After months of lockdown, Penangites are greeted with a large group exhibition that could have benefited from a more focused curation.
By Eryn Cheng
Registered in 1953, the Penang Art Society is Penang’s oldest art society and caters for those who appreciate all forms of fine and traditional art. Beyond 2020 was a group exhibition that showcased works from 10 different art groups and is the Penang Art Society’s 66th annual art exhibition. The exhibition took place at the Penang State Art Gallery, Level 3, Dewan Sri Pinang in George Town Penang, from the 15th until the 25th of August 2020.
What catches the eye as soon as one steps into the space was the continuous row of artworks on the wall. The exhibition hall is fairly large, and every wall and corner was filled as a total of 140 pieces were being exhibited in the show.
Although the exhibition was titled Beyond 2020 and was intended to showcase the artists’ creativity and solidarity in the COVID-19 pandemic, there were only a few works that referenced this theme. The remainder were elegant Nanyang-inspired figurative works, expressionistic portraits, fully abstract works, landscape photography, Chinese ink paintings, calligraphy, still life watercolours, wildlife art, and drawings of George Town’s heritage buildings. It would have been better if the title had reflected the diverse range of media and styles on display instead of forcing the show to fit into current events, a theme which was obviously not represented in the majority of the artworks.
The exhibition also featured two sculptural works on low pedestals near the entrance. The sculptures were meant to be viewed in the round but there was not enough space between the two to fully appreciate each piece. It was unfortunate but the crammed walls detracted from each work’s presence, taking away the chance for audiences to engage with each one before moving on to the next. Even a foot between each piece would have elevated the viewing experience.
Criticisms aside, there was something to be said about the range of medium and expressions on display. The exhibition also features works from the Calligraphy & Poetry Society, Balik Pulau Art Society, Chinese Brush Painting Art Society, Malaysian Artists Society & Persatuan Pelukis Wanita, North Kedah Art Society, Photographic Society of Penang, Penang Water Colour Society, The Penang Teachers’ Art Circle, Sarawak Fine Arts Society (Kuching), and FILARTS from Filipinas Institute (Philippines).
The exhibition was full of contrasts, from a realistic oil painting of a salmon by Teh Ming Yang titled Endless Fight to Koh Teng Huat’s vibrant oil on canvas titled Dao-Cheng China. Both pieces feature landscapes in the same medium but chose very different approaches of expression. Teh’s careful and almost photographic rendering of a salmon in a clear stream is a world apart from Koh’s gestural and energetic palette knife painting, turning the landscape into a semi-abstracted form.
Teh Ming Yang, Endless Fight, 2019
Koh Teng Huat, Dao-Cheng China, 2019
There were also pieces that directly and indirectly referenced the pandemic. Lee Eng Beng’s 槟城生活公市 features a view of the artist working in his studio with the figure of the artist appearing three times in different positions around the room. This internalizes the piece and gives a sense of the passage of time and the restriction of movement experienced during the lockdown. The use of watercolours also created an ethereal feel to the piece, almost like a fading snapshot.
Lee Eng Beng, 槟城生活公市, 2020
Eva Chin’s 口罩防疫 features a group of faces wearing medical face masks, now emblematic of the global pandemic. It was an interesting departure from traditional themes in Chinese brush painting and Chin managed to convey so much emotion and character in each face through minimal and carefully-placed brushstrokes, which is a feature of traditional Chinese brush painting. The slightly V-shaped composition also brings a sense of balance and solidarity to the piece, which fit the theme of the exhibition nicely.
Eva Chin, 口罩防疫, 2020
In these anxious and uncertain times, some artists have chosen to create meditative and calming pieces. Gooi Chye Soon’s Heart Sutra is a calligraphy of the Buddhist heart sutra in a formation resembling a QR Code. This bridged the traditional with the present as checking into a commercial premise with a QR Code has become part of Malaysia’s new normal. Another therapeutic example was Love Lee Lily’s Elephant Sanctuary Mandala, a dot mandala painting comprised of a symmetrical and intricate array of colours that seem to pulse with healing energy.
Gooi Chye Soon, Heart Sutra, 2020
Love Lee Lily, Elephant Sanctuary Mandala, 2020
Overall, Beyond 2020 was notable for the sheer amount of works on display and the range of styles and expressions that showcased Malaysian and regional artists’ abilities. While it was no simple feat to pull off an exhibition with 140 works from ten art groups, several factors caused the show to be somewhat forgettable.
The way the works were displayed made it hard to appreciate them and the show lacked cohesiveness between the exhibition title and the content of the artworks. A more focused curation would have made the theme of the show more impactful and it would have been helpful to include information such as short statements about each art society for the audience to gain a more complete understanding of what they are seeing.
Finally, it was disappointing to see a large puddle of water on the floor of the exhibition hall, presumably from a leakage. No doubt it had been cleaned up for the opening that night but as the representative art gallery of the Penang State Government, shouldn’t more be done to ensure that the exhibition space is leak-proof so that artists can exhibit their works with full confidence that it won’t be damaged?
This exhibition showed that there is much talent to be nurtured in Malaysia. For all that talk about Penang wanting to become the arts hub in Southeast Asia, perhaps it was time to put those words into action and make sure that we have the basic infrastructure to support this.
Eryn Cheng is an artist who works with drawing, painting, and cut-outs on paper and wood to create surreal compositions on womanhood, life, and the unknown.