Exploring abstraction in art: “That Was Then, This is Now” at Sullivan+Strumpf, Singapore

Five artists in the exhibition “That Was Then, This is Now” explore notions of abstractions.

Running until 25 June 2017, the group show at Sullivan+Strumpf in Singapore looks at the progression of abstraction in the modern art context through the work of contemporary artists Jeremy Sharma, Irfan Hendrian, Faisal Habibi, Matthew Allen and Young Rim Lee.

"That Was Then, This Is Now", 13 May - 25 June 2016, Sullivan+Strumpf, Singapore. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf.

“That Was Then, This Is Now”, 13 May – 25 June 2016, installation view at Sullivan+Strumpf, Singapore. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf.

Sullivan+Strumpf Singapore’s latest exhibition “That was Then, This is Now” is billed as exploring notions of abstraction. It is a description which calls to mind two-dimensional artworks on canvas, an impression which a quick glance at the exhibition seemingly confirms – planes of various colours and textures coolly suspended within a white cube.

Going beyond this cursory inspection suggests instead a focus on foregrounding the materials used by each artist. The assemblages of Faisal Habibi are of particular note in this regard, standing out both through the use of industrial materials and in supplying the exhibition’s sole freestanding work, This Thing #11 (2016). Faisal’s materials seem drawn from the commonplace, mundane experience of urban life, bringing together fragments which suggest homes, offices, shopping malls and so on: woodgrain (and solid-hued) laminate panels, sheets of translucent plexiglas, and bent steel tubes reminiscent of clothes-hangers and door-handles.

Faisal Habibi, 'This Thing #11', 2016, painted steel and plywood, 180 x 76 x 70 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Faisal Habibi, ‘This Thing #11’, 2016, painted steel and plywood, 180 x 76 x 70 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Faisal Habibi, 'This Thing #16', 2017, wood, steel and plexiglass, 140 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf and the artist.

Faisal Habibi, ‘This Thing #16’, 2017, wood, steel and plexiglass, 140 x 100 cm. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf and the artist.

The frankness of the materials is further underlined by the unconcealed fasteners which unite these disparate materials, and the precise angles at which these parts are joined – leaning towards manufacture and assembly, rather than some rarefied art.

More organic in character are the works of Young Rim Lee: while ‘acrylic on wood’ satisfies a literal definition of the materials used in her artworks, two of them are further distinguished in being somewhat irregular in form, suggesting rectilinearity and the flat picture plane without wholly conforming to the same. Blue Rectangle (2016) has its titular shape occupied mostly by a void, with the overall form of the work suggesting the serendipitous assembly of several pieces of driftwood. As if a counterpoint to Faisal’s artificial woodgrain, the grain of Young’s wood remains clear through the matte acrylic, which in this instance appears to be significantly weathered, as if exposed to the elements.

Young Rim Lee, 'Blue Rectangle', 2016, acrylic on wood, 126 x 130 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Young Rim Lee, ‘Blue Rectangle’, 2016, acrylic on wood, 126 x 130 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

There is a pleasant surprise to the second piece that is, however, rather neutralised by knowing the title in advance, for which the label-free walls of the gallery’s interior are wholly appropriate. At a distance, there is little to no sign of the titular colour of Turquoise Strip (2014), which presents at first glance a wash of ochre-tinged warmth. The strip itself protrudes from the artwork’s surface, visible only at a particular range of angles, an abrupt emergence of complementary colour which might amount to a mild perceptual shock.

Young Rim Lee, 'Turquoise Strip', 2014, acrylic on wood, 110 x 122 cm (side view). Image courtesy the artist.

Young Rim Lee, ‘Turquoise Strip’, 2014, acrylic on wood, 110 x 122 cm (side view). Image courtesy the artist.

"That Was Then, This Is Now", 13 May - 25 June 2016, Sullivan+Strumpf, Singapore. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf.

“That Was Then, This Is Now”, 13 May – 25 June 2016, installation view at Sullivan+Strumpf, Singapore. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf.

Tucked in a corner of the gallery is one of the exhibition’s more unusual works, a multimedia installation by Jeremy Sharma, a recent addition to the list of artists represented by Sullivan+Strumpf. Entitled Annunciation (2017), the enigmatic work’s relationship with its title is first suggested by the presence of a public address system, complete with the sort of horn speaker that one might expect to find belting out recorded fire drill alerts and the like. The audio setup remains silent, for the most part, a visual supplement to the work’s other main component, but sound pours forth every thirty minutes – perhaps once within the average span of a gallery visit, in other words.

Jeremy Sharma, 'The Anunciation', 2017, custom programme, 4 channel LED with acrylic lens system, metal rack, power data supply and horn speaker with amplifier, dimensions variable (installation view). Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf and the artist.

Jeremy Sharma, ‘The Annunciation’, 2017, custom programme, 4 channel LED with acrylic lens system, metal rack, power data supply and horn speaker with amplifier, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf and the artist.

Among the sound snippets is a snatch of maudlin song, apparently excerpted from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s critically acclaimed The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964). Similarly, the work’s main visual component, a rack of three milky-white panels displaying seemingly random patterns of light, derives its visuals from the same film. With no explicit mention of this source made in the gallery, the overall experience of the work verges on the mystical – while at the same time counterbalanced by the LED panels leaning offhandedly on the wall, as if indefinitely awaiting some permanent mount.

Matthew Allen, 'Cycle 1', 2017, polished graphite on linen, 40 x 30 cm each (4 panels). Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf and the artist.

Matthew Allen, ‘Cycle 1’, 2017, polished graphite on linen, 40 x 30 cm each, 4 panels. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf and the artist.

Similarly enigmatic, at least in material terms, are a series of four strangely reflective works by Matthew Allen, entitled Cycle 1 (2017). Their uneven, silvery reflectiveness, dappled with shades of grey, resembles the weathered, tarnished appearance of old Daguerrotypes, evoking a careworn sense of age in regarding oneself (and the gallery) reflected therein. At first, this suggests the application of some metallic film to the works’ linen supports, with the texture of the cloth being evident in these reflective surfaces, but Allen has instead contrived these ethereal surfaces with polished graphite: a material more familiar in its role of mark-making in black and shades of grey.

Matthew Allen, 'Two for Winston', 2013, acrylic and oil on canvas, 91 x 91 cm (diptych). Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf and the artist.

Matthew Allen, ‘Two for Winston’, 2013, acrylic and oil on canvas, 91 x 91 cm, diptych. Image courtesy Sullivan+Strumpf and the artist.

His other works on display are rather more materially conventional, while sharing also a sense of distance from painterly gesture, or other traces of the artist’s hand. Two for Winston (2013) appears, at a distance, to be a pair of computer-generated gradient swatches, fields of red and purple on black. Similarly, the thin washes of Flow Painting (2015), in being thin enough to reveal the paper’s underlying grain while vibrant enough to seemingly pop right off the wall, suggest some mechanical, abstract process of work.

Irfan Hendrian, 'Abrasion Contrast #8', 2015, carved paper on board, 96 x 96 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Irfan Hendrian, ‘Abrasion Contrast #8’, 2015, carved paper on board, 96 x 96 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Irfan Hendrian, 'Untitled', 2017, layers of paper on board, 42 x 70 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

Irfan Hendrian, ‘Untitled’, 2017, layers of paper on board, 42 x 70 cm. Image courtesy the artist.

This sense of mechanical, iterative process – as well as a perceptual shift occasioned by inspecting the work in detail – is found also in the work of Irfan Hendrian, particularly in his “Abrasion Contrast” (2015) series. What appear to be all-over paintings resembling white noise turn out instead to be sculptural paper works of frank rawness: as the title suggests, the contrast patterns are achieved by layering white and black paper and repeatedly subjecting it, like a prospecting miner, to some abrasive, rotary tool. The sense of relief transforms these initially flat visual planes into something more like terrain, not unlike the terraced paddy fields of Southeast Asia, or perhaps the densely cratered surface of some far-flung planet.

Bruce Quek

1711

Related Topics: Abstract art, installation, painting, sculpture, gallery shows, events in Singapore

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