Reviews

Flourishing Love, Odd Blooms and Peculiar Beasts

Originally written in Chinese by Teoh Ming Wah, Kuala Lumpur, 2006

A rabbit tangled in a spider’s web; a gigantic one nurses its litter; another sleeps on the back of a lorry; some gather by the door of a train. These images provoke further contemplation. A man dressed in office attire, sometimes playing the protagonist, at other times split into miniature copies and thus assumes various identities and experiences different lives.

In Chang Yoong Chia’s Flora & Fauna (2004) and 2006’s Flora & Fauna II, flourishing love, odd blooms and peculiar beasts materialized into a strangely familiar yet unexpected spectacle.

Although appearing surreal, his imagery is in fact based on reality –combined in a way that allows for multiple interpretations of the paintings. Much of his inspiration comes from daily life, yet in his work he manages to realize the hidden relationships that occur in everyday experiences. Perhaps we have driven on roads traversing through oil palm plantations before, but Chang makes this monotonous experience new to us again. Chang’s earlier paintings revealed passionate and violent desires. This current body of work shows his need for further exploration. By excavating his childhood memories of interactions with animals, while simultaneously exploring his love for one particular woman, he uses a unique approach to express this love that is directed both towards the woman and the natural world. Fusing imagination, reality and memory, he creates a pictorial realm that is familiar, yet filled with indefinite tension.

One notices that certain imagery is repeated over and over, such as the rabbit, snake, orangutan and orchid. Chang reveals that he applies free association in his painting process. He dislikes copying from photographs, making sketches or studies, or even planning compositions. “The biggest joy is during the painting process itself, constantly searching for gradually emerging images that surface through recollection; and then conceiving and developing the relationships between them”, he says.Hence, we can say that the artist uses his personal experience and knowledge as the foundation for his imaginative world, which alludes to magic realism. One is led to believe that the bat with a rabbit’s head and human eyes in The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter can indeed exist.

Chang maintains that currently, he has no interest for colours and this is why he creates his intricate world of love, animals and plants in monotone.Without the distraction of colour, one’s observation of detail within his paintings becomes more acute. The monochromatic scheme helps accentuate and distinguish the myriad images. It does not conjure feelings of nostalgia, nor is the contrast of black and white depicts a specific time of day. On the one hand, this creates a static but fluid quality in his works; on the other, it sacrifices the solidity of his images.

There are noticeable differences in comparing the first Flora & Fauna series three years ago to 2007’s Flora & Fauna II. This is in part due to his yearlong residency at Rimbun Dahan, which has provided a more verdant environment. Besides a better handling of spatial relationships, diminutive details and a distinctive sense of humor, his understanding of insects and plants has improved, to the point of being able to express these images confidently, not merely as physical manifestations of symbolic ideas, but as living beings that are part of the ecology and landscape of a tropical country. This indicates a growing awareness of the relationship between his art and the environment in which he lives in.

Flora & Fauna II shows Chang’s maturity in his quest to express love (not only towards humans) in painting. Furthermore, his curiosity in questioning what materials are fit for art-making has prompted him to experiment with things that are normally considered organic refuse. Eggshells, crab shells, clamshells, withered leaves and even discarded wings of flying ants are made into artworks, extending the dialogue between art and nature.

Chang’s artistic practice is comfortable within a confined space. Rarely interested in making artworks that seek to comment on ‘big’ issues, he searches around his immediate environment for ideas. Armed with his own experience, he diligently explores this small world he has created around himself. He muses, “I wish my artworks last forever and hope different generations far into the future will able to gain new meanings from them, and be moved by them".