Baik Art proudly presents a new exhibition,
entitled Johor Strait
at ADC Bergamot Station, in Santa Monica, CA.
Johor Strait will be on view from February 1- 15, 2014, with an opening reception on February 1 at 6pm.


JOHOR STRAIT: Three Artists from Malaysia and Singapore

By Peter Frank
The Straits of Johor separate the island-state of Singapore, where Milenko Prvacki lives, from the Malay Peninsula, the mainland-Asia portion of the federal constitutional monarchy of Malaysia and home to Ahmad Zakii Anwar and Kow Leong Kiang. The region is rich in history, a history that includes European colonization, ethnic conflict, and political friction. But the region’s true riches lie in the economic “miracle” both countries have sustained since their independence from Great Britain a half-century ago – and in the cultural diversity an ethnically eclectic population affords Malaysia and Singapore alike. Both sovereign states sustain (with considerable help from both government and private sectors) active contemporary art scenes.
Like those in the neighboring countries of South Asia, the art scenes of Singapore and Malaysia figure little in current international artistic discourse – understandably, given their relatively recent arrival in that discourse, but unfairly, given the quality and substance of actual artistic practice on either side of the Straits. This exhibition features only three artists, a pair from the larger country and a single painter from the smaller; but the sophistication, imagination, and skill readily apparent in the work here attest not simply to the gifts of these individual artists but the substance of the art worlds that host them.
All three are veterans, influential figures at home and recognized talents abroad. Their painting answers to and sustains artistic practice associated primarily with Western modernism, whether naturalism, surrealism, or abstraction, and there is little to identify it, in style or subject, with its region. But the fact that all three painters work distinctively, producing work that emphasizes personal vision and distances itself from international trend and local fashion alike, attests to cultural conditions that nurture invention and self-expression.
As it happens, the two Malaysian artists practice forms of representation, while the Singaporean works abstractly. Also as it happens, the latter is an émigré to Singapore, while his mainland counterparts are native to Malaysia. This may matter to their countrymen, and even to us, as a matter of curiosity; but it does not matter to the painters themselves. Typical of today’s artists, they do not identify themselves by their passports, but by their painting – and, as painters and as artists, they identify with rather than distance themselves from one another.
Ahmad Zakii Anwar is well known for his depictions of the figure, ambitious in their scale, their technical virtuosity, and their emotional monumentality. But he first came to prominence with his clever but oddly moving still lifes, often improbable arrangements of a very few elements set in the atmospheric silence of otherwise empty rooms. In the work presented here Zakii returns to this earlier interest, now reducing both contrast of color and shape among the elements and the witty balancing acts they once performed. The relationships between stoneware and organic entities, between flowers and vases, fruit and plate, now have a more formal purity, asserting rather than contradicting the austerity of his gracefully realized contours and hushed tonal palette. Zakii honors and maintains Western and Eastern still life traditions alike with this restrained, meditative approach.
Where Zakii has put aside the figure, his countryman Kow Leong Kiang continues his own exploration of this most loaded of subjects, loading it further with the primal tensions the flesh is heir to. Kow’s tightly intermeshed tumbles of nude figures would imply sexual encounter even despite the relative discretion of their strategically torqued torsi. But the gestures most evident among these tossing, roiling people are ones of strife, exhaustion, panic, and general confusion. Kow concerns himself not with human appetites but human pathos, with the emotional as well as physical vulnerability of our species. These paintings are more revealing than they first appear.
Working on the other side of the Straits of Johor, Milenko Prvacki also would seem to be working on the other side of the classic representational-abstract divide from Zakii and Kow. But these days that divide seems even narrower than does the gap between Malaysia and Singapore. Furthermore, Prvacki’s expansive and elaborate paintings strongly suggest “real” things, namely maps and topographies – imaginary places, to be sure, but provocatively familiar, as image and as code, to anyone who has flown over city and country or has even Googled a location. Many of Prvacki’s works conjure other, perhaps more linguistic or mathematical forms of notation. The Serbian-born painter is not encrypting meanings into his marks. There are no meanings, but there is meaning: coherent and suggestive design drives Prvacki’s art, and the resonance of his work comes from its recognizable if not readable idioms.
This presentation of work by this trio of artists from the other side of the globe only scratches the surface of what those three, much less the art scenes in which they work, have accomplished. By any contemporary standard, Prvacki, Kow, and Zakii participate confidently in an international artistic context, accounting well for both themselves and their neighborhood.