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Interview with the Artist by Haffendi Anuar

Modern Absurdity and the Superficial Abyss, consisting of predominantly textured paintings painted entirely in black and portraits of eyes explores the idea of illumination in art and painting that plays on the notion of truth-seeking within an illusionary space. The works indicate an evident departure in relation to his previous series in terms of color usage and presentation methods while still retaining his unique and vocabulary of images and symbolism. The works are both personal and exploratory in nature; documenting the 32 year-old artists’ friends, lifestyle and interests such as his past involvement in the local underground music scene as a performer and audience, and his interests in urban subcultures while investigating the potential of the painted surface.

Individually and as a collection, the paintings have directed Justin’s attention into the realm of discreet and elusive images and a territory devoid of colors, while focusing on the sensitivities of experiencing a painting in a ‘staged’ exhibition space. This body of work as stated by theartist takes advantage of various allegories to create visual narratives that document his perceptions and experiences through his art practice. Justin informs that as an artist, he is constantly in a state of flux, digesting and questioning the relevance of art and its role in a contemporary context.

Interview with Justin Lim. August 2015.

Looking at Justin Lim’s previous solo exhibition “Arcane Fantasies for the Flesh and the Sublime” held at Richard Koh Fine Art, Kuala Lumpur in 2013, the artworks in his upcoming solo show “Modern Absurdity and the Superficial Abyss” indicates an evident departure for the artist in terms of colour usage and presentation methods while still retaining his unique and personal vocabulary of images and symbolism.

This new body of work is both personal and exploratory in nature; they document the 32 year-old artist’s friends, lifestyle and interests such as his past involvement in the local underground music scene as a performer and audience, and his interests in urban-subcultures while investigating the potential of the painted surface. Individually and as a collection, the paintings have directed Justin’s attention into the realm of discreet and elusive images and a territory devoid of colors, while focusing on the sensitiveness of experiencing a painting in a ‘staged’ exhibition space. What is also significant is the usage of figuration, which at times appears abstract due to their precarious legibility and the black that veil the textured images, unifying the disparate surreal images. A few weeks before the public opening of Modern Absurdity and the Superficial Abyss, I had the great opportunity of exchanging ideas and thoughts with Justin.

Justin Lim, The Wall (2006), Synthetic polymer paint on canvas, 65 x 65 cm (each, triptych), Installation view, Modern Love – Lasalle 30th Anniversary, Institute of Contemporary Art, Singapore, 2014.

Haffendi Anuar: We can start off by looking at the black paintings, which seem to retain your usual imageries but with their colours purged; what is the reason behind this significant gesture?

Justin Lim: Previously, my works have always had colour and I considered myself a colourist back at art school in Singapore. My early paintings such as The wall (2005-06) series dealt a lot with repetition, uniformity and the materiality of paint. It was very much about process rather than narrative. I moved back to Malaysia in 2008, during the 13th general elections campaigns. I remember coming home to a sea of colourful political posters and banners, which made me re-evaluate my concerns with painting. The works I made during that period while at the Rimbun Dahan residency were very much a reflection of that experience, disconnecting from a suburban existence to a more rural environment and using local folklore to create contemporary narratives. I carried on with this concern for several years and colour was always evident because it is very much part of our lives as Malaysians. Today, I feel like confronting painting and its illusive qualities. By doing so, I start to question the role

of colour as being illusive as well. Perhaps this purging of colour has helped me make sense of the meaning of colour in the construct of the Malaysian psyche. I don’t want to be limited by colour, in fact I don’t want to be limited by anything at all but I am not sure if that is entirely possible.

Justin Lim, Hantu Tetek (2008), Acrylic on canvas, 183 x 152 cm, Painted at Rimbun Dahan Residency

Haffendi: The textured black paintings have a strange presence when installed. Why is the color black (a non-color labeled by the Impressionists) significant in this body of work?

Justin: Throughout history, black has been associated with death, mourning, the occult, evil, elegance, anarchism and fashion. It is the darkest color where everything culminates and transcends, hence the notion of the abyss. The attitude of black speaks to me, in a sense that it is a non-color yet so important in the spectrum of colors, it exists where there is a complete absorption or absence of light. The significance of black is that it is an illusion as much as painting is an illusion.

Haffendi: Would you say that the blacks in your paintings are personified and could be a protagonist or an environment?

Justin: Yes, it is a little bit of both as the blacks permeate its way throughout the body of work and sets the stage for the narrative to take place. It encapsulates and governs the environment, so while it is not seen as a character, its presence is so distinctive and encompassing that it actually becomes one. It is somewhat a phantom character.

Haffendi: In ‘Choromophobia’ by David Batchelor, the artist has stated that in an example of Robert Ryman’s work, in which Ryman’s white remains a material quality and that they are his ‘colours’ thus do not involve or imply the suppression of colour. Are the blacks in your case the same?

Justin: White is neutral and has a tendency to make things visible. There are no narratives or symbolism in Ryman’s paintings as they are about the structure of painting and materiality. To me, Ryman’s works were very factual and revelations come through the material rather than the colour. The blacks in my case are within a framework of narrative and make-believe. They are meant to be allegorical.

Haffendi: Do you think colour is important in art or artworks?

Justin: Yes and it will always remain important as long as humans can perceive light.

Haffendi: Also do you think certain colours or certain chromatic compositions imply a specific identity? Local? Or regional?

I think colour can be an entry point towards specific cultural identities. Take our cultural festivities for example, which are identifiable by their respective colours. I am not sure if colour itself has played a critical role thus far in implying a specific identity in Malaysian art. The late 50’s and 60’s played a significant role in Malaysian art because the art made in that period were primarily influenced by Western art movements as a result of artists who had travelled and educated abroad and returned. Our country is still so young and our modern art history still in its infancy. I too was drawn and exposed to Western culture and pop sensibilities in my youth during the 90’s but the introduction of the Internet furthered and amplified my interests. These influences and a cultural mash up of East meets West is what makes me question the notion of identity and existence in relation to my life in Malaysia. It is strange because I think about colour much more today yet I am now making monochromatic black paintings and abandoning my old ideals of painting. Today, I think the Internet serves as the catalyst towards a specific Malaysian identity much more than colour because colour has always been around.

Justin Lim, I Was Looking Back to See if You Were Looking Back at Me to See Me Looking Back at You (2015), Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 18 cm (each, 30 pieces)

Haffendi: The piece I Was Looking Back to See if You Were Looking Back at Me to See Me Looking Back at You (2015) is an interesting format for a painting and an interesting component to this series as they are painted somewhat realistically approached (in color) in a drastically different manner than the black paintings; are they about looking or being looked at?

Justin: It is about both looking and being looked at. I borrowed the title off a line from Massive Attack’s ‘Safe From Harm’ (1991) and thought it was appropriate as it plays with the notion that the painting is also looking back at you. I simply wanted to create direct tension between the viewer and the painting, because it is through this reaction that brings forth the illusive nature of the work. As part of the installation of the exhibition, they are placed throughout the space as though the audience and the paintings are being watched.

Haffendi: Do you consider the piece as a group of portraits? And to whom do the eyes belong to?

Justin: Yes, the piece functions as a group of portraits. They are eyes of my dear friends who have met and witnessed me throughout the making of this exhibition.

Haffendi: There is a sense of ‘materialness’ to these works, the textured surfaces along with specific lighting conditions aid with deciphering the painted images; is this a commentary on painting or on how we experience art in galleries?

Justin: The power of ‘space’ is fascinating to me, in architecture, in music, in art. I’m always sensitive to space and how it plays a huge role in how things are created and experienced. I moved studios quite a bit in the past few years and observed how the space and locations played an influential role in how I approached painting, both practically and methodologically. The studio I worked in while making these works had these built-in spot lights and I had never worked in a studio with spot lights, usually there were fluorescent tubes or natural light which made for very even lighting. When I started making these paintings, I realized that the black would change its form and my subject would disappear in the day and emerge at night once the spotlights were turned on. The spotlights in combination with the monochrome created this illusion and the paintings visually fluctuate under different lighting conditions; images that were not there during the day would later emerge very clearly at night. I kept adding pigment to it, which created an impasto effect to define the subject matter clearer for me to observe. The ‘materialness’ as you say is a result of a very practical problem. It is a commentary on both painting and the space it is exhibited in. Both play a role in how the work is perceived and experienced.

Justin Lim, We Want You!, Acrylic on canvas, 61 x 54 cm (each, 9 pieces)

Haffendi: What is the significane of the chosen images in S.O.S (2015) and their juxtaposition to each other? They range from a well-known artwork to images that have appeared in your previous work such as flower bouquets and pierced hearts?

Justin: I try not to intellectualize the chosen images but I use them for the attitude each image brings to the set. The S.O.S series is an ongoing visual dictionary to document images I correspond to that enable me to analyze my psyche and mode of being. Juxtaposing these images and objects creates this dialogue between symbols and persona, culture and ignorance, the sacred and profane. They collude and collide to cancel out each other and yet complement one another simultaneously.

In my teenage years, my life was filled with a lot of loud music and the art that came along with it. Looking back, the first ‘real’ artists I was exposed to were Mike Kelley, Raymond Pettibon and Gerhard Richter, because I was a huge fan of the band Sonic Youth and had proceeded to find out as much as I could about the art that had graced their record covers. In retrospect, I found myself to be attracted to the attitude and aesthetics that was conveyed through their music and the art. To this day, they all remain a great influence in the way I perceive and make art.

I remember reading an interview where Pettibon says that the repetitive image was born again for the first time every time he uses it. That really striked a chord in me to understand this process of using and compiling imagery. A lot of the recurring imagery in

Pettibon’s works such as Charles Manson, Va-voom or even Superman is engrained in the psyche of the artist. An artist is as much a collector as well in that sense and I could relate to that.

Justin Lim, Riot #1 (2015), Oil and acrylic on canvas, 203 x 203 cm

Haffendi: The larger works Riot #1 (2015) and Riot #2 (2015) depict indistinct interiors filled with human beings; they seem like chaotic environments. Could you elaborate on them?

Justin: From the uncertainty of the social and political situation in the country to the rallies held in the city today and in recent years, I thought the imagery would make a good juxtaposition between subject and context. This is a very important and pivotal time for our country and I want this exhibition to document the notion of that importance. I have never seen myself as a political artist but my work is definitely influenced by it. I was also drawn to the image of a mosh pit. Based on my past experiences performing at underground gigs with various bands, I thought the imagery of a mosh pit seemed beautiful. Mosh pits can seem violent but instead it is a celebration of freedom and youthful energy with chaos as its ally. It is also fascinating that the word ‘violent’ can be used to describe a painting. Certain colours can be used to depict or portray ‘violence’ and yet there is none except in the mind of the viewer perceiving it.

Haffendi: Where would you situate your practice in the larger context of Malaysian art? Do you think your work creates dialogues with the work being produced now and before?

Justin: It would be very difficult for me to comment on where my practice would fit into and I would not want to limit where I would like to situate my practice. I was born in 1983 and grew up in the 90’s in suburban Damansara Utama, so my childhood existence is very much embedded in a young and modern suburbia. My psyche stems from the result of an early appreciation of popular culture, Western subcultures, Malaysian sensibilities and contemporary Western art. Being part of the generation of young Malaysians that had the Internet introduced into our lives during our formative years, it is this transition from the analogue to the digital age that would make an interesting entry point to discuss work being produced now and before. I think I will always be concerned with painting, but again, I do not want to be limited by it.

Haffendi: To conclude, what are you working on next?

Justin: I am constantly working but more importantly, I am constantly working to not paint myself into a box. At the moment, I am currently working on a series of sculptures to correspond to the black paintings. My works are continually evolving as I am and they document my mode of being at that particular time. My first love will always be painting but I would like to explore other media as the medium itself will give me insight into further possibilities. In the future, I would like to explore the co-relation between art and architecture. It is a never-ending work in process and progress, it would be premature to say what conclusion or resolution I hope will arrive from it. At the end of the day, these artworks are my visual documentation and a diary of my perceptions but the art happens in the chaos of my mind.