Late for Nowhere

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Artist Aung Myint: Facing the collision between observation and intuition

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From the start of his career as an artist, U Aung Myint has favored free expression over cautious conformity.

It all began when he met Ko Khin Maung Yin, a pioneering experimental artist well known for his relentless pursuit of creativity at the expense of material comforts.

“I liked his works, so I asked him how to paint,” U Aung Myint said in an interview at Inya Art Gallery, which he cofounded in 1989.

“He told me that you can do what you want to do. ‘It is your artwork,’ he said. ‘Don’t copy the work of other artists. Whatever your inspiration, you can do what you want to do.’ I liked this idea very much, so I tried to create my own work.”

U Aung Myint, 68, has made a career out of doing just that: The self-taught painter eschewed traditional figurativism and instead began experimenting with various styles and media as a means of exploring social, political and economic issues.

As a result of this adventurous approach to his work, U Aung Myint became a well-respected, groundbreaking contemporary artist in his own right.

In 2002 he won the Jurors’ Choice Award at the ASEAN Art Award in Bali, Indonesia, for his “Mother and Child” series, and his works have been collected by the National Art Gallery of Malaysia, the Singapore Art Museum and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum.

“I’m always searching for more and more experiences. Many kinds of artworks have developed in other countries, but not here. So I want to look and search for new art experiences,” he said.

Over the years, his work has included both representational and abstract images, and easily discernible influences range from the whorls of the Myanmar alphabet to abstract expressionism.

The latter influence is most apparent in a series of works he created in the early 2000s that strongly evoke the mid-20th century “drip” or “action” paintings of American artist Jackson Pollock.

One of U Aung Myint’s drip canvases from 2001 was on view at the recently closed “14 AM” solo show at TS1 Gallery at Lanthit Jetty, but the main focus of the exhibit was the more recent “Faces” series, which was started in 2012 and is still ongoing.

The “Faces” paintings tread the line between representational and abstract, and they help illustrate the breadth of U Aung Myint’s experimentation by hearkening back to early 20th century modernist expressionism in both their style and the somber aura they project.

This melancholic mood stems from the artist’s use of black paint and indelicate brushstrokes to create facial expressions that are predominantly and disquietingly neutral in aspect.

While the bleakness of some of the paintings is broken by swaths of red, others are so dark that the faces are barely discernible.

A statement from TS1 Gallery informs us that this series of paintings offers “a reflection on the personal intrigue and trauma of a changing populace coming face to face with the global”.

U Aung Myint provided a simpler interpretation of his work by explaining that he was inspired by “looking around and seeing the many different expressions” on people’s faces, and by his desire as an artist to “show these differences”. In other words, they are the product of keen observation of the physical world.

That’s not to say that the images can be considered purely objective. The artist said that much of his inspiration is rooted in the intuitive impulses of his own mind.

“When I paint, my hands and my mind are different. They express different things. It depends on my mood,” he said. “The painting comes out while I work. I paint without intention. Sometimes I’m surprised by what I create.”

U Aung Myint’s self-professed inspiration for these paintings – observation and personal mood – calls into question whether the third ingredient suggested by the gallery statement (Myanmar’s transition) is pertinent, or whether it’s merely a symptom of the current madness for imposing contextual meaning in light of the provisional liberalisation under way in the country.

It’s not much of a stretch to accept the relevance of this third element – U Aung Myint is no stranger to tackling social or political issues – but doing so raises questions about the fine line between objectivity and subjectivity that, at least on the surface, seem difficult to reconcile.

How can an artist determine what thoughts are behind the faces observed in the street?

If a passerby’s brow is furrowed, is it because he’s mulling the implications of coming face to face with the global, or is he concerned that his teenage daughter has just eloped with the punk next door?

Would the “Faces” series have turned out differently had it been created, say, 10 years ago, long before Myanmar’s accelerated collision with the rest of the world?

It might be posited that while U Aung Myint is “observing” physical faces, he is choosing (consciously or unconsciously) to depict only those he believes to best represent the zeitgeist of the so-called transition period.

Such an interpretation would help explain why most of the paintings depict a sea of subjects rather than a single portrait, and also why there is a certain sameness to so many of the faces.

If this is indeed the case, the mood as filtered through these angst-infused images is fairly bleak.

But even this explanation is belied by U Aung Myint’s own take on why the facial expressions lack dynamic range.

“You can look at people’s faces, and some are sorrowful and some are happy. I tried to show this, but I cannot now. I don’t think I’m a qualified artist,” he said. “Faces are very difficult to catch. I think I will try to create more artworks in the series to catch these faces.”

U Aung Myint’s professed lack of self-assurance is not uncommon among artists who are happily and heavily involved in the throes of the creative process.

As such, it is clear that the “Faces” series is a work-in-progress that will continue to evolve, and that its place in the artist’s own canon, and more broadly in Myanmar’s contemporary art scene, is yet to be ascertained.


Written by latefornowhere

September 22, 2014 at 8:46 am

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