The Best(a) of Bestrizal: Mother Nature (Review)

‘Almost Paradise’, 2018, Charcoal and acrylic on canvas (H250 cm x W200cm)

Bestrizal Besta was born in 1973, in Padang, West Sumatra, Indonesia. He made Yogyakarta his home and can be found in this city where he lives and works. I was acquainted with Besta’s art in 2018 at Art Stage Singapore where he was represented by Art Porters Gallery. Hanging in this gallery’s booth, at the entrance, is a substantially large monochromatic canvas with a burst of colour that led my eye to a human face — a smiling female child framed by a bouquet of colourful flowers. She is perched on a suggested make-belief swing made of leafy tendrils, her feet crossed elegantly and both hands clutching a spray of orange flowers and she is beaming. She is accompanied by a parrot and surrounded by flora and fauna, thick and lucious. A mouse deer peers at us, a rabbit peers at the mouse deer and we peer into a busy canvas covered corner to corner by monochromatic prints of flowers, plants, leaves, petals… and then the eye spots a leopard. I stood staring at this gigantic canvas, ‘Almost Paradise’, 2018, (H250 cm x W200cm), for several minutes and drank in its wonder. I let it quench my imagination while I studied the patterns on the leaves, on the girl. Peering closer, I caught sight of a feathery down that covered the girl’s legs – follicles of hair so lovingly and intricately added to embellish the subject. This is beyond Realism. I was in Art Heaven because being up this close and seeing such intricate details made with charcoal sent electric shivers down my spine. An apt title for such a mesmerising artwork, I thought. I was not the only who thought this way. The piece was finally sold but art lovers would drop in for a chat about this eye-catching rendition of what Paradise could be. For a dazzling half day at Art Stage, I found my Paradise. 

Bestrizal Besta is known for his large canvases of hyper-realist compositions, intricate in detail and surrealist by presentation. His works are photographic by nature, hence the term hyper-realism used as a descriptor of his oeuvre. In reality, Besta is a Surrealist: his works are often realistic but dream-like, centring on this world and bordering on one that is other-worldly. 

However, I am not one who is fond of labels. To say Besta is a Surrealist would put emphasis on Surrealism and detract from the fact that he is really a Hyper-realist. But to say that he is a Hyper-realist would veer away from the oft challenging definition of Surrealism and the representation of Besta’s unconscious mind.

Surrealists were artistes who sought to find ways through art, literature and film to channel the unconscious in order to unlock its power to find an unfettered expression of thought. André Breton, René Magritte, Joan Miró and Salvatore Dali were Surrealists.  Surrealism took off in visual art due to artists like Magritte and Dali, who were categorically Surrealists. Surrealist motifs differed from artist to artist and exactly what constitutes Surrealism is difficult to define – like a dream, we can’t quite put our finger on what it is. Yet, we know as viewers that the bending clock in Dali’s work is not real, psychologically, we know that it is an image from a dream. Similarly, we know that Miró’s fantastical depiction of space with biomorphic shapes, representing human beings on canvas is also not real, it is surreal. Magritte’s work also tells us that his imageries are from the land of dreams or from the unconscious because there is something quite unusual, rather disturbing in his pieces. However, we know that these artists are definitely not Hyper-realists, though. 

Hyper-realists are artists whose keen eye for detail and realism mark them out from the rest. But be careful for they are not Realists because the eye sees a different style in Realism. Realism is an art movement that sought to depict real life with truth and accuracy; Realist art is detailed but not photographic, they are paintings and they are unmistakably so. There is nothing pretty about Realism, to tell the truth. Jean-Francois Millet and Gustave Courbet are Realists. What of Hyper-realism? Hyper-realism was developed since the 1970s and are artworks of images that resemble high-resolution photographs but rendered in mediums often associated with paintings. This is where Bestrizal Besta gets drumrolls.

‘Mother Nature #1’, 2018, Charcoal and acrylic on canvas, H80cm x W180cm

Besta, to my eye, is a Hyper-Realist. A quick glance at his canvases will train the eye to notice that his human figures are realistically detailed. They resemble photographic images of somebody we are familiar with. That his works are dream-like, it is true. That they are surreal, that is true too. So, yes, he can be called a Surrealist.

Labels are but categories for better understanding of concepts. In art, better understanding comes from looking. Let’s take a close look at ‘Mother Nature #1’, 2018 (charcoal and acrylic on canvas, H80cm x W180cm), for example. A girl, somebody from a lost world, gazes out, she is holding a doll in one hand, with the other, she clasps a branch. Nature engulfs her. In fact, nature takes up two-thirds of this canvas, with only a sliver of sky topping a mountain chain. The leaves are intricately sketched as we follow their meandering journeys; the animals playing hide and seek in the thick foliage beckons us to find them. These life-forms are so hyper-realistically depicted that I feel the leaves growing and winding their way through the thicket; I hear the sounds of animals as they move through the jungle; I smell the silage of the damp earth. This piece is similar to Besta’s many other pieces – a human figure engulfed by nature seems to be the theme in all his works. Through detailed patterns of flora and fauna, Besta tells the story of how wonderful life would be if we were all to live harmoniously with(in) Nature. Nature is good, he says. So, it is not about being engulfed by Nature but about co-existing as one with a naturally eternal Female force. This is where the artist as dreamer steps into the canvas. It is Besta’s dream that we all co-exist with Nature. He expresses his dream and observation of Nature, unfettered, through the medium of charcoal. Now, we can see why critics have called him a Surrealist. 

Besta expresses what his psyche really thinks about Nature and this is reflected in the exhibition’s title — Mother Nature — which underscores the power of the Feminine. Nature is the giver of Life — our Mother. But Besta goes one step further and tells us that “We are not born of Mother Nature”, “we are Mother Nature” he asserts. There is something so curative about this knowlege. Resistance is futile was the message that I took away from this exhibition. The best way to live is to be one with Nature. I succumbed to this adage as I immersed myself in these monochromatic canvases, meditating on Life and the human condition. I asked the Goddess to envelope me in her soothing balm which only Nature can provide. 

Mother Nature, Art Porters Gallery from 24th April to 30th June, 2019. 


Review: Domestication II by Eva Wong Nava

DH-5 Dolly and Friends – 2009 Coloured pencil & acrylic on panel H173 x W305 cm (2 panels)

“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. 

The Forest I (Playtime) – 2015 Oil on linen H138 x W199 cm

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. 

DH-4 Dildos in Display Case – 2009 Coloured pencil & acrylic on panel H173 x W152 cm

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.