Spatial Economies of Painting; The recent works of Ian Woo – Gunalan Nadarajan

A certain economy seems to always (pre)determine painting; an economy that issues from the finitude of the space of the canvas and the sheer necessity to ‘complete’ the (this particular) work. The desire to paint some particular thing necessarily means that some other things have to be postponed for another day and another work. While this endless deferral to future occasions frustrates the painter as much as any other artist, the spatial economy of the canvas poses some unique complications to the imperatives of painting. This exhibition of Ian Woo’s most recent paintings, display some fascinating resolutions and problematizations of the spatial economies of painting.

As in his previous works, Ian Woo recent paintings extend his reflections on the painterly problem of how images ‘come to appear’ in the space of the canvas. However, there are some key shifts in this series of works. In his earlier works, Ian Woo painted a variety of forms, that ‘tremored’ (the artist’s term) into appearance against tonally muted backgrounds and these different ‘formations’ were carefully set within frames that were clearly demarcated from the background of the painting as such. Ian Woo described these frames as ways of ‘doing more things with(in) the same painting’. This multiplication of frames enacted a strategic circumvention of the finitude of the canvas.

In the present series, Ian Woo has developed a number of other techniques to tackle the spatial economies of the painting. The strict demarcations of the earlier frames have been replaced by ‘peep-hole’ frames, the artist compares to eyes and the frames themselves have also become porously continuous with the rest of the paintings. The peep-holes seem to puncture the canvas opening up yet another space. The fact that some of these peep-holes also look like amoeba hovering in some primal soup further complicates the surface-depth distinctions sustained by conventions of painting. The previous distinctions between figure and ground have been complicated by the happy contaminations of and continuities between their spatial boundaries. The tight compartmentalizations that characterised his earlier works have given way to more fluid transactions between the now fuzzy and leaky frames and the backgrounds that have now developed a lot more surface texture and tonal differences. Even the figures that stood out as distinct appearances against the muted backgrounds in previous works, now sink back and jump forth (through the meticulous and purposive application of white) in fluctuating permutations. Unlike his earlier figures that tended to be objects with continuous and coherent surfaces (even if they tremored at their edges), there are many more rhizomatic figures now that extend and spread across the entire surface of the canvas that come to be layered over in turn with other similar extensions. These ‘extended entities’ that seem to be perpetually mutating with the other figures and the ground transform Ian Woo’s paintings into, what he appropriately calls, ‘organisms’.

And by thus transforming this paintings into squirming ‘life-like’ entities, the artist effects his ultimate revenge on the finitude of the canvas and the spatial economies of painting. The very same canvas becomes a stage for multiple performances of the work of painting. Afterall, the best economic strategy is not opting out or postponing production (or consumption) but to continue surviving.