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Visual Arts

Insights: Guo-Liang Tan

Explorations in paintings as objects in space.


Published: 6 Sep 2023

Time taken : <5mins

Guo-Liang Tan elaborates on the conceptualisation process of A Folding Scene and his interest in this idea of 'painterly objects'.

Installation view of <em>A Folding Scene,</em> Guo-Liang Tan, 2023.

'A Folding Scene' continues your ongoing explorations with abstraction and delves further into the idea of paintings as objects existing in space. Could you share on this notion of 'painterly objects' and how this idea has continued to evolve in your works?

Painting's pictorial virtuality and its flatness, in contrast to its physicality as an object in space, is a tension that I have always been fascinated with. For me, the way paintings are installed and the surrounding environment are just as important as what we see on the painted surface. This interest is made more apparent in bodies of work since Ghost Screen (2017) due to the translucent fabric I have been working with that often invites the viewers to be aware of what is behind the painting, including its usually hidden wooden frame or support. Over time, the paintings came off the wall to inhabit what art historian David Summers calls 'real space' through various forms and formats, which might look like sculptures, furniture or installations. I think my desire to make paintings that can better converse with space and environment—these 'painterly objects'—is partially born out of my curatorial work that often allows me to create spatial relationships between images, objects and projection screens. In exhibitions I have curated, just as in my artistic practice, I enjoy forming lines of sight and bodily orientations that enable alternative (and perhaps more associative) readings or approaches.

Detail of <em>A Folding Scene,</em> Guo-Liang Tan, 2023.

I believe the term 'painterly objects' came up in my conversations with painter Ian Woo about his work for the Esplanade Tunnel in 2018, which was also about paintings navigating public space. I like the sense of ambiguity the term suggests about the status of paintings. Another artist friend commented that my recent works are like 'paintings pretending to be sculptures', which I also find amusing. These terms imply that painting is not a contained category but one open to transfiguration.

For these works, you also incorporated processes of folding and unfolding to create the details we see on the painted surfaces. What led you to work with this method? Could you also elaborate on the process of creating these works? 

I have always had a strong aversion towards the gestural as a direct mode of painterly expressions in my work. Instead, I try to find other processes that will help me produce marks and traces indirectly, for instance, using gradual stains, directional forces, and recently incorporating monoprints and resist techniques. In this case, I utilised the inherent memory of fabric by creating fold lines and creases, which later resurface through the layering and sedimentation of colour pigments. The results are these coloured surfaces, accentuated by textures and traces that function like residual images of the making process, turning the memory in the fabric into a kind of affective interface.

I am drawn to the various daily associations with the gesture of folding: laundry, origami, rituals and so on. These activities attune our attention to a slower sense of time and is something that painting can also do. This idea of thinking about painting alongside folding is, of course, not new. We can observe this in experimental forms of Chinese ink painting and in the works of painters like Simon Hantaï and Sam Gillian. What struck me about conversations around these various kinds of so-called process painting was the assumption of material authenticity. In my work, the painterly surface is eventually flattened out⁠—the actual folds and creases, which formed the lines and textures are visually 'erased'—creating a sense of illusionism. For me, this illusion is not a deception but a form of apparition and a way to heighten our awareness of invisible processes and material memory.

In creating this site-specific work, what are some details or characteristics of the space you responded to?

Installation view of <em>A Folding Scene,</em> Guo-Liang Tan, 2023.

From the beginning, I wanted a work that could offer something slightly distinct when viewed from different directions because the Esplanade Concourse is an open space that can be approached from all sides. Another consideration for me was the continuous slopes, steps and platforms that connect the lower and upper levels of the Esplanade Concourse.

These are functional details of the architecture that might otherwise go unnoticed but which I wanted to work in dialogue with as a significant backdrop for my work. In response, the shapes and folds on the surfaces of my work sometimes echo the natural grain of the wood and stone materials in the space, or the forms of the glass and metal structures around it. Just as importantly, the painterly objects took on these angular, yet soft and flowing forms, which I created by hanging the painted fabric from suspended frames specially made in a variety of four-sided shapes: a rectangle, a rhombus, a trapezium and a diamond kite. Hovering just above the undulating steps of the Esplanade Concourse, they echo the architectural lines of the space while adding to the sense of spatial rhythm.

Mindful of and energised by the ongoing daily performances that occur close in proximity of the Esplanade Concourse steps, I thought about the relation between form, repetition and scene in the making of the paintings and their spatial installation. I hope these painterly surfaces, which shift between image and object, will invite a visual and bodily perception of the Esplanade Concourse.

A Folding Scene by Guo-Liang Tan is on view at Esplanade Concourse from 26 May 2023 – 7 Jan 2024.

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