Alvin Ong's Paintings Close the (Social) Distance
5 June 2020
With human connections reduced to a minimum due to the coronavirus pandemic, Alvin Ong's latest paintings of interlinking bodies, on view in his solo exhibition Long Distance (14 May–6 June 2020) at Yavuz Gallery in Sydney, are visceral depictions of intimacy.
Alvin Ong, Old Town (2020). Oil on canvas. 175 x 200 cm. Exhibition view: Long Distance, Yavuz Gallery, Sydney (14 May–6 June 2020). Courtesy Yavuz Gallery.
These new works were generated from the artist's experience living between two cities, Singapore and London: an overarching narrative that has naturally intensified in recent months, resulting in some of his most recent works linking to current conditions. In Quarantine (2020), anonymous bodies blend and twist around one another against a cool blue and light pink background, one figure scrolling through a phone while a laptop sits open to the right.
A palette of blues and pinks reigns throughout this new series, stirring a cool sense of detachment despite the binding bodies. The tone contrasts with Ong's earlier works shown in Supper Club also at Yavuz Gallery (23 January–24 February 2019), which took place during peak durian season in the region, inspiring the artist to use the rich yellow colour of the fruit's flesh to evoke bombastic displays of desire and eroticism: what he calls 'food made carnal'.
But while the figures in Supper Club grasp one another, the anonymous characters in Ong's latest paintings idly reach for mobile and computer devices, headphones strung to their ears. Elements that appear in these compositions—including bubble tea held close to the chest of a multi-limbed, reclining character in Milk Lover (2020), and a figure grinding rempah, a spice paste prepared in cooking across the Malay archipelago, in Rempah (2020)—point to an array of specificities and references. 'The more narratives I can write into a single painting, the more interesting it becomes,' explains Ong. His influences, after all, are far-reaching: spanning Italian mannerist painting to batik and Japanese woodblock, with some pieces like Mutual Comfort (2020) interrogating art history, depicting angular figures recalling Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon.
Ong keeps an open mind throughout the painting process, moving in directions that shift as he goes along. But while the painting process is fluid, the point of departure is more planned. Ong drafts his composition on the canvas: 'designs' that he calls 'architectural structures', harking back to the artist's formative training as an architect, which he abandoned to embark on a BA at the Ruskin in Oxford followed by an MFA from the Royal College of Art. Once painting begins, new directions arise. The moment, Ong says, when the paintings 'become staged, and I think about the colours, props, and various narratives.' In Old Town (2020), a thin, blue mount of a bicycle supports three figures, their black hair blowing forwards as if the bicycle is moving backwards at full speed, three free hands brandishing a fan, milk tea, and a cigarette. Dynamic layers of paint are formed from an accumulation of ghost traces; their final forms the result of changes in direction.
The resulting figures are thus fully formed only in the final moment. They are precarious, sometimes outwardly so, merging together on unstable supports or grounds, such as the bicycle in Old Town (2020) or the rocky outcrop in Long Distance (2020), upon which three figures are balanced. The scale, coupled with the rich human dramas that unfold within them, brings to mind the qualities of history painting. Bodies bend and twist to connect despite their circumstances, exuding a dynamism that invokes a palpable and active tension. Across these canvases, intimacy lies at the heart of open narratives in a world where human connection has taken on new meanings.—[O]