Hidden Meanings

18 June 2013 - 12:00am

Artists Kok Yew Puah (1947 – 1999) and Samsudin Wahab, 29, commonly feature an element of theatricality in their works. Puah and Buden (as Samsudin is popularly known) combine external aesthetics with painting to communicate hidden meanings.

Often, motifs such as the camera, viewfinder, colour checker or viewfinder grid appear in Kok’s work. It is a conscious way of framing his subject such as in Camera View of Two Tourists in a Malaysian Town (1995). Rather than presenting the artifice of a carefully composed image, Puah’s works are deliberate constructed paintings about composing a scene. The idea is playful, especially in works like Self Portrait in Deep Thought (1993) which depict humour. The viewfinder grid maps the upper half of Puah’s face in this oversized portrait, designed like a film strip. Wearing sunglasses, his giant face stares blankly into the lens, which to us is the outward part of the canvas. The painting has no pretensions of visual depth, especially since it aspires to be a sort of photograph in the making. And it contrasts with his supposed internal state. Rather like a pre-Instagram self-snapshot, Puah seems rather ahead of his time.

Puah’s work tackled more pressing issues. In Masks and the Modern Man (1993), he employs the mask, the symbol of Greek theatre, to demonstrate the shifting dynamics of an increasingly urbanized society. A Volkswagen beetle is contrasted with a wayang, the Western suit of the middle figure is juxtaposed to the shirtless men flanking him. All three men are masked. It seems to question how tradition is affected in light of modernization. There is a sense of reconciliation of tradition with new forms in Puah’s work, drawing from the medium of photography as he does.

Puah shows us how the medium of paint can be successfully divorced from painterly principles. Buden’s work follows suit. His paintings reflect the influence of graphic design and comic culture in his thought process. The overall effect of his work appears two-dimensional, seeming more like pictures or advertisements to be found in old Westerns or carnival culture. Furthermore, his works do not seem to adhere to any serious colour theory. He has a recurring palette of extremely dark colours – black tones and dirty-looking creams – that seems to advance the conviction of the vintage tropes he uses.

Buden also, on occasion, paints over the frames of his painting, such as in The Old Gun Man and The Money Juggler (both 2009). When convention dictates that canvases are to be framed, Buden dissociates the work as a painting by blurring painting and object. By painting on the ornate frames, his work acquires a visual depth that his style does not allow for. As such, ideas and political satire are the main focus of his work. Buden won the Malaysian Emerging Artists award in the same year these ‘paintings’ were made.

Of all the “young” artists on the radar of discerning collectors, Buden, 29, is perhaps the most promising and daring. His innate sense of public outrage at socio-political issues reflected in his artwork of absurd circus-like scenes such as in  See For Nothing (2008) speaks volumes of his commitment to speaking out for the voiceless.

Both Buden and Puah created a distinct style through mobilising the element of artifice in their works. The shared sense of spectacle and looking, and being looked at, is evident in both their works. At the same time, neither of them plainly accept this state of being, rather they take it to epic proportions and push the boundaries of painting.