are consequently not symptomatic of a global society fracturing into ever-decreasing units, but instead are imbued with the belief that seemingly unrelated forms, phrases or gestures may fuse into new idioms. Like the alchemists, they urge fabulous ‘comings-together’ to enfranchise the imagination.

As one might expect on Singapore, Prvacki and Woo participate in many of the same survey exhibitions and academic debates, bringing a broad awareness of painting ‘linguistics’ and Western art education to that latter context. For professional and educational reasons both artists stay abreast of relevant international developments, but the island nature of Singapore provides a valuable distance from a mainstream dominated by identifiable tropes and bankable names, and gives them a stoical view of all that cool hot air.

There is another side to Singapore’s protection – it is highly structured and arguably over-disciplinarian, with frequent assaults on what in the West would be deemed individual rights. So on this contradictory island, it appears the painter may yet be isolated and also engaged; vital to the cultural exchange upon which the city depends, and also peripheral, providing, as Woo puts it “an important slowness” in attending to Spivak’s ‘intuitions of the transcendent’.