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Conveying the Essence

The Shadow, Detail - Liyen Chong
A Lillium Man, 2010-2011 – acrylic on canvas 2009/2010 - Gordon Crook
Untitled tapestry, 2011 (woven by Lesley Nicholls - Gordon Crook
Lightbox 03 Preparation Form, Liyen Chong
White crossover, Liyen Chong
The Shadow, Install, Liyen Chong
Style is a state of mind, Liyen Chong
Disappearance, Install, Liyen Chong
Digital, install, Liyen Chong
Mark Amery marks the passing of one artist, Gordon Crook, and the emergence of another, Liyen Chong

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Mark Amery marks the passing of one artist, Gordon Crook, and the emergence of another, Liyen Chong

“As soon as you give something a name you’re blocking the way you enter into the essence of whatever it is you’re looking at,” remarks Wellington artist Gordon Crook to Clare O’Leary in the opening of her 2010 documentary A Life of Art about him.

“You say, ‘Oh that’s a painting, that’s a tree, that’s its mother’. Well, it’s not really that. What it is, is it’s Gordon Crook and what I’m feeling.”

Gordon passed away on Friday. Aged 90, he was exhibiting and working up to near the end, as yet another solo show full of life and energy at Gilbert Marriot Gallery in July showed. One of this city’s greatest artists, his commitment to constantly pushing his ideas into new shapes, arrangements and media saw him at the city’s heart. Through lively line and abundant colour he pumped lifeblood into our cultural arteries. In the free and joyful, yet rigorous and questioning, musical conversations in his work he set an example for all around him. Almost every year without fail an interesting Gordon Crook show was something you could rely on.

Every Gordon Crook work provides a dance of shifting elements suggesting the plethora of things he was actively feeling and thinking about. Yet also one glance at it and you could say it was one of his. To be able to explore such wide ground yet provide every time such an identifiable essence of one self is the gift of a great artist. I know I’ve found a strong artist as soon as I don’t find myself thinking ‘that reminds me of…’ As Crook commented: I find myself not able to give something a name.

With young talented Auckland based artist Liyen Chong, currently showing at Page Blackie, I sense an artist on the cusp of getting there. Like Crook she’s comfortable working in a range of media, but her work has swung greatly in different directions in recent years, as if going through a questioning of who she is, and how she might best represent herself. This is not unusual for a so-called emerging artist. Given Chong grew up in Malaysia and Shanghai before studying in Christchurch perhaps its almost to be expected.

Chong has previously embroidered symbols and insignia out of her own and other’s hair, including the New Zealand five dollar note - as if weaving herself into place. Her recent work brings together painting and photography, her hair appearing in images almost like a paintbrush itself, a black Chinese calligraphic stroke.

The photographs are of Chong in her studio just before she cut off her hair, sometimes scissors in hand as if caught in a moment of indecision. We witness a kind of self-portraiture. The artist is in a fog, contained and distanced from us, in slow, anxious and uncertain motion, trying out positions like they might be clothes. The feeling is numb, amplified by coloured light and the artist’s white painted face.

The strongest works in this exhibition are lightboxes themselves, as if Chong is counteracting the urban glare of advertising telling her what to do with her own personal painted make-up. They are a form of performance, reminding me of varied Asian performance traditions, and seemed to react against the still, well rehearsed photographic portrait as being able to provide some kind of truth. In particular they could be said to react against the stereotypical portrayal of the Asian female, deliberately messing with the boundary between an artwork being about a subject or an object. They are both.

Chong explores how a photograph can be manipulated to be more like a painting. Orbs of light glare back at us, and adventurous turns of colour and informal composition turn an interior into a potential series of abstract forms, complicating its mirroring of reality. This feels like it could be pushed even further, the work on the brink of being one thing or another. The treatment is further complicated by Chong’s ornate decoration of the surface with rich pools of paint, which remind me of the rich Zen inspired abstraction of stable mate Max Gimblett.

These artworks provide a disturbing tension between ornamental object and portraiture, where the spirit of the person feels concealed. They are glittering gems on the one hand, dark and unsettled portraits on the other. I find their inbetween-ness brave and fascinating, yet ultimately they feel inert for being so unresolved. For all their delicate, distinctive and complex beauty, the essence of the work here feels inward looking and un-involving, perhaps too concerned with reacting against things to have yet completely found a way forward. This compares to the way the personality of a Gordon Crook work is always open, giving and universal. It leaves me awaiting Chong’s next exhibition with great interest.

Written by

Mark Amery

1 Sep 2011

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.