IF you were to study the history of Malaysian art, you will notice a dearth in figurative studies in the 1970s as a result of an Islamisation policy formed under the National Cultural Congress of 1971. Thus figurative works and portraits took a back seat; in its place, a concentration on arabesques, repeating motifs and other Islamic design elements.
I remember doing an interview with Bayu Utomo Radjikin (artist and member of the Matahati outfit) some years ago following his return from a two-year hiatus in Britain. At the time, he was co-curating a group exhibition themed Mind, Body & Soul 2 at the Wei-Ling Gallery with owner Lim Wei-Ling.
We were discussing, briefly, about the disappearance of figurative studies in the local art scene and Bayu had reasoned that one other cause was a lack of focus on the subject in local art schools — perhaps an inevitable and related outcome, in hindsight.
Thankfully enough, this was not a permanent phenomenon. For what would art be without the artistic deification of the human body?
“There are angles, proportions and even calculations involved. Contrary to popular assumption, drawing a human body, in any artistic interpretation – even abstract – is a challenge,” Bayu had said during that interview.
I couldn’t agree more. Particularly since my artistic talent encapsulates all of stick figure drawings and other sketches and doodles of indeterminate nature. It would be sad if people like me could no longer admire the talents of those who can do (far) more justice to the human figure.
Ostensibly then, Mind, Body & Soul 2 was meant to resurrect artistic appreciation of the human body.
I’ve always loved figurative and portrait paintings — not the sort you find at Central Market, mind you. No offence meant to all CM artists, of course. I do respect their talent; however, I am no fan of such..umm…’literal’ art. I was referring to works of our crop of contemporary or ‘higher’ artists, for want of a better term: there is that much more flair in their painterly oeuvre, so to speak.
But, I digress.
It was at Wei-Ling Gallery that I first came across Marvin Chan; I was there to do an announcement piece on a show entitled 3 New Voices in 2008. His series of works entitled Letters to my Unborn Child — Mercurial Times, was shown alongside those of two other emerging artists, Hasanul Idris and Liong Mei-Yin. A self-taught artist with an illustrious (and award-winning) advertising background, Marvin concentrates mainly on figurative paintings.
I was awed by the detail of his work, his talent and the fact that a man with so much going on in his day job would give it all up for the unpredictable world of painting (yes, and while we’re at it, let’s go back to the word ‘self-taught’). While it’s rather trite (and disparaging) to presume that full-time artists barely make a decent buck, it is a fact that not all artists earn a huge packet from their work. Not everyone can command a five- or six-figure paycheck like, oh, say… Syed Ahmad Jamal? Ibrahim Hussein? Jai? Jolly Koh? Latiff Mohidin? Or Bayu. The road to creating a painting worth more than the total sale of me and my grandmother is a long and arduous one. For some, it is virtually impossible. Heh.
Marvin, to me, demonstrates a firm grasp of his subject. He has used various approaches to depict the human form and, at times, humanity through the human body/expression — from paintings and backgrounds of bold colour and full form to monochromatic and chiaroscuro-esque hues, or that which include white spaces, unfinished lines and some degree of effects.
See, the beauty about being a self-taught artist is this: you have nothing to lose, not as much as those who have gone to art school or who descend from a family of prodigious artists. You can experiment however you wish and none of those toffee-nosed gits can say “Hey, don’t you know this colour/stroke/technique is not right?” because, well, you didn’t know! Ignorance is bliss and you can pretty much try out whatever and wing it. And if it works, whoa, that’s what we call talent and a great eye. But if it sucks, you never knew anyway since you’re pretty fresh on the block. Nobody could blame you. Still, being a freshie and going at it with guns blazing into the fray with old-timers and their brand of politics can be pretty daunting.
Not that Marvin is too perturbed (some degree of thick skin doth go a long way). He’s plodded on since, hasn’t he? In 2010, he began to concentrate solely on the face and its myriad expressions. “Faces in some ways are a kind of anamorphic mirror showing us our location in their perception, by showing us signs in their expression or the way they turn their faces,” he says. Compared to his earlier work, the 2010 collection of portraits are executed using thick brushstrokes against stark, white background. It’s all about beauty in the ordinary; the expression of the face telling a million stories to the viewer.
Come Oct 25, Marvin will be graduating into a different hierarchy, so to speak: his first solo exhibition will be showing at Wei-Ling Gallery. The solo collection — fresh off the mint — is the result of a self-discovery process which unfolded amid his desire to have children and the realisation of how his mind works. The show, entitled The Inconsequential Consequence of Hope depicts close-up images of children’s faces constructed through a collection of multi-hued triangles — a reflection of how the artist triangulates marks to locate and render an image (watch video here).
What makes Marvin’s work interesting is also his fascinating personality. Behind the quirky, playful facade and witty banter, lies a highly critical and creative mind.
A recent participation in an art residency programme in Vermont this year resulted in another slew of cleverly executed and ‘interactive’ paintings of his fellow artists-in-residence. This, for me, has taken Marvin a step further from the academic, conventional style of portrait painting. The Vermont works are constructed or accompanied by recycled material which describes his perception of the subject’s idiosyncrasies, personality and character — to a certain extent.
“These works are a combination of painting, recycled materials and found objects which I put together to make portraits of people I meet. I use the packaging from the things they use or consume, I sometimes supplement the work with found objects to underscore an aspect or a story of the person. I did these in Vermont studio center to make a cumulative representation of the artist community there,” Marvin explains. And because these boxes contained the food consumed by the artists, there is therefore a more personal connection with the subjects. Oh well, but that’s just be me trying to sound clever 🙂
For instance, Ginny S. who comes from a long line of puritans, covers herself with layers of clothing and walks with a slouch to hide her well-endowed body. Marvin describes her character as being “closed up”. His commentary of the ‘restrictions’ she lives with is depicted through a wine box framed around her portrait, on which he has also pasted labels of wholesome food products in a deliberate pun on the contradictions which seem to form part and parcel of her life. Yep. Ginny in a box.
Now, this particular piece is one of my favourites from his Vermont series. I find the concept of painting on a bottle so quaint! Here, Marvin takes a more personal approach with his then house mate, Victor Castro, a Peruvian who is currently a curator at the Tamayo Museum in Mexico. Instead of boxes and labels, Marvin pays tribute to Victor with a Jack Daniels bottle. “We shared a moment and that was the bottle we drank from,” he says. Suffice to say Marv and Vic had some great times together in Vermont.
Not all Marvin’s residency mates got their mugs on his wall of fame, however. Almaz W. was one of them; an egg box was used as a substitute. “Being around Almaz is like treading on eggshells,” Marvin remembers. He recalls their first encounter: “When we first met, I complimented her on her beauty — her hair, her eyes. She immediately accused me of objectifying her. The eggs represent the delicate relationship we shared in that brief moment.” The statement he had painted on the wall next to ‘Almaz’ (“Network interrupted. There has been an error in connection”) is indicative of the delicate nature of their friendship. Perhaps Marvin did right to refrain from painting her.
There is more, but then there’d be no end to this post. But since a picture says a thousand words, here’s more from Marvin’s Vermont series:
This year, I nominated Marvin for the Sovereign (Asian) Art Prize. No news yet. Keeping my fingers crossed.
For a glimpse of Marvin’s Magical World, check out http://marvinchan.tumblr.com.