Tang Hon Yin – In Search of Magical Margins

Still Life (30 x 21cm. Gouache on paper, 1959).

THE Tang Hon Yin Retrospective is a fitting culmination of the artist’s Space Odyssey of half a century, an exploration close to his heart of Nature, specifically Geology.

Self-taught Datuk Tang, 76, graduated from University Malaya with a BA Hons and a Diploma in Education in 1967, majoring in Geography, and taught Geography and English before he was co-opted into administration (from 1973) and retired as Penang’s state education director in 1998.

His palette of loosely defined Landscape Painting – because they are not true representations – imbibes the physical, the intellectual, the spiritual and even the philosophical. The heterogeneous phenomena of sky (air), water and land (earth) are taken note of, sometimes with chorologic tangents, and remanifested on canvas, internalised into an emotive vortex and subsumed with the moods then (viewing of the said landscapes) and now (painting in his studio), with a stylistic métier that best suits his expressions and temperament.

There is a sense of immersion but with a kind of awkward detachment, even aloofness, even if he were to title his work, say, after the Australian aboriginal realm of Coober Pedy. The titles are just metaphors, for the resultant image may be bereft of the topographical imperatives of the intended inspirations like the bleak terrain of Xinjiang or Egypt, the rarefied heights of Kashmir or the Japanese Alps, or the Australian outback and Uluru or Ayers Rock.

10.00 p.m. (80 x 100cm. Acrylic on canvas, 1975). Collection of Ernie & Sarah Tang.

Singapore River (58 x 85cm. Oil on masonite board, 1967). Collection of Ernie & Sarah Tang.

The works tend to morph into more imaginative adventuring into terrains imbued with textural faience or undulating topography; and in his works after the new millennium, there is a decidedly greater tactility – one that detracts from the more beautifying concerns of the earlier Horizon and Water Margin.

It is part illusion, reality, myth and concoctions – what Barnett Newman, in The Painter’s Painting (1972), perhaps euphemistically described as: “The painter is a choreographer of space; he creates a dance of elements, of forms.”

Art is succour. And therapy. It’s a complete completed painting if he gets “to say all the unspeakable emotions and feelings within oneself… exalting the human spirit… and soaring above the pettiness of daily life,” as he had enthused.

Unlike his early oil on canvas which dwelled on realism modes, the end is the means in his later acrylic works where he chased the nebulous elusive image with use of a spray gun, masking tape, palette knife and brush. (He started using the airbrush in his Water Margin series.)

Memories are Tang’s sketchbooks. He styled himself as an artist given to aerial snapshots of memories – scenes from the top presciently registered on his photographic memory from the windows of airplanes high above the clouds and on descending/ascending, flitting scenes like cavorting gazelles from the window of a moving tour-coach or train. The stark images and colours are mixed in the cauldron of his mind, with shafts of light and water for a coagulating paste. So you can invariably find a certain photographic sheen on his works.

Silk Road - Water Country (142 x 142cm. Acrylic on canvas, 2009).

Water Margin #43 (150 x 200cm. Acrylic on canvas, 1984). Permanent collection of the Penang State Art Gallery.

The upshot bodes some sort of signification or a nondescript cultural image, take what you will, but you will almost be intrigued by the sheer veneer of enticement, the geometry with porous borders, the sand-dune textural nuances.

One is overwhelmed by the spatial constructs as well as deconstructs, exuding a timeless quality but circumscribed somewhat by the amorphous geometry within.

Unlike a geologist delving into the nitty-gritty elements of palaeontology, Tang is desirous of first a membrane epidermis that demarcates cosmic spheres, and then using the soundingboard surface of rhythmic play as an entity or with inherent tensions or incorporating a matrix of squares, triangles, crosses, diagonals or confetti flotsams.

One may discover Judd, Rothko, Diebiekorn, even Yves Klein, but local antecedents there are too – Yeoh Jin Leng’s expansive idyllic Sawah Padi, Joseph Tan’s Dungunscapes, Jehan Chan’s crinkled Malacca River, the mystical reality of Anuar Rashid’s Inderaputra, Datuk Syed Ahmad Jamal’s symbolisms of “gunungan” (especially his Gunung Ledang), shades of Datuk Tajuddin Ismail’s Innerscapes, and as for the trinity of earth, sky and water, nothing is further from Patrick Ng Kah Onn’s eponymous Spirit of the Earth, Sky and Water (1959).

Tang had intoned: “In the horizon of life, the water margin is the edge where the sky meets land. The horizon is the only permanent thing in a world that is temporal and transient. It is there and yet it is not there. It is where the sky meets the sea and yet the two never meet. The horizon seems to be there for eternity, but its mood instantly changes.”

Call it a highly imaginative tease, theatrical even, a soaring paean that transcends time and place, lifting one into a subliminal “Never, Never Land” poised in the Water Margin, and beyond the horizon.

Space is movement, emotion and contemplation, and as Frank Lloyd Wright saw it, “the breath of art.”

Silk Road #52 (142 x 142cm. Acrylic on canvas, 2016). Collection of the Penang State Art Gallery.

Silk Road #1 (142 x 142cm. Acrylic on canvas, 2006). Permanent collection of the Penang State Art Gallery.

Silk Road #24 (142 x 142cm. Acrylic on canvas, 2008).

His early works, between 1960 and 1979, are underpinned in this retrospective by the twin 1967 oil on masonite boards, Singapore River (58cm x 85cm), with the thrusts of the masts of moored boats by quayside contrasting with the compact buildings, and Weld Quay (50cm x 94cm) with an air of somnolence dipped in dusky orange wash. It gets interesting with his Rooftop series (1975-1979) framed by time registers with the panoply of flat geometrical shapes with the ubiquitous moon and play of shadows.

Horizon (1980-1981) with the ambiguous tiered demarcations of sky, water and land looking like Australian touristy bottled samples of sand art, heralds a different tack although a relatively short-lived series. From Horizon with its monotonous horizontal veneer, Water Margin is the logical expansion with variations and diversifications of gradated or broken bands, truncated diagonal rainbow bolts, crinkling surfaces with soft cloud-bursts, confetti and shades.

Silk Road #61 (142 x 200cm. Acrylic on canvas, 2016).

Water Margin was first unveiled in his first solo with the eponymous title, at Galeria Penang in 1983, and another by the same name followed at the Australian High Commission in 1986. Recent paintings at Datuk Dr Tan Chee Khuan’s The Art Gallery in 2001 marked the transition to the Silk Road series (from 2008), with in-between sub-tracks. As Water Margin hits the century mark, it becomes obvious that what is construed as an oasis of placidity or composure is not what Nature could be, given its more mercurial tendencies.

Apart from smaller painted groups such as Magic Carpet, Magic Stairway and Something in the Air, Tang also dwells on more specific works like the self-explanatory Afternoon in Seville (2004) and Spring in Andalusia (2003).

Tang’s first and only overseas solo, Water Margin-Silk Road, first publicly unveiled his Silk Road works at Majorie Ho’s East&West Art in Melbourne in May-June 2008. A decade later, Kris Lee-Sophia Shung’s Suma Orientalis in Petaling Jaya was to whet the Retrospective appetizer with a glimpse exhibition on March 3-25.

Silk Road is a shift more into the surface vagaries of land, with ribbed horizontals or verticals and diagonals, fragmented and with more fissures, and also flotsams of calligraphic-like squiggles. There is the play of rectangle bands within bigger frames a la Rothko, and the permutations of triangles created by the diagonal cross.

Apart from being an artist, Tang has two other important art roles, namely as the Penang State Art Gallery (PSAG) chairman for two periods, 1994-1997 and 2006-2016, and as an important member of the pioneering invited Utara Group which comprises artists working in abstractions, and joining a year after its formation in 1977.

Tang was also an adviser to the Penang Teachers Art Circle and a prime mover behind the Penang Sculpture Trail.

As PSAG chairman, he started the Art Acquisition Fund in 2012, and revived the retrospective, ironically with him being the 12th honoured (since 2007) – there had been six earlier between 1994 and 2004 but with gaps, and on a smaller scale.

Although comparatively less active in regularity of art exhibitions, Tang had been selected for national exhibitions like the Malaysian Art ’57-’87 (National Art Gallery, KL, 1987), Contemporary Art of Malaysia (Asia-Pacific Museum, Pasadena, 1988) and 20 Years of Malaysian Art (Universiti Sains Malaysia, 1983). He also curated the Latiff Mohidin exhibition in 1981.

Silk Road #44 (144 x 200cm. Acrylic on canvas, 2014).

Silk Road #73 (150 x 170cm. Acrylic on canvas, 2016).

He donated a total of nine works to PSAG namely Water Margin #43, Water Margin #69, Water Margin #70, Silk Road #1, Silk Road #96, Something In The Air #8, Horizon #8, Rooftops and Pasar Malam (1969). Three more of his works in the PSAG collection were earlier donated by him.

Apart from an aversion to narration in his works, it can be noted that a Tang Hon Yin work is also conspicuous for the absence of figures. In the only one with a semblance of figures, in the 1969 Pasar Malam, the human presence is reduced to shadowy black blobs

“Painting is my journey to seek the magical,” Tang explains his credo, adding that his quest is to create something never seen before.

The Tang Hon Yin Retrospective took place at the Penang State Art Gallery from November 1, 2018 to January 31, 2019.

Ooi Kok Chuen, art-writer and journalist, is the author of MAHSURI: A Legend Reborn (Ooi Peeps Publishing), an adult contemporary fantasy “movel” (a novel conceived as a mock movie) spun from a local legend.

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