“For me, painting is interesting largely because it can hardly breathe under the weight of its own history.”
It was in 2011, when Ruben Pang was included in Singapore Show: Future Proof at the Singapore Art Museum which I co-curated with David Chew. His three paintings were executed on metal, scraped and scratched. This was the first time I spent extended periods with paintings by Ruben, enclosed in its own private space. And when I conduct tours and received VIP visitors, I shared the thinking behind its technique, including circumstantial backgrounds in relation to the young artist who was then still serving his mandatory National Service in the army. Subsequently, each time I encounter a work by Ruben, I ask myself if such paintings and artistic practice would hold its own against the discourse of contemporary art. This especially given the context of Southeast Asia where artworks embedded in the social and political still appear to carry the most currency. Besides, peers working the international field have impressed on me many times before how they believe that the practice of painting here are really posthumous derivatives and imitations of key movements and artists from the west. I believe that there are many truths in this supposition. On this, I have grieved the apparent lack of direct contact, and the seeding of dialogues and exchanges by senior local scholars and artists with their peers from that side of the world given that many of them had spent time receiving education, working and living in the west at the turn of the avant-garde.
Painting, as practice and material, faces continuous challenge in sitting alongside an increasingly conceptual, coded and often porous practices in contemporary art today. Ensuing the age-long argument on the ‘death of painting’ famously spurred by a 1935 critique by then Director of National Gallery, UK; ‘the end of painting’ in 1981 by Douglas Crimp and even much earlier in 1839 when in reaction to the daguerreotype, Paul Delaroche is quoted saying ‘from today, painting is dead’. Paraphrasing James Elkins, painting is the one medium in art cursed by the baggage of its own history. All ironies aside, this two-dimensional plane is still a format that has remained pertinent for artists and the art audience. In 2014 for example, the Museum of Modern Art, USA (MoMA) revisited the genre with an exhibition entitled Forever Now featuring the works of 17 American artists ‘whose paintings reflect a singular approach that characterizes our cultural moment at the beginning of this new millennium’.
Do paintings today still imitate and reflect reality, or more powerfully, perhaps successfully persuade us to introspect, framed by a perspective of the millennium?
To arbitrarily describe Ruben Pang as an abstract artist is limiting. Works of abstraction are habitually dismissed as being highly reliant on theories and a retort of conceptual strategies by preceding works chronicled in art history. Worse still, abstraction typically finds itself typecast as romanticised, poetic allegories, or conceited musings of the charlatan artist. There is a symbiotic steadiness between technique and psychosomatic resolve located in Ruben’s oeuvre. The artist navigates universes of the real, hyperreal and ethereal. Not all of these alternating travel is purely psychological or fantastical. Episodes like his residency in Brisbane, Australia where he developed newfound friendship with Pope Alice and journeys to the desert plains of Los Angeles, USA directly inform his thought processes and contribute to the development of his subject matter. Ruben also extracts references of spirituality, the closest of which comes from the presence of his father who was trained in art but found calling as a medium, healing patients afflicted by unwelcomed entities.
My short stint at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, working amongst young, emerging and established contemporary artists of the world have at times, allowed me to relook the objectivity and relevance of painting as practice today, contemplating where and how offerings by contemporary Southeast Asian artists stand amidst the cacophony. In 2016, before I left Palais de Tokyo, I was fortunate enough to co-curate a major body of newly completed paintings by the emerging French Quistrebert brothers. Consisting of various large and small expressionistic pieces quickly executed with ‘low-brow’ materials such as burlap, auto-paints, glitter powder, LED lights and wall plaster, these paintings were mounted onto rotating metal poles that span the height of the 8 meters or so ceiling. Collectively, they look like meat on satay skewers, and manifest both paintings and sculptural installations.
At the press conference of Panorama at Tate Modern in 2011, Gerhard Richter was solicited for his view on ‘the future of painting’. Richter replied that the simultaneous connection and disconnection to the art historical led him to constantly question painting as a medium and practice. And although he is seen to have been consistent in pushing boundaries, he iterated that the task is now up for future generations of painters to engage.
Describing part of his visual vocabulary as ‘movements’, Ruben approaches painting often similar to the musical dimension. Advanced technicalities and trained sensibilities of colours, textures, light and composition and a mastery of materials built over the years engulf his stratosphere. The artist builds, scrapes, erases and builds again; adding and subtracting on substrates such as aluminium, canvas and wood. With quick successive parts, each piece is executed and constructed over an indeterminate period until resolution is achieved. Each is premeditated by a string of notes and drawings, mnemonic memories of past executions, and an overlay of allegorical contemplations.
Both Ruben Pang and the Quistrebert brothers may not share similar aesthetics or use of materials but they do share numerous commonalities in thought and practice. While the Quistreberts look to non-conventional choices in the application and presentation of materials, they too seek alchemic resolutions to manifest their otherwise philosophical contemplations. Like Ruben who revisit the ‘ghosts’ of artists such as Peter Paul Rubens (b. 1577), John Martin (b. 1789), Francis Bacon (b. 1909), David Reed (b. 1946) and Glenn Brown (b. 1966), so did the Quistreberts with Kazimir Malevich (b. 1878), Pablo Picasso (b. 1881), Hans Richter (b. 1888), Oskar Fischinger (b. 1900) and Nicolas De Staël (b. 1914). Both artists examine, respond and borrow technical lessons demonstrated by these heroic ancestors of painting. To go further, they dissect beyond the technical to investigate and appropriate conceptual and perceptual strategies to inherit a mastery in casting near hypnotic spells onto the viewer. Beyond spiritual realm, both artists trace fragments of the occult and share a mutual passion for the musical, specifically, ‘metal’ music and its trappings. Most of all, by deepening their visual syntax, the artists remain persistent in their solicitation of painting within the veiled soul of our millennium.
The Body (Triptych) (2017)
Oil, alkyd and synthetic varnish on aluminum composite panel
200 x 424 cm
Left and Right Panels: 200 x 137 cm each
Center Panel: 200 x 150 cm
Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary
Much of what Ruben presents are embedded in metaphor and allegories that continues on its own passage, and offer separate ones for the artist and his audience. Metaphors consents imagination to prosper as they are not necessarily embedded in scholastic histories or theories. The provision of open access is key to communication between artworks and its audience. When Yves Klein leaped into the void in 1960, it was the simple yet universal quality of a frozen moment within a photograph that spoke. In contrast is Klein, dressed in a suit, hurtled mid-flight off the roof of a two-storey suburban building, juxtaposed against the quiet street foregrounding a lone figure cycling away in a distance. This black and white photograph is at once real and abstract; real in its pictorial logic yet abstract to reasoning. Achieved as a result of careful technical planning and execution with his collaborators, photographers Harry Shunk and János Kender, political struggle, theological overtones and indications of social strife are absent here, replaced by a mystery of an untold action and consequence.
On every encounter, the ahistorical image instantaneously liberates and catches its viewer within the present moment. As demonstrated by the work of artists referenced in this essay, it takes deep ingenuity to preserve an unbroken attention through time and to be able to continually expand room for conversation via visual opus alone. In the past year, Ruben have trekked back and forth, revisiting past, youthful ventures while homing in to polish them with newfound articulation and strategies. In and out of the studio, Ruben creates to sustain and find equilibrium with ‘mana’, the invisible force within. His paintings manifest themselves akin amulets that reflect, empowers and protect; and like of other artists, these creations remain futile if kept isolated from public dialogue. Layers of colours, transparency, form, lines and energies emanating from his paintings blur the abstract from the figurative. They dispense a certain familiarity and alien awe, teasing our inner and humanistic spirit beyond systemic language and routine.
Khai Hori - Nov 2017
 Why Nothing Can Be Accomplished in Painting, And Why It is Important to Keep Trying, James Elkins, Circa, No. 109 (Autumn, 2004), pp. 38-41
 The Future of Painting, Kenneth Clark, Listener, 2 October 1935
 The End of Painting, October, Vol. 16, Art World Follies (Spring 1981), pp. 69-86
Slow Burn (2017)
Oil, alkyd, acrylic and synthetic varnish on wood panel
40.5 x 50.8 cm
Image courtesy of Chan + Hori Contemporary