“The person you think of as yourself exists only for you and even you don’t know who that is. Everyone else creates a version of ‘you’ in their head. You’re not the same person to anyone. There are thousands of versions of you out there.”One, No One and One Hundred Thousand by Luigi Pirandello
I marvel constantly at how many artists seek to find the self in their work. The self is an important constant for those of us who seek self awareness, who seek to be seen for who we are, and for those of us who seek to question the boundaries of self. Where does the self begin? Where does it end, if it ends? And who is the self?
Su-en Wong (b. 1973) is a New York-based Singaporean artist who is fascinated with the concept of self, especially in the concept of self as other. I am fascinated by her quest. I am intrigued by her canvasses depicting nude Asian females that replicate themselves. There is power in this repetition; a desire to be seen again and again. My eye was drawn to a particular canvas ‘The Forest I (Playtime)’, painted in 2015 in oil on linen [Oil on linen H138 x W199 cm]. A gigantic tree with pink flowers – frangipanis – take centre stage before we notice a rock garden, familiar to those who understand Chinese landscape art. Then, nude girls fire our imaginations. A pair is sat on the ground, playing a clapping game; a familiar children’s game. I can almost hear them chant the rhyming tune that accompanies this game. Ping Pong, Ping Pong, Ping Ping Pong! Or was Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake, Baker’s man? The former a familiar jingle, if you grew up in Singapore, where Su-en was born and raised before she left for the United States at sixteen. The latter, an English rhyming song that children in America and England would recognise. Su-en is able to traverse both East and West in her position as an artist. She does not take her identity nor her heritage for granted. She infuses herself in many of the pieces in Domestication II by playing with the idea of the self as exposed — nude — and recurring. Asian female nudes are rare. The tradition of Chinese paintings does not allow for female nudes. Su-en’s nudes shy away from the pornographic; instead, the repetition is mesmerising, it is rather dizzy-making, forcing the viewer to question the intention of having so many of the same nude female in one canvas. At one point, I wondered if her work could be categorised as queer art: a category of art marked by LGBT themes. In probing further, I came to understand that the female nude is a representation of Su-en herself and Su-en does not identify gay. Yet, there is a touch of the homeo-erotic in the pieces on display: I see the self hugging another self, I see the self crouching next to another self, I see the self in commune with another self. This is encouraging in a time when young girls are self-harming and the pressure to be popular is on the increase as social media takes over our lives. It’s important to advocate self-love. Su-en’s many recurring selves playing, laughing, hugging, being and communing is such a breath of fresh air. These selves remind us of staying in touch with ourselves, with our identities, with our beings. These selves remind us that in everything we do, we need to return to ourselves.
Her figurative drawings are a result of a keen eye, a solid art training and an innate talent. She trained under Liu Kang, a renowned Nanyang artist and one of Singapore’s pioneer modern artist. Under his tutelage, Su-en was able to hold her first solo exhibition at the age of fourteen. This is a huge achievement for any artist and one so young at that.
It is a waste to let talent go! But go she had to. Su-en Wong set sail for the shores of America to pursue her studies in art. She graduated with a B.A., Magna cum Laude, from the University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, Washington in 1993 and then went on to complete a MFA, at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997. There was a MA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in between the two, which she completed in 1994. She has since held several important positions as visiting artist at renowned academic institutions and museums.
Domestication II (January 17 – March 17, 2019), an exhibition held at Art Porters in Spottiswoode Park, Singapore, is the second iteration of a previous group exhibition — Domestication — which Su-en took part in during the Singapore Art Fair in 2014.
On entering this shophouse gallery, founded by Frenchman Guillaume Levy-Lambert and his artologist partner, Sean Soh, I was immediately introduced to Dolly. Dolly is a sheep. She reminds me very much of a Badger Face Welsh Mountain, the Torddu, to be precise, with her black face markings. These sheep are native to Wales, as its name suggests. I love what Dolly symbolises in Su-en’s ‘DH-5 Dolly and Friends’ (2009), rendered in coloured pencils and acrylics. She is the leader in this two part canvas (H73 x W305 cm), with her faithful set of followers. This piece is infused with Su-en’s quirky sense of humour. She’s having a laugh at sheep as much as she’s having a laugh at sheeple — people who follow blindly. A criticism is best ingested with a spoonful of sugar and this is what Su-en is good at. She is provocative in parodying the weakness in our human condition but does so with a trickle of honey. Note some sheep gazing back at you. These represent sheeple, the people who are aware that you’re looking at them. They know that they’re being watched and they’re watching you too. They may look innocent, sweet as a lamb, but they know and you know. Dolly knows. There is a touch of vulnerability in these sheep on canvas. Here, Su-en is making a commentary on the human condition of desire — the wish to lead and the desire to be led. Who do you want to be, the leader or the follower? But hang on a minute! Who is that pig staring out?
Su-en achieves a depth on the canvas through a technique known as foreshortening. The angled lines of the table allow for a perspectival view and also adds to the depth she is trying to achieve on canvas. There is geometry in this piece, a type of geometry that only draughtsmen like certain Old Masters — da Vinci, Lippi, Raphael and Buonarroti — were able to achieve.
This exhibition sees Su-en Wong taking on the theme of collection, indicated by a series of canvasses depicting objects on display. The parody is on a certain artist named Hirst who renowned as he is must be parodied for making a mockery of found objects and displays. A collection of canvasses are entitled with the prefix DH (Dh-5 and Dh-6), not as a homage to Damien Hirst but as a critique, I would think. There is that quirky sense of humour again.
Domestication II is an odd display of Su-en’s work; it is a hodgepodge of a variety of canvasses and media: oil on linen, coloured pencils and acrylic, graphite on paper. Running through this varied 2-dimensional display is a constant negotiation with what constitutes our Asian-ness, our human faults, our sexuality, our vulnerability, and how that can be achieved through a western art-form of pop art. What sealed this exhibition for me is in the gallery’s keen desire to represent a female Asian artist whose yearning it is to interrogate the Asian female self and to find a space where serious interrogation can co-mingle with satire and parody.
Domestication II is on display at Art Porters Gallery until March 17th, 2019.