Promise of things to come

loading Release by Tan Kai Sheuan, 80x80cm, oil on canvas.

Who in their twenties show promise and look like they can go the distance in the art sphere and not burn out for lack stamina or substance?

WHO ARE the emerging art stars of Penang? It's a tough call looking for artists in their twenties who have managed to show pizzazz, daring and redoubtable skills while still in their formative years. I mean those who already show oodles of outstanding quality in the concept, treatment and style of their works, with career vision and a dreamer's will to last.

A stringent vetting of potential candidates with anything remotely Penang yields only four names: Mun Kao, Ruzzeki Harris, Tan Kai Sheuan and Renny Cheng Sing Ching.

However, the self-taught Joey Lim Dang Chii shows glimmers of promise.

Undoubtedly, there are some who have shown maturity in their works who are 30 and above, such as Lim Ai Woei, Jacky Chin Huei Leong, Alex Leong Yim Kuan, Ng Kim Heoh, Khoo Chooi Hooi and Low Chee Peng.

One reason for the short supply could be that Penang has been to the young and inveterately more mobile, more of a transit station than an operating base or pilgrimage stop. Opportunities, exposure, amenities and infrastructure have been lacking compared to Kuala Lumpur.

While Universiti Sains Malaysia does help produce a conveyor belt of serious Fine Arts graduates, the other Penang art institution, Equator Academy of Art, is more market-orientated towards graphic design and merchandising.

Anyway, locality is something increasingly irrelevant in this cybernetic age, as Mun Kao (Tan Mun Kao, born 1982), pointed out.

Renny Cheng Sing Ching's work on a girl with dishevelled hair and deep in thought.

Tan Kai Sheuan in front of a series of works.

Born in Penang, educated in Singapore and now seeking a living in Kuala Lumpur doing whatever, Mun Kao tersely reasoned in an e-mail reply: “I do not particularly identify myself as a Penang artist, or even as a Penangite. The Internet has broken down so many geographical and cultural barriers.”

Point taken, for an artist's birthplace rarely has an impact on his practice while being where he or she is really does count. Locality is also related to time events of social-cultural ferment. We have examples artists of the Hudson River, the Bloomsbury Circle and or Worpswede.

Trawling for names in the Kuala Lumpur nexus, however, produces a much larger pool of talented twenty somethings. They include Samsuddin Wahab (born 1984), Justin Lim (born in Kuala Lumpur, 1983), Haslin Ismail (born Johor Baru, 1984), Muhd Sarip Abdul Rahman (Sabah, 1981), Chong Ai Lei (Segamat, 1985), co-founder of FINDARS Space Tey Beng Tze (Kuala Lumpur, 1983), Gan Tee Sheng (1984), Lim Keh Soon (1980), sculptor Mohd Al-Khuzairie Ali (1984) and Mohd Bakir Baharom (1982).

Also, younger artists tend not to stick to the hanging-painting format but prefer a more multidisciplinary, multimedia approach incorporating music, video, animation, digital technology and/or performance.

Mun Kao, Haslin, Muhd Sarip, Justin Lim are Internet-savvy, wired to the Animamix (animation plus comics) phenomenon combining manga (Japanese comics), feng yung (Chinese martial arts comics), Tolkien/Tim Burton-like fantasy and complex video game architecture. Animamix is a popular subculture blazed by the likes of Japanese caricaturist Tezuka Osamu and filmmaker Takashi Murakami and Hong Kong's Ma Rongcheng, whose works have been turned into box-office films Storm Riders (1998) and The Storm Warriors (2009). The slew of sci-fi flicks such as Michael Bay's Transformers and James Cameron's Avatar also set the trend.

One who caught on to all these whatchamacallits as early as the 1980s, before inventing his own MSN humanoid pictograms, is Chan Kok Hooi, who at 36 is a grandfather of sorts on this genre in the country. Chan still resides in Penang, from where he makes regular forays overseas for residencies, workshops and exhibitions, the latest being to Pierogi Gallery in New York last January-February.

Ruzzeki (born 1984) currently does mixed media works with a slight surrealist bent related to socio-political issues, betraying influences of his mentors at the House of Matahati, where he had his artist-in-residency in 2008. He had his first solo, Gravitate, there in November-December 2008, with the focus on the hallucination and trauma of dadah addiction, especially among youths. He has since gravitated to politics, modernisation and the environment.

Ruzzeki is back in Penang , having been chosen the Malihom artist-in-residence for January until June this year.

A Bachelor of Art graduate from Universiti Institut Teknologi Mara in 2007, Ruzzeki won third prize that year in the Schwarzkopf Professional/Goethe Institut Salon Meets Art competition. He won consolation prizes in the Tanjong Heritage competition in 2006 and 2007 and was a finalist in the Malaysian Emerging Artists Awards 2009. He was also one of four artists featured in the BACA exhibition at RA Fine Arts last year.

Yuhe 5 by Tan Kai Sheuan, 100x80cm, oil on canvas.

Kai Sheuan and Cheng are like blood brothers in art. They are both godsons of the veteran Kulim-based painter-sculptor Heng Eow Lin, and studied together at the Jit Sin Independent High School in Bukit Mertajam before furthering their Fine Art studies at the Chinese Culture University in Taipei from 2003 to 2007.

In Taiwan , both came under the tutelage of art historian-artist Chuang Wenren. But while Kai Sheuan gave up a lucrative graphic designer job offer in Taipei to return and pursue art full-time, Cheng has chosen to be a tattoo artist after serving a six-month apprenticeship.

Both were born in 1984 with Cheng being the younger by three months.

Kai Sheuan, the only child of a single parent, got to know Heng when he was four years old and became very interested in art. Cheng comes from a family of six. Like Heng, both are strong in depicting figures painted in oil and use self-portraits to project their emotions about love, life and relationships, but in markedly different ways.

Kai Sheuan's thrust is more introspective and sardonic with claustrophobic inhibitions and awkward juxtapositions, while Cheng's take is more surreal, even a little macabre if darkly playful.

Outwardly, Cheng looks the more cool and placid one with a stronger grip on his subjects, while Kai Sheuan betrays a restlessness and more raspy edge in his narratives, like that of him squatting and cowering under a cramped space.

He is obsessed with obstacles — created, real or imagined — and physical barriers or mental blocks and mines deep psychological fears. His works also revolve around people close to him, like his grandfather, who is depicted against a Mondrian square grid backdrop ensconced like a tai kor (partriarch) or looking vulnerably half-naked clad only in "Jelutong shorts".

He also introduces Sun Wu Kong, the Monkey God of Wu Cheng En's literary classic Journey to the West, as an alter ego with the mask shielding his true emotions. But like Sun Wu Kong, Kai Sheuan has to fend off obstacles in the symbolic form of the Buddha palm “mountain”.

The Nutmeg Demolisher by Ruzzeki Harris, 130x205cm, mixed media on metal sheet.

The bony structure of the face is more etched in this work by Renny Cheng Sing Ching, as she takes a whiff of a flower.

Again, tweaking his pet theme of pressure and obstacles, Kai Sheuan's Interlocking Neo-Geo series suggests an entrapment in the intricate web of destiny.

It's a huge plus to him that Galeri Mutiara accorded him his first big solo called Bewilder, from Jan 18 to Feb 1 last year. Gallerist cum veteran artist Koay Soo Kau, who has fostered many young and upcoming artists from the northern region, lauded Kai Sheuan for “injecting a new sophistication” with his “restlessness and serious observations and many experimentations”.

Cheng shows that he can handle figures and landscape on a large format, as can be seen in his works of a solitary woman, one with dishevelled hair and the other nattier in a large cap and sniffing a flower.

He is adept at switching between the tattoo drill and the brush in his work, one demanding dexterity and precision following a made-to-order script, and the other allowing more freewheeling play within a "controlled" situation drama.

Joey Lim is one of Penang's new success stories in the arts.

"Tattooing is an art form too," Cheng said, but would not say if it could develop into something more later, or be combined to make other forms of expressions in the way perhaps Belgian conceptual artist Wim Delvoye uses tattooing.

Both artists are also represented by a2 Gallery in Bangkok Lane, which is jointly run by artists Alfred Yeoh and Jeff Jansen.

The painting persona of Mun Kao is still ambiguous, while he has been making forays in exhibitions such as the recent Art of Fashion at the Langkawi Four Seasons and the two-men show with Saharil Hasrin Sanin at the Central Market's Annexe Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, which also featured him at the 3rd International Art Expo Malaysia 2009.

He relishes drawing comic icons such as Godzilla (giant walking lizard), King Ghidorah (three-headed banshee), Gamera (flying turtle), Rodan (bird-like creature) and Mothra (giant moth monster). Otherwise, he allows his imagination to go wild doing human-beast mutations such as an octopus with slender human legs or grizzly bears or wolves in boots, a genre termed kaiju (strange beasts) in Japanese.

Teacher Joey Lim first got noticed when her work was accepted for the 13th DL Dun Fine Arts exhibition in Taichung City in Taiwan in 2008, the year she won a silver medal in the Malaysian Teochew Art Contest (painting section), which she improved upon with a gold medal in 2009.

Last year, she received honourable mention in an exhibition in the United States and got together with eight other Penangites to take part in the Dramatic Movement group exhibition at Galeri Mutiara.

What all the works of these twentysomething artists will amount to, and where they will be, say 30 years down the road, depends on how much they can give or take, and what they will eventually do and be. It can be the stuff of art history or a passing footnote.

Ooi Kok Chuen has been writing on the art scene at home and abroad for 28 years.

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