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Life After Decay by Kathleen Suraya Warden

Justin Lim’s latest artistic investigations shown in this exhibition of ten works, Arcane Fantasies for the Flesh and the Sublime, take the viewer into the woods to discover traces of the artist’s life and hints of his identity through a set of recurring symbols. The show marks the beginning of a new trajectory for Lim, who recently completed a residency hosted at Beijing’s Red Gate Gallery and is starting 2013 off with that achievement and this one, but it also has a reflective note in that much of the visual content and subject matter in the paintings comes from Lim’s entire body of work thus far. For Lim fans, this is a triumph of congruency and for those newly interested it is a very kind gesture by Lim indeed.

There is evidence of personal growth in many of the works as well. “It wasn’t really on purpose but there’s a sense of decay throughout this body of works. A lot of them [show] dead flowers, dead trees, dying birds…an accumulation of things that used to be alive.” Lim also sees none of the flowers as in bloom. “To me they’re all dying. It shows the life cycle and what happened to these things is just a fact of life. It also symbolizes how in order for something new to emerge, something has to go.”

Dead individually, the flowers, trees and birds, along with other items, maneuver to contribute to the forming of a new object when brought together by Lim: immortal iconic shapes of a skull and a heart, and instantly recognizable hunting prizes of animal head, carcass and hide. These six paintings are the Hunter Gatherer group.

“When I started painting this series I knew I wanted to create these ‘nests’ of icons and objects that I’ve used in past works… I think in order to understand where I come from as a painter, it’s important to look back at the older work before and then you can see the symbology that I’ve used… the meat comes up quite a lot, the skull comes up quite a lot, the flowers come up quite a lot and now I’m talking about decay and things that are withering and dying. The skull [Hunter Gatherer #1] is a pretty straightforward representation of that, it’s a good first piece [to look at] to see where I’m coming from.” The artist describes the painting, and particularly the figure contained within, as an upside-down ‘fall from grace’. Black Heart , meanwhile, is at once an icon and also a twisted version of it’s more anatomically accurate counterpart that makes up the third element in Trophies #1 next to a dead raven and a shriveled bouquet.

The remaining four works in the Hunter Gatherer group use hunted animal parts as the basis of their iconic shape.

Close inspection of Manimal reveals a level of attention to detail that encapsulates Lim’s main artistic strengths of skill and imagination in aspects such as the way in which the mohawk of an iguana can seamlessly make up the bristles along a boar’s head, while the corpse of a plump bird can become its jaw. This is no doubt where the power and excitement lie for the viewer. In Manimal Hide #1 and Manimal Hide #2 there is a storytelling, of entire worlds within a single (in this case two single) vignettes, the window of each being that well-known hunting trophy of man: the animal hide.

Manimal Hide #1 is a particular compositional standout that recalls the sublime tradition in landscape painting, and is made up of the essential foreground, horizon and sky in an almost colour-coded arrangement to set a dramatic, moody moment in which a raven perches on the antler of a freshly hunted deer. The raven is one particularly fun element for the viewer to spot throughout the series. She is seen again forming the left side of the Black Heart, and again as the animal’s head in Dear…, where the black gloss of feathers along with a tight twist of rope stain the painting with an air of violence.

This group of paintings is at once a step closer to depth for an artist whose visual style was much more immediate in previous work, and a retaining of the instantly recognizable style that bore that immediacy. These stay true to the artist but bring him along on a very interesting path. The keen viewer will see a tonal spectrum in the vein of Dutch 17th century still lifes, where game, fruit, flowers and cuts of meat were painted in extreme realism but rich, subdued colour to pictorially represent a notion of abundance. Here a similar range of objects is painted, but more in order to sort, understand and organize until something is revealed that can represent symbolically everything that it is comprised of within.

Lim is making most of any commentary on painting with a series of triptychs also on show, a group entitled Trophies, in a message towards the prizing of objects and a nod towards painting a series about collecting that will, in turn, be collected. As he explains, “the cage of trophies is a playful commentary on the painting itself being an object of desire [and] caging them up is kind of like [saying] ‘you are a slave to your own desire’.”

In the Trophies triptychs, the starkness each object floats against is a link to the style of every other work in the show, while also creating with clarity a key of symbols required by the viewer to navigate the troves of the six Hunter Gatherer paintings. These symbols all represent something in the artist’s life, past or present: “[This show] is not only about collecting objects or things but also about collecting memories and experiences and observations. [For example] Meat, to me, is a symbol of religious ideals, of rituals and rights.

The image of raw meat definitely speaks to me as a person, growing up in this part of the world where religion is so widely practiced and upheld.”

Created placing the items on canvas inside frames sealed with images of a cage silkscreened on plexiglass, the triptychs are partly a continuation of artistic technique and materials that appeared in Lim’s recent series of portraits of artists, Secret Identities, and partly referencing the containment of precious specimens, boxed individually, much like an enthusiast might store and display a unique butterfly or, if inclined, a dark spider. Lim’s chosen imagery and objects here however is less scientific than a straightforward appreciation of nature and on a more playful bend than the gathering of collectibles. In Trophies it nevertheless evokes romanticism and curiosity, with each object effectively spotlighted alone on center stage.

Both the Hunter Gatherer group and the Trophies series are connected with the exhibition’s title piece Arcane Fantasies for the Flesh and the Sublime. “That one was painted just before I went to Beijing. [The whole series] spawned from that first painting. I was just observing it and having a little introspective moment with my works and realized that ultimately at the end of the day they’re all kind of  personal visual diaries.

“After painting this work and putting these random imagery all over the place almost like a landscape scene of different people and objects, I realized that I was actually compiling these images and almost arranging it, like a botanist… so I thought it would be interesting to kind of put that into the sense of re-arranging it further into these iconic shapes. And that’s also when I came up with Trophies because that way I can show individual objects and one by one the different elements that make up the bigger ones.”

“I found myself to really be a gatherer… For example, I pulled that picture of the police beating up that guy from a news web portal and I’m painting a kind of collage of random images that I’ve been collecting all this while. That’s the vein of my painting. I’m collecting observations, images and appropriating them into the work. So I found myself to be in this role of collector as well”. By “as well”, Lim is acknowledging the multilayered meaning of the investigations behind this series, where it is known with full irony that each work in the show is also a coveted object of competing art buyers.

Lim’s artistic process, largely pertaining to collecting, highlights how Lim does not aim to convey a message and in that way does not paint for the audience at all. “I paint and make art for myself and what anyone takes out of it is really their own. I really don’t want to dictate how anyone should view it, but for me personally [these symbols are] easy entry-points to relate to, and to [use to] talk about other things.”

Playful content and reflections of Lim’s personal experiences as a young artist can easily be seen in his works. The influence of popular culture for example has long been evident Lim’s art. “The iconic skull, the Dali lobster telephone, these are just random, and I just like them as icons. It’s about creating these visual nests [investigating] what does hunting and gathering really mean today in a contemporary context [and] hopefully people take something [from them] but for me it was just fun to make these paintings.” This playful and distinct perspective can also bring to life references to Lim’s heritage and identity as a member of Malaysian society, which when they appear in his works are a bonus for the audience.

Justin is well known locally for a productive residency at the Rimbun Dahan compound in 2008. “With this show I’m revisiting the Rimbun Dahan times”. Indeed, stylistically, Arcane Fantasies for the Flesh and the Sublime ties in with the landscape layout and figurative grouping of Gods, Heroes & Myths (2008) fig.1, its figures with objects for heads link to the submarine-headed figure in Hantu Air (2008) fig.2 , Orang Minyak (2008) fig.3 and its hanging butchery was the subject matter of the triptych The Last Supper (2008) fig.4.

Similarly, imagery in the Trophies triptychs and Hunter Gatherer works, such as flowers and skulls, were seen previously in the Secret Identities series, such as in the floral tattoos on the extraordinary work We Want You (2010) fig.5 and a skull with a wig in the fast and fun Warhol inspired ‘portrait’ Pop is Dead (2010) fig.6.

“I think it’s important to depict that society influences to a certain extent how I am today… I think it’s hard to run away from politics and religion being in Malaysian society, so I’m just merely pointing out the obvious things. When I was in Rimbun Dahan [the reason] the whole idea of politics came into the picture was because when I moved out there, it was in the middle of the electorial campaign and the whole street was covered with political banners and slogans. I’m not a political artist, but my work sometimes touches on these subjects because you can’t really avoid it if it’s in your face all the time.”

“After Rimbun Dahan I painted the Secret Identities series, which were altered portraits of artists. Now, I’m coming back again to the flesh,the meat and symbology. I think the decay represents this sense of time passing and the end of a particular era perhaps.”

On a whole the current exhibition marks what the artist terms a possible “new start”, built off introspection and evolved audience expectation. Not only is the viewer delivered the execution of blended idea and design in these works, but with the artist’s investigation of what it means to collect new experiences they are also encouraged to look forward to Lim’s future, to the creative life that will inevitably emerge from here.

Kathleen Suraya Warden is an International Art Consultant, Independent Curator and Arts Writer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.