The booklet of G13 Gallery’s latest group exhibition, In Sync: Artist Couples, features an excerpt from a letter written by one of the 20th century art world’s most famous couples, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, whose self-portraits and paintings of each other — not to mention their tumultuous marriage — have been much talked about, analysed and discussed.
The excerpt speaks of how the chemistry of two visual artists in a relationship, their dynamics, backgrounds and artistic practice, can influence the canvas, be it individually or collaboratively. At least, that is what G13 founder and owner, Kenny Teng, found particularly intriguing.
“In general, I think artist pairings are interesting and in this case, I feel that to highlight the practice of couples through an exhibition like this can create good insight,” he explains.
Nevertheless, the exploration is a tentative one with just six pairs of artists and 12 new works — one each — and comes across as rather tame despite having been given free rein in creative direction.
Embodying the spirit of collaboration, Khairul Izham and Anisa Abdullah have combined their artistic techniques in two works, the only pair to do so. Khairul’s layered “drawings” and Anisa’s collage practice come together in a way that reflects their openness to collaborate, something the couple had wanted to do for a long time.
Against a black backdrop, much like a pin-up board, Hummingbird and Mystery of Love are an intimate portrayal of things that the family unit holds dear, the duo’s artistic chemistry strengthened by the loving presence of another being — their daughter, Qayla Amra. “Her belongings fill every corner of our artwork,” reads their statement. Indeed, there are unicorns, fish, hot-air balloons, instruments and more in their work. Floral motifs indicate a season of vibrant full bloom in Hummingbird while cloud and rain reinforce a sense of hope and love even in seemingly low seasons in Mystery of Love.
Amy Nazira and Hidayat Arshad have drawn inspiration from space in a relationship. Amy’s In The Studio takes a literal look at the presence of another person, departing from the lone figure typically depicted in her distinctive naïve works, through the inclusion of an extended arm in the frame offering a cup of coffee to the artist at work.
Hidayat’s geometrical work, Reshape, is an abstract approach to contending with and renegotiating a balance in sharing a space, and perhaps symbolically, in sharing lives.
Works that are decidedly more independent are those of Najib Ahmad Bamadhaj and his partner Cinta Ayuandrea, both of which are continuations of their respective series. Still, in True Romance and Charmed, there is a shared allusion to nature, in this case relating to love and romance.
Similarly, the works of Singaporean-Malaysian pair, Nur Iman and Yuki Tham, are unrelated pieces, his a sociopolitical statement of the world’s greed for gold, oil and diamonds to the point of destruction, and hers a self-portrait dealing with anxiety and worry. Seen together, the paintings offer a subtle similarity in graphic language, which sets them apart from the rest.
Two other married couples — Kow Leong Kiang and Chong Ai Lei, and Gan Chin Lee and Liu Hsin-Ying — share their thoughts on working with their spouses.
“We’ve exhibited in the same shows before but this is the first time specifically as a ‘couple’. Even for this show, we worked independently, although after this, I think it’s quite a good idea to explore more of how we can work collaboratively in the future,” says Kow, who showcased a painting of four Malay girls against the backdrop of a beach at sunset.
His wife, whose large self-portrait Girl in Red Blanket exudes her signature style of incredible detail and subtly dreamy air, says because they share a studio, they have been working somewhat collaboratively over the years.
“It need not be on the same canvas; we may be working separately but in terms of discussing our ideas, critiquing each other’s work and sharing of opinions, I see it as a form of collaborating,” says Chong, whose work commemorates her childhood by immortalising a red blanket that her mother owned.
Perhaps the artist-couple who handled the task most earnestly is Gan and Liu. A figurative and abstract painter respectively, the couple spent long hours discussing how to work together, ultimately choosing to reinterpret each other’s work.
“We fight quite frequently, especially after we got married and had our daughter. So we thought, why not try to get into the minds of each other to better understand what the other is thinking,” says Gan.
He chose a 2016 work by Liu — Heart, Flesh & Mind VIII — and rotated it 90°. In a rare dabbling in the abstract, his piece mimics the colour tones and textures of Liu’s original work, a process he undertook to align himself with her perspective and feelings.
“It started off as a way for me to put myself in her shoes as an artist and as a woman, but I think I ended up also projecting my own thoughts and emotions about our relationship into it. I think subconsciously I have carried this burden and pressure in the relationship, and that emerged in the work,” says Gan.
The visual imagery is an erotic one, symbolic not just of the physical union of man and wife, but also of Gan and Liu’s arrival at the belief that marriage is really two individuals coming together for a process of constant union and separation.
“I wanted not just to know her intimately in the physical sense but also the core of who she is, what she wants and the security she seeks,” Gan points out.
Liu, who is originally from Taiwan, in turn, referenced her husband’s 2011 triptych, Kedai Kopi Sungai Jarom. “I felt it was representative of him, so I chose it,” she says. “But I felt that it was only when I turned the work upside down that I could see more clearly the colour patterns and forms of his work. So, in the end, I used my abstract eye to perceive his work.”
The result is a merging of two perspectives while remaining honest to their own ideas and thoughts. “I named my work Littoral, which is essentially the shoreline. The image of waves layering over a shore again and again speaks to me of how as a couple, we need to understand where that line is for us, that point where both sides meet. Can we see it?” Liu muses.
In Sync: Artist Couples will be on until Sept 7 at G13 Gallery, GL13 Ground Floor, Block B, Kelana Square, PJ, from 11am to 5pm (closed on Sunday and public holidays). Admission is free. See here for more information.
This article first appeared on Sept 2, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.