Presented as a whole for the first time, this is the inaugural showcase of 33 carefully-selected artworks from Koh’s collection spanning more than 20 years. A gallerist by profession, Koh’s distinctive way of collecting is informed by his quiet reflection and interactions with the art world. This collection is an exploration of his journey in the world of art and life, in public and in private, within Southeast Asia and internationally.
Of Dreams and Contemplation reflects a multitude of Koh’s ruminations, personalities and interests through the works of 30 artists. Often referred by Koh as ‘Landscapes of Memory’, each work evokes a specific memory, a tangible reminder of a fleeting moment in his life. Mostly abstract and monochromatic, the works offer rare insights into Richard Koh’s private contemplations—inviting the viewer to interpret and delve deeper.
Nadiah BAMADHAJ, CHUNG Sang-Hwa, Paolo COTANI, GAO Weigang, HE Jian, HUANG Rui, JIA Aili, LAO Lianben, LAO Tongli, LIN Tianmiao, LIU Wei, Kedsuda LOOGTHONG, Kohei NAWA, Angel OTERO, Sopheap PICH, SHAO Yinong & Muchen, SHEN Fan, Natee UTARIT, WANG Keping, XU Zhen, Masaaki YAMADA, YANG Jie Chang, YANG Mushi, YANG Liming, YEOH Choo Kuan, Beatriz ZAMORA, Gianfranco ZAPPETTINI, ZHANG Zhenyu, ZHOU Chunya, ZHU Xinyu
Of Dreams and Contemplation
Selections from the Collection of Richard Koh
TEXT by Patricia Chen
Around April last year, I received a call from Richard Koh asking if I would be interested to have a look at his collection with a view to develop a conversation with him for a show of his personal collection at a public venue, The Private Museum in Singapore. I promptly took up the invitation, not only because of my on-going research interest in viewing and discussing collections of art, but because access to personal collections of gallerists does not happen often.
My interest was piqued because I imagined, in a gallerist, we are looking at a person whose professional life revolves around looking at art, one who is a familiar fixture at art fairs and artists’ studios, a tastemaker who always has his finger on the pulse. And indeed, in the last ten years or so, I have met Richard at various art fairs in Asia, from New Delhi to Hong Kong to Bangkok. He is one of the most active and gutsy members of the Southeast Asian gallery scene, an art world maverick. I am also curious because much of the art we see circulating in the art world is built on representations, and gallerists are a part of that system; they thrive on the publicness of that structure. I wanted to see if and how access to that vista, of the latest and the best, translates and distils into what gets collected on a personal level. The invitation to exhibit in The Private Museum, I understand, stems from interests along similar veins.
Of Dreams and Contemplation – Selections from the collection of Richard Koh brings together thirty-three artworks that Richard Koh has curated as he intends for them to be seen together for the first time in public. In putting them together, Richard has not set out with specific curatorial aims. To him, this selection, culled from his collection of about two hundred works and assembled according to similarities in “moods”, is nothing more than an attempt to provide glimpses into his personal interests in art.
But what does it mean to curate items from the collection of a gallerist, whose public persona is entrenched in the trading of art, at a venue that is developing as a platform to facilitate critical discourse on art? In this instance, the intention is for Richard to switch roles by setting aside his commercial interests, retreat into the personal realm and present works in a reasonably coherent manner to facilitate conversations in a public setting. Therefore what does it mean to curate personal interests? Why curate them at all? While the duality of perspectives present in an gallerist-collector can be fascinating, the associations are not without issues. One might be compelled to ask: How clearly can distinctions and positions between the public and the private be made? These are valid questions, and as difficult and complex these matters may be, the artworks may provide some answers. I return to this matter towards the end of this text.
The collection on show consists of thirty-one paintings and two sculptures by artists from diverse geographical origins, including Thailand, Malaysia, Mexico, Japan, Italy, the Philippines and South Korea, and a large number from China. They fall mainly into two categories: monochromatic and landscape paintings. At the outset, these appear as visual and conceptual opposites and make strange bedfellows. Modern monochromatic paintings are non-representational, abstract, and driven by experimentations in material, forms and processes. Landscape paintings are representational, figurative and mostly narrative-driven. In placing together, Richard induces viewers to make that connection.
The works in the main room appear as a group of mostly figurative pictures portraying nature in duotones; pictures of bodies of water seem to feature quite prominently. But it is not just nature per se, but human’s contemplation of it.
Nature is not just restful and contemplative as pictured in He Jian’s Listen – a rendition of two empty deck chairs overlooking an expanse of water in motion. Nature is also vast and lonely in Jia Aili’s solitary figure drifting in the open sea in Untitled and as fierce and insurmountable as huge waves in Yang Jiechang’s White Waves – Golden Glow.
The depiction of landscape in oil by Liu Wei and Zhou Chunya along with calligraphic works by Huang Rui and Yang Jiechang seem to affirm interests not just in nature but also in Chinese aesthetics. Richard explains that as a Malaysian Chinese growing up in Kuala Lumpur, he has always been reminded that he is more Chinese than he is Malaysian. His interest in Chinese aesthetics stems from this life-long quest for rootedness and connections with his Chinese heritage.
Just when we think that this is a conversation on Chinese aesthetics on nature, Untitled (SK-DV) from the Series Camouflage by Puerto Rican artist Angel Otero thrusts us into different encounters of the natural – this time, by treating landscape as mere surface undergoing construction, deconstruction and reconstruction. Otero did this by flaying scrapes of green, black and brown on glass and reapplying them back onto the canvas. It is a process-based painting of nature.
In the adjacent room, another stream of process-based conversation is on-going – this time, amidst works that are imageless. From a distance, we see flat patches of mostly homogeneous black and white rectangles of varying sizes. Some are single-coloured, others are textured, striped, draped in fabric and rendered in geometric shapes. The wall looks like a life-sized mood board where different “swatches” of surfaces, colours and textures are assembled. Considering Richard was a fashion and interior designer for many years before he became a gallerist, this arrangement may not come as a surprise. Visually captivating as it may be, it runs the risk of viewing the collection as a purely graphic experience on first approach.
But on close inspection, these “swatches” open into different universes of monochromes1. By this, I am not referring to just the colour palette but to art movements and artistic experimentations that trace their roots to Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square2 in 1915. Accounts of the monochrome as a pictorial ideology or as symbolising world views and as embodying existential situations in Europe and America are well documented3 3.
Here, Richard gathers a group of works in shades of black and white that, on the surface, seems to be loosely connected in colour, produced from practices that differ in values, methodologies and contexts.
Paolo Cotani’s Benda (1976), for example, was made with stretched elastic bands painted over with black. Gianfranco Zappettini’s Tele Sovrapposte n.183 (1975), a white painting with a greyish undertone, was made by covering layers of white paint with industrial paint rollers over 2B graphite. Both artists were members of the Pittura Analitica4 group, one of the most significant Italian art movements of the post-war period. They aimed to find a new language in painting by stretching the materiality of the medium through the layering of paint over added objects.
Chung Sang-Hwa’s Untitled (2013) on the other hand, belies a labour-intensive process, requiring viewers to investigate what is under that whiteness. The artist adds glue, water and kaolin clay, layer by layer, just to strip them off; their gaps are then filled with white acrylic paint before the process is repeated. Chung’s practice is often associated with the Korean Dansaekhwa5 movement.
These monochrome paintings set the stage for voices of contemporary artists who have also appropriated the monochrome as a visual device to join the conversation. Together, they prompt new questions: Can there still be purity in the abstract form if materials themselves have localised meanings and histories6? What if paint is replaced by environment dust7? What if cashmere takes the place of the canvas8? How can a painting be an object9? And they go on.
These questions make for interesting visual and conceptual provocations. By this arrangement, Richard reframes contexts for discussions according to his engagement with these works and proposes new readings, with colour as the entry point. His relationship with the works is not based on laborious theories, though he seems to be aware of them, but on their forms, processes and transcendental properties. He does so intuitively. He alludes to the lure of black as a colour of “beauty” and “possibilities”. He signals philosophical questions they provoke in relation to life, to the way they are made, and to the integrity of the work. In the life of an artwork, contexts do change and transition with each presentation. Here is no exception. In a private collection, the narrative that glues everything together is privately determined in the mind of the collector. Given Richard’s rather modest intentions, there is sufficient breath and coherence in the selection to help viewers register his personal interests.
On exiting the exhibition space, Natee Utarit’s Jerry’s Painting, a cryptic picture of a monochromatic painting, forces reconciliation. The work was completed in 2002, when Utarit was exploring how to make a painting into an object. To Richard, this painting is about “nothingness” and it is positioned such that one enters and exits by it. Therein lies the heart of this presentation.
If landscape paintings symbolise his way of reckoning with order and structures of the outer world and of life, then monochrome paintings are kinds of mindscapes. They house his ruminations.
Here, I return to the question of the extent of commercial influence I raised earlier. In my view, this does not appear to be a collection that directs our gaze at a gallerist’s worldliness or augments the appeal of a commercial entity. On the contrary, the element of other-worldliness features prominently and consistently. In instances where works of his stable of artists are present, they fall within broad thematic categories he sets and add to the dialogue he intends. In my conversations with him, he is also quick to downplay conversations about the gallery, unless he is responding to questions I ask. Hence, in my view, commercial associations, if any, have not been detectable.
I began by articulating expectations of engaging with a certain vista. Of Dreams and Contemplation does not indulge that way. Instead, Richard beckons us to join him at He Jian’s Listen, to stop and sit a while, to ponder, to search deeper, and…listen.
It is still a vista, just one that we must work hard at figuring out for ourselves.
1. For a quick introduction to monochrome paintings, see Art Term (undated). Monochrome. Tate. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/m/monochrome. Accessed Nov 22, 2018.
2. On Monochromes, Kazimir Malevich famously said “Colour and texture in paintings are ends in themselves. They are the essence of paintings but this essence has always been destroyed by the subject”. See a brief online introduction on the history of the monochromes before and after Malevich in Frank, P. Your Definitive Guide to Reading Paintings. Huffpost. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/24/monochrome-paintings_n_5614130.html. Accessed Nov 22, 2018.
For a quick introduction to Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square see List (undated). Five Ways to Look at Malevich’s Black Square – Discover why Malevich’s Black Square is such a big deal. Tate. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/kazimir-malevich-1561/five-ways-look-malevichs-black-square. Accessed Nov 22, 2018.
3. It was a discourse that saw the likes of Ad Reinhardt, Robert Ryman, and Robert Rauschenberg participating in the fifties, which later impacted developments in Minimalism and Conceptual art in America during the sixties and seventies. Similar such tendencies of “paring works down to their most essential elements” were also observed in different parts of Europe, East and South Asia, though they were borne out of different socio-political contexts and motivations. By negating the image and “reducing” the canvas to absolutes of black and white, some of the artists hoped to pursue the purity of form and expose the very material properties of colour, form and texture as well as artistic processes; others wish to communicate a certain spiritual purity, leading viewers to ponder upon transcendental values.
On how different artistic practices were connected to the monochrome painting movement, see Cohen, A (2018). What Makes a Monochrome Painting Good. Artsy. Available at: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-monochrome-painting-good. Accessed Nov 22, 2018. For a brief introduction on the monochrome, also see Groom, A. (2012). There’s Nothing to See Here: Erasing the Monochrome. e-flux. Journal #37. Available at: https://www.e-flux.com/journal/37/61233/there-s-nothing-to-see-here-erasing-the-monochrome/. Accessed Nov 22, 2018.
4. See Feierabend, V.W. and Meneguzzo, M. (2016). Pittura Analitica. Silvana Editoriale & Mazzoleni: Milan & London. For some image references of the show at Mazzoleni London see, Mazzoleni London (2016), Pittura Analitica. 1970s. Available at: http://mazzoleniart.com/elenco_espositori/pittura-analitica-yesterday/. Accessed Nov 22, 2018.
5. Artists associated with the Korean Dansaekhwa movement call their works “methods” rather than paintings or artworks as they bear the artist’s unique techniques and processes. Their practices have connections with Eastern philosophies. For more information on the movement, see Kee, J. (2013). Contemporary Korean Art: Tansaekhwa and the Urgency of Method. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press or Art Term (undated). Dansaekhwa: The Korean Monochrome Movement. Tate. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/d/danseakhwa-korean-monochrome-movement. Accessed Nov 22, 2018.
For a quick introduction on Chung Sang Hwa, see Lee, D. (2016), Chung Sang Hwa. ArtAsiaPacific. Available at: https://tinyurl.com/ydaor2ps . Accessed Nov 22, 2018.
6. See Sopheap Pich, Untitled (Red Square Wall Relief), 2012, Mixed media, 100 x 100 x 6 cm.
7. See Zhang Zhenyu, Dust 150315, 2015, Dust on canvas, 200 x 200 cm.
8. See Shao Yinong & Muchen, East Wind West Wind – 9932, 2010, Mirror frame, cashmere, 94 x 124 x 11 cm.
9. See Natee Utarit, Jerry’s Painting, 2002, Oil on canvas, 160 x 140 cm and This is a Painting, 1997, Bronze, 49.5 x 34.5 x 2.5 cm.
Patricia Chen is a writer with a camera and she points it at a subject close to her heart: the visual arts. Her series of independent films on leading art collections and collectors, Uli Sigg: China’s Art Missionary and The 24-Hour Art Practice, have been screened internationally — in France, The Netherlands, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Singapore. As a writer, Patricia has penned columns on Southeast/ Asian art and contributed to ArtAsiaPacific, Financial Times, The Art Newspaper and Flash Art. The second edition of Uli Sigg in Conversation with Patricia Chen: Collecting Chinese Contemporary Art is in the pipeline.
Tuesday, 22 January 2019
Guest of Honour:
Prof. Kwok Kian Chow
To be updated
To be updated