Bridget Riley and her galloping colours

Viewing the show of Bridget Riley’s latest works at the Sunley Room, the National Gallery, has been a real treat. It seems always apt that her work is shown here, at the gallery where the genuine paintings of old masters like Seurat, Mantegna and Raphael, whom she admired, are exhibited. I have always been quite interested in optic art, the way simple geometry and combination of colours can ripple one’s mind. My favourite piece from the range of works shown in the National Gallery’s exhibition is ‘Arcadia’, last seen at the Paris retrospective exhibition in 2008. The combination as well as the subtle differences in the alignment of green, blue, white, terracotta and pink curves, resemble a feast of colours and lines. The white or the blank spaces in between the chunky curves are especially engaging, as if the spaces were a glimpse of bare flesh underneath a face painted over with cosmetics.

arcadia by bridget riley

The black and white wall-length piece, ‘Composition with Circles’, resembles a million tennis balls dancing about. Some of the circles overlap with each other and some not, which seem to question us as to what we see and what we can make of the painting. What are the circles? Air bubbles? Tennis balls? Car wheels? Her work reminds me of the minimalist style of Agnes Martin, an American painter, whose lines, grids and pastel shades have an almost spiritual quality to them, and reflect an interest in Taoist philosophy (for her inspiration and original approach to art, click the following: an interview with Agnes Martin). In her nineties, she was said not to have read a newspaper for the last 50 years.

Composition with Circles
Composition with Circles

The other painting, ‘Red with Red’, strikes me as the most vivid and passionate, and it makes me smile to think what art can do to people. Celebrating her 80th birthday this year, Riley’s work is full of an unmistakable youthful glow and passion. The entire canvas is painted over with red, blue and terracotta, as if it were saying, ‘look at me, look at me.’

Red with Red
Red with Red

Riley’s highly graphic, playful and distilled works are a delight for the eyes, and fascinating to review how they have assimilated influences of post-impressionist artists like Seurat, known for his jovial dot painting ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande-Jatte’. It teases the viewer’s mind with such potency. I enjoyed them because despite the abstractness of the shapes and forms, there is such clarity in the use of primary colours and patterns, and this unspeakable, very visual sense of clarity even seems to hint at the unnecessary clutter or fuss in language, photography or realist art. If you are interested in her work, check out what she has to say about the physical experience of her art at her BBC Four’s audio interview.

Bridget Riley paintings and related works at the National Gallery, London, from now until 22 May 2011.

Rachel Whiteread’s drawings

Rachel Whiteread’s drawings exhibited at Tate Britain are a fascinating account that compare sculptures with modern architecture. Sketching furniture with correction fluid, tracing silhouettes of buildings and spaces on graph paper, articulate a deep preoccupation with the way imagination converts one’s two-dimensional seeing into a three-dimensional world. In some sketches, buildings are painted over with varnish, prompting us to consider the inter-dependence of the exterior and the inteior, the outward appearance of an architecture and the interiors or the inhabitants themselves.

rachel whiteread drawings at the tate

There is, typical of her work, no visible sign of human interference, yet the skeleton of these houses convinces one of a living if hidden presence. It is as if the simple lines, shapes and primary colours suffice to render or allude to what’s there.

Tracing forms and shapes with the use of primary materials, grids and minimalist lines, Whiteread’s drawings take on a pristine quality and an unspoken understanding towards urban living. City dwellers, hidden most of the time behind the wall facades of offices, homes and public buildings, are the faceless that populate these spaces. The recurrent motifs of walls, floors, windows and doors convey ritual and repetition.

One especially intriguing dimension her drawings: the meditation on the patterned floor. It teases the imagination, this exposure of the floor behind the carpet, beyond the footsteps it ensures day and night. The image of the textured floor on measured grids, coloured plaster white with correction fluid or varnish painted, hints at the passage of history, that in due course even the weathered floorboard we walk on will fossilise and become part of the past.

Credits Palm Beach Art

See TATE ETC magazine for an interview with the artist, especially her engaging artpiece Place / Village, click here.

Frederick Cayley Robinson: Acts of Mercy

I have chanced upon the Wellcome Trust sponsored exhibition at National Gallery the other day – Frederick Cayley Robinson’s Acts of Mercy and other paintings. While his work seems calm and serene at the outset, one discovers how the subtlety and flat colours combine to express both hope and resignation. This is related to the elusiveness Laura Cumming of The Guardian talks about in her art review of Robinson’s show.

I am rather fascinated with the recurrent motif of the plain blue and white chinaware. I feel that these brightly coloured jugs and bowls play a vital role, putting into the foreground a sense of daily duty and ritual. The bright chinaware seem to evoke the spirit of humanity unaffected by fate.

In several of his paintings, including Pastoral, The Old Nurse and the Acts of Mercy murals, one can see a growing-up girl looking directly at the viewer. The girl’s look is always somewhat elusive, neither smiling nor not smiling. It is not an innocent, placid look.

Pastoral by Frederick Cayley Robinson. Courtesy of

My response to that half-knowing glance is a hint of self-reflection and interiority,the vigilance towards the external society, a curiosity about the onlooking world.

Aside from the stare, his paintings tend to focus on the daily rituals of life with a strong emphasis on precision, diligence and manual labour: the meals, the grazing of the sheep, the sewing and mending of clothes.

The play on light in his works is unforgettable. Such tranquillity and hope conveyed in the ribbon of light that ripples on the purple waters in Pastoral. The warm glow of sunset also stayed on the girl’s hair, so transient and yet comforting.

In Acts of Mercy, the glow of the lamp in the dining hall creates a sense of harmony and at the same time meek resignation — perhaps to elucidate the orphans’ resignation to their allotted fate and the sense of fraternity. In The Old Nurse, one sees the window across the street lit from the inside, hinting at a story, or stories, of other people, other lives within such proximity. In other paintings, there is often the inclusion of a handheld lantern, a small but steady source of light.

More reference, please find out more from the curator Sarah Herring at BBC’s audio slideshow

Poem inspired by Surreal House show at the Barbican

MagritteThis is the floor of my mind. The floor.

You can curl your limbs and your mind as if in yoga. Fold up your thoughts, one by one, then undo the positions.

The stove is hot. Don’t touch it. Don’t touch.

And don’t surf. Or I’ll stab your hands with pencils. I mean it.

Girl with a bag of potatoes hunted down by a cat in the night. The potatoes are evil. The potatoes like the dark world.

Andre Breton is everywhere. His boastful face.

Take out a pair of scissors and try anything – that’s surreal. Cut up your clothes, your eyelashes, heating bills, your thesis, it doesn’t matter what.

It’s weird the way the world is. Everyone sits down in Starbucks, takes out a mac, makes love with it for an hour or two. That’s work.

And a piano on the ceiling? Why not. Someone will play the music up there.

Melon and cucumber on the mattress. Do they replace them after closing the gallery to visitors?

Don’t study surreal art for too long. It’s bad for health.

Picasso and the Mediterranean mood

Looking at the exclusive family-owned collection of his paintings, sculptures and drawings exhibited at the Gagosian Gallery this summer, it is wonderful to be reminded how irrelevant age is to one’s imagination and creativity. That flamboyant body of work was what Picasso, in his 60s, created in the Mediterranean.

The colourful ceramics featured in the show take on such life, such wonderful energy, be it a starry night in the ceramics town of Vallarius, a broad smiling face, or the impregnated strength of a centaur. Even a door becomes hugely interesting (anatomie feminine), serving as a new dimension for practice and self-expression, a challenging canvas. In a well-paced sequence, the substantial collection of artworks is united in one flamboyant, self-assured Mediterranean mood.

I am particularly pleased with his portraits. Curiously, the charcoal tones and broad cubist brushstrokes combine to yield a most abstract yet realistic impression of a child. The lack of facial features gives such room, such appetite for the imagination, while the angular silhouette brings out the naivete of the child.


In Picasso’s drawings, masks and cutout animal figures, I admire the confidence in his art. His exaggerated approach in abstract cubism might have helped to give his work a more striking edge, but what marks his work is his confidence and the scale of vision. You can feel behind those paintings and sculptures the presence of an artist with a triumphant smile or an irreverent scowl, even in the smaller cardboard pieces and cutouts. He is able to hammer out with precision and humour the bulging muscles and terrific body build of swimmers on the beach, and at the same time express the refined, subtle grace of a woman caught unawares (femme a la robe verte 1956).

Adrian Searle of the Guardian has described the exhibition as ‘overwhelmingly beautiful’, delighting in the range of objects and artwork that combine to reveal the mythic quality of Picasso’s work (Read more). It is not an overstatement. Roberta Smith’s review on Gagosian’s show in New York Times reminds us that this late Picasso is an artist who works in relative isolation during his Mediterranean decade (Read more). One tends to think that people grow more conservative with age. From his paintings and sculptures, I realise that age is rather the true liberation, a breaking free of prejudices and fixtures, a graduation into undeterred stylistic confidence.

Good morning Hong Kong towel

I am thinking of an artpiece I did a while ago – Good Morning Hong Kong. This is the most traditional towel you can find in Hong Kong, with the Chinese words in red: ‘Wish you a good morning’. Although it is more associated with working classes, I like its down-to-earth character.

good morning hong kong art

Decorated with the shiny marble beads – another classic of Hong Kong culture – it reminds you of the possibilities and happiness waking up to a good morning.

Hong Kong’s favourite: Instant noodles

I was always teased for my love of instant noodles. The midnight cravings for the unhealthy food. The other day I took a close examination at it and manipulate the perspective, with some fascinating findings.

The first image shows cooked instant noodles in its original, pure state. The choice of wooden chopsticks is used intentionally.

instant noodles art

The following image gives the instant noodles and the food consumer a context. The hint of an intellectual magazine immediately alters your idea of the person and quite possibly, towards the meal itself.

instant noodles art 2

This is what that underlies many of our prejudices. Try to pare down and evaluate people or events in their true light.

Henry Moore

With the exhibition on Henry Moore drawing to a close at Tate Britain, I went there for a browse. I had always harboured interest for the artist’s work, ever since I noticed ‘The Oval’ in Exchange Square, Hong Kong.

the oval sculpture in Hong Kong, Henry Moore
The Oval

Compared to the two isolated sculptures I saw in my home city, this exhibition at the Tate was breathtaking. The scale (150 artpieces) simply blew me away, and the sculptures rendered a coherent narrative on the artist’s experiments with different textures and shapes. I realised why the Guardian named it as the most important exhibition of Moore’s work for a generation.

The shelter drawings were highly engaging, featuring sketches of victims in air raids and dark mines. The war materials are honest and uncompromising, revealing Moore’s strengths as the official war artist, a side of his that has often been overlooked. His work echoes William Blake’s sublime, more apocalyptic drawings.

Henry Moore war shelter drawings
Henry Moore's shelter drawings

Manipulating the tension between cave and point, Moore’s indulgence on the mother and child theme as well as his love for the reclining figure were brought to the forefront. Soon you realise that the recurrence is not coincidental. It is an avant-garde experiment of form, texture and touch.

Some considered Moore’s work to be ugly, unnecessarily ugly. For me, the sculptures were a test of form and the chunkiness helped to give more fullness and sensuality to the idea of the body, the raw flesh.

I am especially fascinated by the range of materials Moore adopted for his work. He liked to use well-polished stones – green hornton, cumberland alabaster, cherry wood, elm wood and oak wood. Taken together with the organic forms, his sculptures lessen the divide between man and nature. Personally, I feel that Moore displays a greater mastery of naturalistic materials such as stone and wood rather than metal.

His exhibition also brings to light an interesting theory that advocates the silence of the artist: a sense of mystery or silence is needed to preserve the impregnable quality in the artwork, i.e. the artwork is larger than the author (click here for documentary on Henry Moore)

Simplicity and optimism in the work of Christian Købke

The three-month exhibition at the National Gallery featuring Christian Købke’s paintings has done a great job in raising profile of this lesser-known Danish artist who died young, reviving attention towards Købke’s interpretation of characters and colours in his artwork.

Anchored in the simplicity of folk life and customs, and with an invested faith in realism, Købke’s work draws out the pristine quality of everyday life in his hometown Copenhagen, reflecting attributes of Denmark’s Golden Age.

Købke’s work reflect a people who share affinity and a nationalistic sense of ownership. One finds in his paintings a stronger emphasis on the discipline of lines, shades of light, and the use of wide perspectives. Water reflections are often repeated, an element that succeeds in enlivening the still landscape, such as the brightness and clarity of the lake in ‘Frederiksborg Castle in the Evening Light’.

I am impressed by his fine attention to human figures in his work. The people in the celebrated masterpiece, ‘The View from Dosseringen’, illustrates his adeptness in representing the overlap between people’s personal and public lives, and his ability to juxtapose the boundaries of home and abroad. Two women are seen standing on the pier beside the national flag, waving at a departing boat, possibly saying goodbye to their family kin. By refraining from portraying emotions direct, the painter uses the canvas to conjure the fine balance between geographical distance and emotional closeness.

View from the Dosseringen near the Sortedam Lake

Købke, son of a baker in Copenhagan, produced considerable paintings despite being little known outside his home country and his poor health. His portraits are mostly that of close friends and fellow artists, instead of commissioned craft of distinguished personalities, yet these masterpieces uphold principles of harmony, integrity and structure.

Meticulous and introspective in his art, I particularly enjoy Købke’s portrait of friend and fellow painter Frederik Sødring, a painting so vested with hope, glowing with warmth and richness of colours, bringing home the romantic spirit of Denmark’s Golden Age.

The video by National Gallery sheds light on the artist’s creative philosophy.