Bitumen or asphalt is a sticky and black viscous material found in most crude petroleum — but how has bitumen as a medium found its way to be adopted so widely in the local art world? Could bitumen still be seen as a source for artistic enquiry or has its scope for experimentation been exhausted? How does one go about approaching and studying a medium? These questions and more are examined in chi too’s latest solo exhibition at OUR ArtProjects entitled Sometimes When We Touch.

The exhibition highlights a series of twelve paintings on canvas — an outcome of his continued foray into painting. The use of bitumen lends the body of work a particular warm sepia tone that moves in different shades of earthy colours of blackish gold. The first piece of this series started when chi too was doing his residency at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art (NTU-CCA), Singapore. Despite the works looking similar at first glance, these 1 x 1 metre paintings on canvas are in fact variations of what he calls his “baseline” pieces. To some extent, chi too’s approach to painting can be seen as a sly take on Sol LeWitt’s use of instructions that lead to different variations originating from a “baseline” textual source. The different intensities of bitumen employed produce a visually arresting body of work that carries the viewer through an experience that oscillates between the confrontational and the meditative, moving like tides that are approaching and receding. 

As a result of his previous filmmaking practice, chi too’s approach to painting clearly differs from that of a trained artist. It is this lack of vantage point that allows him to offer a fresh and unique take on painting. In the same vein as his bubble wrap paintings in Like Someone in Love, whereby each bubble is injected with paint individually, chi too’s painterly process is equally mechanical and systematic in this series. Each brushstroke was painted with full attentiveness despite the endless repetition involved. Similar to Maurice Ravel’s Boléro, an orchestral piece defined by a continuous crescendo, his obsession with repetition grew louder and louder towards the completion of the series. 

chi too regulated the amount of time he spent on each painting and took self-mandated breaks, thus teasing the idea of the “creative process” behind art-making and simplifying it into what appears to be more like mindless manual labour. By doing so, chi too is subverting the act of painting and its perceived connotations of the bourgeoisie. In a way, his painterly process is akin to a worker manning a toll booth or a factory labourer screwing caps onto tubes of toothpaste.

Along with chi too’s photographs that document the urban environment in his previous group show The Horizon is Just an Illusion: New Thoughts on Landscape, the paintings in Sometimes When We Touch are part of his research for Bukan Budaya Kita, a project that will culminate in a body of work that aims to debunk the top-down myth that protest is not in our culture, whilst tracing historical sites of protest in Malaysia.
 
 
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