At Justin Lim’s last solo exhibition in Richard Koh Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur two years ago, a pervading sense of decay hung in the air. Stylish in execution, the paintings featured skulls, dead birds and dead plants, embellished with details like blue roses and, unconventionally, slabs of raw meat.
Somehow, Lim managed to make this state of decay look winningly sexy, with splashes of colour bringing it to life.
His current solo at the gallery, however, couldn’t be more different.
In Modern Absurdity And The Superficial Abyss, black is the order of the day.
Whether it be an image of bodies in motion meshed against each other in an enclosed area, a plump larger-than-life heart in shiny black or a bed of thorns, Lim, has crafted it in black acrylic and oil, a stark departure from his earlier works of contrasting imagery and colour.
Most of the works in this exhibition are black paintings with shifting textures depending on where the light falls, but there are also a couple of sculptures that play around with one image: the heart.
The Kuala Lumpur-born Lim, 32, calls himself a collector of images, and the heart is just one of these that can take on multiple meanings.
For his eighth solo, he was interested in confronting painting and its illusive qualities. In turn, this led to a questioning of the role of colour and its construct in the Malaysian psyche.
“The significance of black in this body of work is that it is very much an illusion as much as painting is an illusion. These qualities are what influenced me to purge colour out from my work,” he explains.
He shares that as with every exhibition, there is a period of introspection that comes before, and also a period of uncertainty, when he starts developing a new body of work.
The black works as a “phantom character” in his works, encapsulating and governing the environment for any sort of narrative to take place.
“I wanted to express its presence as distinctive and encompassing,” he says, adding that he doesn’t want to be limited by colour. In fact, I don’t want to be limited by anything at all when it comes to art, but I don’t know if that is entirely possible,” he says.
The 20 works, which include three sculptures, are split between Richard Koh Fine Art in Bangsar Village II and, until Sept 13, Art Expo Malaysia Plus 2015 at the Matrade Exhibition & Convention Centre in Kuala Lumpur. With Lim’s blackened works on the walls at Richard Koh’s booth in Art Expo Malaysia Plus, it appeared a colour psychology battle was at play.
Interestingly, Lim points out that the impressionists labelled black a “non-colour”; it exists where there is a complete absorption and absence of light. Throughout history, black has been associated with the occult, death, mourning, evil, elegance, anarchism and fashion.
“It is the colour where everything culminates and transcends, hence the notion of the abyss,” he explains, referencing the exhibition title, Modern Absurdity And The Superficial Abyss.
He shares that the idea of a seemingly bottomless chasm that is the Abyss has always interested him metaphorically: today’s modern society and all its technological advances excite him, yet also scares him in the evolution of humanity.
It is also not the first time Lim has gone with a cryptic-sounding title that is rather a mouthful to say in its entirety.
“I try to condense my thoughts into the titles and it usually comes across as a bit of a mouthful. But I quite like it that way,” he says, sharing that he consciously tries not to not make these titles dictate how the viewer should experience the work.
Instead, he wants them to serve as entry points in perceiving the works.
In this body of work, there are a few paintings titled Riot, depicting what looks like human figures in a hot mess. The timing is uncanny, given the latest development in the country’s complicated political climate, but Lim says that when he started these paintings, he was not thinking of making any kind of political statement.
“It is an interesting perception to see it as a commentary on the current political state of our country,” he says, adding that he believes art can transcend and act as “a catalyst for the truth through the illusion of art”.
“Art should be able to act as entry points to discuss topics that are so evident today,” he says.
In his Riots series, for instance, he notes that it is interesting that a “hot mess” or “violent act” can be perceived, yet there is none except in the mind of the viewer perceiving it.
Lim used to perform with and watch various bands in the fringe music scene, and the image of the mosh pit stuck with him and that, at least in part, inspired this work.
“To see people coming together to express themselves through music and slam dancing, which seems extremely chaotic and at times visually violent, yet it is not. Instead it is a celebration of freedom and youthful energy which I find very inspiring,” he says.
Modern Absurdity And The Superficial Abyss is mostly black, but not entirely.
One notable work is the very long titled I Was Looking Back To See If You Were Looking Back At Me To See Me Looking Back At You, borrowed from the lyrics of British trip hop act Massive Attack’s tune Safe From Harm. The work is a collection of 30 pairs of eyes, painted in a realistic manner, that gaze upon the viewer from their perch on the wall. These portraits play with the notion of illumination and truth-seeking within an illusionary space. Additionally, Lim shares that he was exploring the idea of creating a work to complement the black paintings and wanted to create direct tension between the viewer and the painting.
“It is through this reaction that brings forth the illusive nature of the work,” he says, adding that he likes to think of this format as a “simple pictorial illusion” for the paintings and the audience to interact with each other.
See Modern Absurdity And The Superficial Abyss at Richard Koh Fine Art (2F-3, Level 2, Bangsar Village II) till Sept 23. Call 03-2283 3677 or visit rkfineart.com for more information.