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Issarezal Ismail, Chief de mission, 2010, Hasanul Isyraf Idris, Aku Dan Kamu,

aerosol on found poster, 35cm x 55cm. Ahmad Salahuddin, Hz Skateboards commissions, 2010 2009, 9ft 6in x 4ft 9in.
9in
Beast meets Beauty
by Suraya Warden

This exhibition is confirms an inevitable direction young Malaysian contemporary art – painting in

particular - is branching off in, through which upcoming generations of audiences are bound to enjoy

themselves, and new adventurous collectors are bound to be born. Malay boys (well, they are young

men now) of the age group of Hasanul Isryaf Idris, Ahmad ‘Hudd’ Salahuddin, and Issarezal Ismail like

comic book type visuals of sex, violence and hardcore rebellion. They like street and skateboard culture,

not the clean, snowboarding in baggy pants while listening to Kanye variety, but the dirty variety; they

like tattoos, guns, pinups, skulls, monsters, blood and guts, roses and thorns, all rendered as cartoon -

they like visuals that many consider to be in poor taste. Of course this is a generalized notion and this

text is slightly trying to provoke, but it is certainly true that here, more than abroad, if you show a young

male artist some busy Lowbrow art, which is all about such imagery and more, they will go mental for it.

And suddenly it clicks why, apart from the two evils lack of exposure and lack of education, some of the

general public shy away from the idea of ‘art’: because a lot of mainstream art is simply not to local

taste.

These young contemporary artists in Malaysia, of a generation influenced by a movement that really

began to grow wings in the mid-nineties, are creating art from those foundations and now, in the case of

Sikat Sembur, forming the first Malaysian artist group to openly declare their common ground to be an

interest in Lowbrow (also, more appropriately, termed Newbrow). These artists and many of their

friends and collectors are part of the worldwide fanclub of artist Robert Williams and co., in which

Williams is treated like a god for the things, not always accurate but that doesn’t matter, that come out
of his mouth about life, art and in particular public perception of his art. And, like many of their

counterparts elsewhere in the world, these artists have been followers of the movement since their

school days, when they would pass around issues of M.A.D and Juxtapoz, and pin the magazines’ free

hand-drawn posters on bedroom walls and indie music stickers on notebooks.

Malaysian youth also of that era has its own unique culture that is very strong. These artists are now

blending what they know with underground influences they love, with an end result along the lines of

beauty meets beast (or vice-versa) and the works on exhibition in Ringan-Ringan. They are producing

new Malaysian contemporary art that has the unmistakable visual influence of the American and

sometimes European street cultures, yet each series of works thankfully contains a Malaysian thematic

and stylistic identity dependent on the individual that created it. This is a direction that Malaysian

contemporary art will go in – has indeed already headed in – in varying degrees. Some artists may

evolve to directly join the international Newbrow scene – Justin Lim seems to be going that way. Others

shown in Kuala Lumpur have a distinct style that keeps them on the outskirts as incredible stand-alone

talents; Indonesia’s Hendra HeHe Harsono for one, and Samsuddin Wahab another, who are true artists

in the highbrow sense despite an obvious low-culture influence to their work. Similarly, the artists of

Sikat Sembur all employ stenciling and pop-culture elements and, most importantly, all harbour

Newbrow-esque attitudes and interests, bringing about this timely exhibition.

This hybrid style will no doubt both supply and create demand. Here where there are strong feelings of

intimidation and apathy towards art, especially abstract art, illustrative paintings where ‘a lot’ of work

can be ‘seen’ to have gone into the art are raved about. In general the Malaysian public appreciates art

based on whether they think they could physically have produced it themselves – a huge error but

common nonetheless, which explains away a lot of the local disdain towards abstract art. When obvious
meaning in works is visually sparse, sadly so is a lot of the Malaysian audience, in relative quantities.

Asking around the audience at Annexe gallery earlier this year, it seemed famous local artist Yoong

Chia’s story-packed canvases were a huge hit largely for this reason. As with any other excuse to enjoy

art, this is certainly valid, and the Newbrow influence brings a lot of tangible activity to the local

contemporary art canvas through characteristically familiar, realist elements.

In addition, the street culture influence broadens opportunities for artist exposure as much of its

momentum is due to underlying commercialism. Before it was an art movement and even now that it is,

Newbrow art decorated graphic design, advertising and customization of US pop culture-trickled items

such as skateboards, sneakers, soda cans and more all over the world. Newbrow influenced artists can

exhibit not only in galleries, but also on the street, at flea markets, in comic books, at indie art and craft

fairs, in tattoo art and more. To the luxury goods endeavours of Takashi Murakami (missing is the dirty

street culture, but present is the hype-marketing sensibility) this is the playboy little brother. The result

is an energetic, mass-culture type popularity awarded to artists whose work can be made instantly

recognizable thanks to practiced exposure and product sales. It is a win-win situation of course, because

there are very few who would not appreciate an everyday item branded unique by a real local talent.

Ahmad ‘Hudd’ Salahuddin, whose primary interests are mural and graffiti stencil art, is the first of Sikat

Sembur to depart from mainstream painting and sculpture, creating the commissions Shadowplay and

SorongSarong for decks by local skateboard brand HZ. Ahmad’s wayang kulit character paintings offer

immediate local flavour but with a punk influence, as in Bau macam Semangat Mahu feat. Upah & Ikut

in this exhibition. The Newbrow influence is especially apparent in the psychedelic rainbow of The

Passive Fire, and bill-poster-style idealism of the Ilmu… series of works. Others such as Case of the Seven

Dreamers betray intense sensitivity to words and a quiet respect for the field of painting. Nothing is
lost, and much is gained, as the artist is able to use the rebellious language of Newbrow techniques in

combination with the beauty of remaining loyal to Malay themes, to simultaneously embrace and

dispute his personal situation.

Issarezal Ismail, whose recent solo show of paintings at ZINC art space eloquently discussed Indonesia-

Malaysia relations, shows eleven new works at Ringan-Ringan. His contribution is the most glaringly,

sometimes desparately, intellectual of the artist group (which is balanced just nicely in terms of

strengths). Issa recently gained a strong following for beautiful, considered and simple paintings, and it

seemed exciting that through Sikat Sembur he might lead the way in proving that the seemingly violent

underground culture has heart. But for Ringan-Ringan he has created a new series that is a departure

from previous efforts. In these works the teacher becomes the class clown. The immediacy of stencil

graffiti, with its announcement and propaganda style, was prevalent in Issa’s previous work. Here, it is a

visual code suggesting membership to a cloaked community, where acting-up is paramount. The series

of subjects - pop and art iconic imagery - is approached in a temporary manner that declares these the

beginning of any number of possible explorations by Issa under the Sikat Sembur brand.

In this exhibition, the brilliant Hasanul Isryaf Idris (with skills largely undervalued due to the artist’s

frustrating humility!) shows seven paintings themed on memories of relationships and intimacy.

Hasanul’s body of work is the most obviously Newbrow of the Sikat Sembur group, his paintings full of

pop-matte colours and comic book character tendencies, his sculptures animating cars into monsters

loosely in the tradition of the Lowbrow expression of 50s Hot-Rod culture. The seven Ringan-Ringan

paintings are more passively illustrative in style, evoking storybook and fairytale atmospheres through

graphic ‘scapes. With this series one calls to mind seventies record covers, Yellow Submarine, retro

animation (all the one mood really) and, in the washed out reds and blues of Tengah Malam, Hilfiger
denim and Americana – the connection with Newbrow and with the rest of Hasanul’s works is palpable.

Currently working from London, UK, Hasanul is picking up exposure and experience which, considering a

potential blending with the filters of his mind and artistic skills, make him a very special element in

contemporary Malaysian art today.

Curiously, Newbrow art is a movement built almost entirely on secondary influence, where Robert

Williams and a few peers are the only ones who actually experienced the primary sources and turned

those experiences into art, and the rest is the continuation of a bad-ass attitude and the fun that goes

with. Williams and his peers are venerated for fathering the trends, for fostering a bad attitude towards

high society and continuing on characteristics of subcultures such as punk that kept them alive and

rebellious, whereas in high art it was and still is more commonly individual paintings that are talked

about and awed. “I got an enormous amount of criticism; feminists were on me all the time.... It was

just devil may care vulgarity [and] I just don’t see that anymore. We've moved into a place now where

young people are sensitive, caring, whiney…” Williams has said.+ In Ringan-Ringan we see paintings by

artists who have not forgotten Williams’ influence, and indeed do not want to create without it.

The positive side of this is the often termed ‘sandbox’ supportive atmosphere of Newbrow creativity,

and the possibility that artists will applaud each others’ efforts no matter what imagery they choose and

where they choose to place it.

Another positive is the role that idols of the scene, such as guerilla marketing god Shepard Fairey play

when they spill out quotes such as he did discussing the origins of his Obey campaign,

I stumbled onto the theory by Martin Heidegger of Phenomenology, which was the concept of

reawakening a sense of wonder about one’s environment… and I thought well what I’m doing

sort of falls under Phenomenology, and I also was a huge Sex Pistols fan and discovered
Situationism when I was discovering Phenomenology and discovered that Malcolm McLaren -

who is someone else who has inspired me a lot - was a really big fan of Situationism and [so

was] Jamie Reid the graphic artist for the Sex Pistols - who I’m a big fan of also…. so things that I

had completely different reference points for were actually somewhat tied together.^

With more local artists openly discussing that long a trail of interests per sentence, or per artwork, this

scene could become a much more significant, vibrant, and exciting place. Inspiration is of course

particular to each artist and local discoveries certainly need not even be similar to those of any

successful ‘underground’ artist. The point is the passion, the digestion, the need and ability to spit it out

in art, and - with the admitted Newbrow influence on display in Ringan-Ringan – perhaps a ‘do and say

anything’ atmosphere. The unique obsessions of artists, as long as they are true obsessions, are what

keep art worlds buzzing.

A negative is that those who don’t find Robert Williams’, “tits n ass and open wounds, and you know

Hot Rods and pirates and flying saucers and people tearing the others' heads off and spitting down their

tracheas…”+ beautiful or cool, become by default elitist, conservative, no fun, highbrow. This ‘all-

inclusive’ culture does not, in fact, include all. And by that definition it is its own movement, one with

power, direction and influence, which will ride the wave of the praise and criticism it triggers. Of course,

it is a movement also because it has lasted so long, is instantly recognizable (despite generous

boundaries), and was originally a reaction to mainstream art. What if, following the trail of these more

approachable, interestingly rebellious works, new audiences look up and find themselves having crossed

over from pop-culture to mainstream art, only to realize it is not that intimidating after all. Ringan-

Ringan not only previews what is to come, but also provides an opportunity for many in Malaysia to

tread new ground.


+
video interview available at www.sunsetstrip.com
^
Guggenheim museum interview, New York City, May 2, 2008