Reviews

TEXTURED WORLDS

New Straits Times, 30 JAN 2007, by Lim How Ngean

Since 1994, Rimbun Dahan has been a hotbed for creativity. Known for its art residency programmes, it has thus far hosted 25 local and foreign artists. Each residency lasts from three months to a full year. The one-year residency programme involves the invited Malaysian and Australian artists staying in a kampung compound at Rimbun Dahan. Here, they are provided with art materials, studio spaces and living allowance.

At present, two of the artist-in-residence are exhibitingthe fruits of their year-long "labour" at Rimbun Dahan. Melbourne-born David Jolly has been absorbing Malaysian sights as he travelled around the Peninsula, and using them as subjects for his work. "It was good to experience a different perspective away from Australia and recharge and just solely work on my art," says the 35 year-old who had about eight solo exhibitions to his name.

Jolly's chosen canvas for the past 14 years has been glass. "Glass somehow allowed me to develop what I wanted to work on. On one level, I like the idea of the shiny surface of the glass while seeing images of contemporary life on reverse of the glass." In this particular exhibition, Jolly's subjects are scenes and objects that he has captured on slides with a camera during his travels around the peninsula. They span scenic images of the East Coast to stark images of oil refineries en route to Kuantan. However, the slides are not the end result as Jolly then takes these slide images and reproduces them on the reverse of glass sheets.

The process is a painstaking and precise one as Jolly has to work on painting layers -with watercolours, oils or chalk pastels- of an image to produce a three-dimensional picture. He starts with the topmost "layer", beginning from the foreground and works through to the end-most background layer of his picture. "It's more tonal than pictorial and all the layering is beautiful but excruciating!" At first glance, Jolly's pictures can be mistaken for prints on glass when viewed from a distance. As the viewer moves in closer, the images becomes more intriguing as the 3-D depth reveals startling qualities such as the painted layers that jolt the mind into refocusing on the works as paintings.

While his technique are really remarkable (especially when scrutinised up close) especially in still life studies such as flowers, it is his paintings of scenery and structures that really resonate. His picture of an oli refinery in industrial Paka, Terengganu is at once pretty and provocative. It draws you to it and then it questions you on what is real and what constitutes beauty. "Truth is, I am a bad photographer but bad photos make for good paintings! I had taken pictures of Lang Tengah (in Terengganu) with a camera containing flat batteries so the shutter was not working well. When the slides came out, the colours were dark but I enjoyed filling in the colours from memory when I painted the Lang Tengah scenes. So, the memory became involved in the process of redeveloping the images I had in my head. I use the digitally scanned slides as a guide to my memory. "It's also a translation process, isn't it?"

Sharing Jolly's exhibition space is local artist Chang Yoong Chia who is the quiet rising star of the local art scene. He first surprised us with his Flora & Fauna exhibition at Reka Art Space in 2004 with disturbingly haunting paintings of nature. Continuing with this theme, Flora & Fauna II at Rimbun Dahan sees him venturing deeper into the woods, so to speak, as he explores the somewhat darker side of the animal kingdom and its relationship with man. A self-confessed animal lover since young, Chang tells how he would spend a lot of time in his little garden at his childhood home in Old Klang Road. "I also love wildlife and nature documentaries! I am attracted to the idea that we inhabit the same world as the animals but they are so different. "We humans evolve through interaction and the higher mind but the evolution of animals has nothing to do with the mind," says the 32-year-old who has also exhibited in the 2005 Fukuoka Triennale.

His oils-on-canvas series this time round is just as grostesque as they are mesmerising. Animals are the main focus of his paintings where they inhabit a black-and-white world that is also peopled with humans. His settings are strange but wonderful jungle environments that incorporate man-made structures. The results are potent nightmare-and-dream portrayals which are dense and complex. There are no happy, fluffy creatures in Chang's works; giant rabbits, a monstrous bat and a looming orang utan dominate his world. They are at once arresting and intricate, almost reminiscent of the artworks produced by South American Indian shamans when they are in a trance. Erm, I am not the religious sort so I am not sure if my work has anythin to do with spiritual connection (of animals and humans)," he laughs. It all started in Chang's childhood when his family kept rabbits as pets. "They began to multiply and soon we had many of them. as a result of the in-breeding, the rabbits became very fierce and vicious and they would fight a lot. They also started biting us when we held them."

Besides painting on canvas, Chang also worked on shells of dead snails, crabs and even fish bones. A piece called Pisces tells a lot about how Chang perceives the shape of nature. Four pieces of snail shells are glued together and re-morphed into a pair of huddling sparrows. "It began with me walking a lot and I would find empty siput babi shells. I started collecting them and wondered what I could do with them. With Pisces, I was playing with the shapes of animals and how the shapes of siput babi shells could change into shapes of birds." More than that, Chang's works also have complex stories to tell with a myriad of humans and animals characters. In fact, you can look at a piece of his work and see new characters popping up, new narratives revealing themselves.

"For me the Rimbun Dahan residency was the starting point to go deeper into my Flora & Fauna series. I could concentrate on my art and not worry about work and income. Also being in Rimbun Dahan (on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in Kuang), I spent more time walking and looking closely at what there is under leaves and below trees. I wanted to bring out things which we don't see if we don't look closely at nature, like the insects and snails and birds."

Jolly's and Chang's works are available for viewing at Rimbun Dahan Gallery, Kilometre 27, Jalan Kuang, Kuang until Feb 11. The gallery is open on Saturdays and Sundays, 10am to 6pm, and on weekdays by appointment. For more information, call Anum at 03-6038-3690 or log onto rimbundahan.org