Last year, Singaporean artist Yeo Tze Yang shared a series of “deeply quiet” moments in his solo show Evening at Our ArtProjects in Kuala Lumpur. His oil paintings of scenes of a day drawing to a close tapped into the weary acceptance of time passing, a muted acknowledgement of the here and now.
Yeo paints the quiet. He finds it in the everyday scenes that often go unnoticed, and in the moments where we daydream and drift. In a new exhibition, now showing at the same gallery, Yeo’s pensive world is dialed down further.
A duo exhibit Cheap Spirits presents paintings by Yeo and photographs by Singapore-based Malaysian photographer George Wong. Both harbour an obsession with the everyday, but viewed through a different lens.
“If my works in Evening are quiet, then these in Cheap Spirits are even quieter, lonelier. There are no crowds but lone passengers on the bus, a discarded cigarette box, shuttered shops, my view from the car. These works feel like longer pauses – pauses to think and to feel,” says Yeo, 24, who is currently completing a Bachelor of Arts and Social Sciences degree in South-East Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore.
His paintings are excerpts from his life, his everyday mundane that is shared, in some way, by the collective public. They do not tell stories, they are not narrative in nature. Instead, they are “tiny lumps scalped from the same piece of clay” that is his life, disjointed but united in essence.
“These are footnotes of my daily life, if you will – the eight minutes of waiting time for the bus,” he says.
Where the pieces from Evening feels similar in its execution, Yeo’s body of work for Cheap Spirits is not confined to a single theme. He is simply drawn to scenes or objects that expressed some kind of dejection and loneliness, however subtle.
“While superficially they seem disparate in subject matter, it is an underlying feeling that runs through all the works that reflect my state of mind through the several months of decision-making and painting that I hope tie them together. Living in an urban environment, one if inevitably exposed to a rojak of sights in everyday life. My works try to capture such heterogeneity,” he explains.
Yeo, who merited the Silver Award of UOB Painting of the Year in 2016, is upbeat about the collaboration with Wong, pointing out that they are connected by their take on the everyday, as well as the use of street photography.
“We take separate paths in how we approach what we have in mind and in the final execution. To show together is then an opportunity for the paths to meet again. I am happy to show alongside George. I think our works look good together, and together express what I wish to express in art,” he says.
Wong’s stark black and white photography in this show was selected from an uncategorised folder spanning eight years of documentation. Drawn to places and events that embody elements of chance and destiny, the Johor-born photographer calls these photos part of his life recordings.
“These are significant experiences that have made me who I am. I want to show everyone my surroundings, which I hope some may find familiarity. Or maybe they conjure a feeling of absence. As everyone loves to say, ‘I know where you are coming from’. This is where I came from,” he says.
The photographs in this show are part of Familiar/Strange, a series of photographs that evoke in him an unsettling sense of familiarity when in unacquainted surroundings that bear a resemblance to his hometown of Segamat in Johor.
“The premise of this body of work is to capture places of scenes that conjure that familiar feeling. Perhaps it is in our nature to seek familiarity to provide a sense of security especially when in a foreign place. Or perhaps it is our subconscious at work, constantly reminding us of who we are,” ponders Wong, 39.
The photos chosen for this exhibition, though unassuming at first glance, hold a special place in his heart as they commemorate milestones in his life. He concurs that without a background story, they do look mundane – but isn’t it the mundane everyday realities that make us who we are. Is this the stuff that usually escape us?
“It is amazing to learn that Tze Yang shared my visions and the similar ways in which we see our surroundings. While our medium of presentation is different – painting versus photography – I think we are both voyeurs and keen observers of what is going on around us, and I hope everyone will take their time in enjoying the show,” he says.
As for his love of black and white, Wong muses that it might stem, at least partly, from the fact that he has protanopia, a kind of colour-blindness. When he was a kid, an art teachers taught him to visualise in the “exact colours” when painting or drawing.
“Perhaps it is a combination of these lessons and being protanopic that I tend to visualise scenes in black and white, before I step in to capture it. Visualising it monochromatically allows me to see details and structures of what I want to shoot,” he says.
On the other hand, Yeo’s framing of rural and urban scenes, and pensive figures, are inspired by the visual stylisations of cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Each painting here is like a movie scene where it cuts to silent for a few seconds, a respite from the busy soundtrack of life.
Dramatic? Somewhat. But this is when you can stop and stare.
What Yeo and Wong’s work seem to share is a world suspended in a moment where nothing else matters, if only for a while.
And tomorrow, come what may, we rinse and repeat.
Cheap Spirits is on at Our ArtProjects, Zhongshan Building, off Jalan Kampung Attap in Kuala Lumpur till June 9. Open Tuesday to Saturday (11am-7pm). Sunday by appointment, closed Monday. Visit ourartprojects.com for more information.