Anyone who has had to bear the brunt of his wrath will know that Dr Jolly Koh does not suffer fools gladly. But a curiosity here – and one suspects he will be quite indignant if anyone thinks this is a problem – is that he believes most people are idiots.
He also thinks that mankind is rather inclined to bask in a toxic cloud of narcissism, self-interest and vindictive intent.
“To put it mildly, human nature is just not very admirable,” he says during a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.
“That is all the more reason why we should value the arts, because art, music, painting … these are the best human expressions of beauty. This is where you see human nature at its best,” he says.
This is Koh’s world, the domain he knows inside out, having wielded a brush from a young age.
He estimates he had around 200 drawings and paintings to his name, produced between the age of 12 and 18, before setting off for art school in London. They are not the paintings on the fridge variety; he won awards for them and had a solo exhibition at the British Council in Kuala Lumpur when he was 17.
Almost half his life has been spent teaching art and painting abroad, including a 25-year stretch in Australia, five years in Britain and another five in the United States.
Today, at 76, he continues to paint prolifically, read voraciously and travel far and wide, deriving great pleasure from indulging in what he calls the finer things in life – beautiful works of art, great music and good food.
“To have the capacity to appreciate the beautiful things in life that a handful of highly talented people are gifted enough to create, this, to me, is the good life,” says the Singapore-born, Melaka-raised artist.
Koh cannot overemphasise the importance of beauty in art, scoffing at what seems to be something commonplace in the art scene these days, where concepts and ideas trump aesthetics.
“What great paintings have there been where the ideas are important and its beauty is not? You do not look to Picasso, Cezanne or Pollock for ideas. No, their art is treasured because they are beautiful and exciting and they stand out in their field. If beauty is not important in art, then what is?” he asks.
Here, he quotes Austrian-born British art historian Ernst Gombrich, who said, “It is a great work of art not because it has so many meanings, but because it is beautiful”.
Koh is infamous for his biting wit and, some would say, a propensity for being controversial and difficult. This is a man who will not back down easily from a heated debate, particularly if it is something he feels strongly about – and there is no shortage of that.
“At my age, I am very conscious that life is short and precarious. If I cannot spend the rest of my life doing what I want to do, if I am unable to speak my mind and have to bite my tongue, then what do I live for?” he says.
Hardly one for conformity, he balks at the idea of taking orders from others. He describes himself as unconventional, saying, “maybe that is one reason why I offend many people. Most of them who criticise my personality are boring people, who would probably love to say the things I do, but dare not.
“Note that they criticise me, but never my paintings.”
Koh’s art, unlike the man behind the art, is not rebellious in the least. It is lively and vibrant, sometimes surreal and dreamy, and very often, quite magical.
“My art is mainstream modern art, with few ideas behind it. It is romantic art of the highest quality, very beautiful and very detailed. Romance will live forever,” he declares.
In the last decade or so, he has mastered the technique of pouring and splashing paint – oil paint over acrylic – in creating these large-scale works.
He writes in his art book, Jolly Koh@76, that the last 15 years has been his best in terms of his artistic output.
The book was released in conjunction with his solo exhibition of the same name that featured over 40 recent works; it was held at the White Box in Publika, KL, earlier this month.
One of the pioneers of modern art in Malaysia, Koh was part of the seminal Gerak Rupa Ubur Penyataan (Grup) exhibition held at KL’s AIA Building on Jalan Ampang in 1967.
Today, this Grup show is hailed as a turning point of sorts in Malaysian art history, a bold step into uncharted waters.
But it is perhaps more in hindsight that it was such a big deal; the whole exhibition only sold two paintings then, according to Koh.
“I sold one of my paintings, and Syed Ahmad Jamal sold one of his,” he relates.
Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Grup, Ilham Gallery in Kuala Lumpur currently has an exhibition called Gerak Rupa Ubur Penyataan (Grup) 1957-1973, featuring works from the 1967 Grup show artists. The show, curated by Simon Soon and Rahel Joseph, sets out to look beyond this iconic show; it aims to also examine the conditions that allowed for modern art to emerge in Malaysia – architecture and infrastructure included.
Koh is disgruntled with the suggestion that modern development in the country helped modern art to flourish, or even worse to him, help nudge it into being.
“Modern art in Malaysia is 100% foreign influence. It exists because this group of artists went abroad to study art in England and Germany, they absorbed modern art there, and then came back and produced modern paintings.
“We were modern artists who decided to have a show together. It is as simple as that. If not for this group, you would not get modern art in Malaysia at that time,” he says.
In person, Koh sounds and feels like an unstoppable force, all blazing wildfire and whirlwind, with a sharp tongue to boot. He is as much as home with using words like stodgy, nasty, dreadful and turgid nonsense when he is vexed, as he is with expounding on the role of beauty in art and life.
“Well, I am a passionate man,” he laughs, at one point in the conversation.
And perhaps that is true in more ways than one.
If Koh’s paintings are the best human expression of beauty he can offer to the world, then it holds up to scrutiny. For it is up close, where shadows blend with light in such exquisite perfection in these works, that his unwavering pursuit of beauty truly hits home.
More info: www.jollykoh.com.