Picture this. A child turns to his parents and says, "I want to go see amovie." Let us pretend Mother and Father are not too busy this weekendand they take the boy to a picture show. The family sit in relative silence asgiant mutated lizards battle the machine architecture of the city. Fantasticmonster trucks throw bodies onto a Los Angeles boulevard. A slow-motionshot of a shattering Japanese tea house. A sedately toppling London Eye. Hong Kong traffic passing in wide-angle hyperlapse. A close-up of a boy, much like the child watching this movie, held by his robot mother in highdefinitiontenderness.The child sitting safely in his theatre seat absorbs images so rapidlyoccurring: Of culture, geography, iconography, relationships, accents...
The child sees and learns nothing factual. But under the skin is everythingmixing and talking to itself. Ruben Pang's latest body of work, titled 'Intravenous Picture Show', is theproduct of an imagination overstimulated in the 21st Century. Like the childwe have earlier pictured - or any contemporary viewer growing up in aviolently mediated culture - Pang's own imagination is in overdrive withcharacters here fleshed out on aluminum sheets in florid acrylic, oil andalkyd.
Pang (b. 1990) states, "I am obsessed with the malfunctioning mind andthe brilliant mind. I don't necessarily believe that genius must bring with itsome sort of disability, although historically and statistically that's the case.But transposing this correlation makes good compositions, goodpaintings... I can't go into detail the steps I take in putting my mind intocertain places, but I like this form of rewiring."This statement from Pang does not imply that his work is made in a allucinogenic state of mind, but rather that the function of memory isaltered in the modern age through the onslaught of visual stimuli, whichcan produce a certain trauma. It is this altered function of memory whichserves well enough for the purposes of his art.For Pang, contemporary memory and imagination is drenched withinstantaneous and easily accessible information to the point of amnesia.
This thunderstorm of media implies we no longer remember information indetail. Instead, we recall disjunct snippets - mostly emotive - that suchstimuli impress on us. Pang attributes this way of memory in part to ourmodern reliance on technology. He quips, "You don't have to rememberhow to get [to a place]. You just have to remember the street name. And a machine tells us the million ways to get there. "Indeed, one could say the speed and efficiency with which we work andlive comes at the price of a lower capacity for detail and perhaps a senseof instability. However, rather than drawing attention to this lower capacityas a weakness, in this series Pang attempts to exploit the subconsciousdrift between still images retained in our consciousness.Pang remarks, "These [paintings] are moments before something good or bad is going to happen but taken out of context. A beautiful glitch. A microexpression.It's not just fascinating but right. An apt way of painting. We are no longer making impressions but frames... without subtitles."Of instantaneous access and overflowing feeds of information, Pangfurther notes, "It is harder to sift through what is common and what ispopular. You are attracted to things you have affinity with and ownership isdrawn... I am looking for stimulation.
"The craving for stimulation then is a symptom of a contemporary worlddigitally enhanced and overwrought with exaggerated light, colour, andunexplained affinities. This craving lies at the heart of the art presented inthis series, which can be further broken down into three movements.
FIRST MOVEMENT: Muscle Memory and ActionThe first movement consists of smaller paintings (60 X 70 cm) are made ata dimension Pang believes to be fortuitous. Pang notes wryly that thesepaintings are the same size as his bathroom mirror and thus the perfectdimensions for portraiture and reflective introspection. Of these works in particular, Pang says his process is akin to a coping mechanism againstthe amnesia earlier mentioned. In the act of painting, he attempts totransform brush strokes into muscle memory. Each piece becomes areiteration of a struggle between composition and colour. Pang remarks, "It's almost like you're carving someone's head. It's almost[either] violent or healing. Because the strokes you use to carve the skin offa fruit or to cut into flesh are almost the same movement as tracing thecontour of someone's jaw or stroking someone's hair in consolation. I'mfascinated with the dual-aspect of neurosis. The sane and insane. The pleasurable and painful. "Through experience, Pang has found this mirror dimension to be a goodplatform to increase his mastery of the oil medium, particularly in illusionsof transparency and subtle changes in facial expression. Drastic changesin composition can be made with relative ease due to the small size of thisdimension. Paintings within this movement include Sunspots, Termite andViolet Invasion.
SECOND MOVEMENT: Cross-hairs and Extremities in Hyperlapse The second movement contains slightly larger paintings that grow fromforms Pang sees as the most stable and potent in terms of compositionwithin portraiture - that of the crucifixion and three-quarter head and torso. The crucifixion along with its related subject matter, of angels and the mythof Icarus falling, are not utilized symbolically by the artist as much as fortheir firmness as frames on which to apply paint in the most volatile waypossible.
Pang states, "In terms of composition, when viewed from the front, there isa symmetry in these symbols that also supports the structure of thepainting. Painting crucifixion forms are like painting the back view of across-hair, drawing attention to the gravity at the centre of the frame.Simultaneously, it is also the only [iconographic] figure which seems tore each out to the extremities of the painting. I like the tension in a figure which occupies so little area but commands so much presence."The Sermon is chronologically the first painting made in this second movement. It depicts an abstract figure held up by a central pillar, the hands giving weight and grounding the figure to a sky both fluid and out of place. Pang explains, "It is an accumulation of the techniques honed in the smaller paintings in the sense that I have used these strokes before. This is me painting at my most comfortable in terms of technique. The torso has been hacked and slashed, yet [the figure] shows you as much surface of itself as possible. It is a dignified figure.
"The Sermon" is very much informed by Pang's observation of contemporary visual effects and digital art, with its layered aesthetic as well as Pang's own guiding principles towards painting technique. It also an example ofPang's enigmatic style of painting figures that have lost or severed limbs -a subject analogous to his opinion of contemporary viewership in increasingly digital formats. Pang comments, "[I]f you pause a movie while it's buffering, you can see two completely different scenes superimposed onto one another. That becomes an almost natural way to remember things, layered and compiled in this way."While Pang will not deny the religious connotations associated with such subject matter and admits their potency does contribute to the effectiveness of his paintings, he maintains that his use of them is more compositional. Nevertheless the effect is provocative in The Sermon, Flight Suit, Scott's Wings and most startlingly in Undertow, a painting belonging to the third movement, which is Pang's most visually audacious interpretation of the Icarusian myth.
THIRD MOVEMENT: High-Definition TendernessIn the third movement, Pang begins to explore the interactions betweenmultiple figures for the first time in his work. Paintings in this movementinclude Undertow, My Fat Baby, and Faith Healer. These paintings can beseen as telepathic conversations between characters, between charactersand their backgrounds, and between painting and viewer. The role of lightis important in this movement; setting the mood and tone of theseconversations.Pang comments, "It's like the sky is volatile. Ominous maybe, apocalyptic? But more dreamlike. Mysterious. It's not serene but a kind of calm stillreaches out to you. It's definitely the kind of light I see in my dreams -saturated, exaggerated - but almost believable. Believable because itsupports the narrative in the dream. You know you're in the real worldwhen bad shit happens in good weather. Like a shootout on a beautifulday. In my paintings, the environment and the subject/characters areinterdependent. Almost to the point where they will defy physics to mergeinto each other, to communicate. They have stories to tell each other."Perhaps the most provocative of these vignettes is Undertow; a deeply psychological painting which features a figure in a helmet 'assisted' by anangelic figure, both dwarfed by a larger seated figure who looms overthem. Of Undertow Pang explains, "[This] was painted while listening to aseries of audio lectures given by Professors Robert C. Solomon andKathleen Marie Higgins on the philosophy of Friedrich Neitzsche. I wasparticularly interested in Nietzschean thoughts on the hidden aspectswithin acts of kindness or altruism. For Nietzsche, acts of kindness are notnecessarily altruistic as they may stem from a subconscious drive to feelsuperior to another person. This painting reflects that in such a situationour inner angels are diminished, even though they still assist in carrying outthese tasks."Here again we must acknowledge Pang's self-awareness as both artist andmodern consumer of media - audio lectures and computer gaming whilewaiting for layers of paint to dry. We should also acknowledge hisuninhibited approach to volatile image-making.
Pang is unafraid of tensionin the relationships between his subjects. There is a refreshing honesty inpainting characters in moments prior to the definitive topple into a terrain of'good' or 'bad'. It is hard to say in Undertow which figure is more sinister;the angel or the looming, self-serving Ego."I want to go see a movie."The paintings in the second and third movement further herald a newdirection in Pang's work - that of clearer figurative subject matter - as ifdetail has been suddenly glimpsed in a murky buffer stream. Of particularnote are the paintings My Fat Baby and Faith Healer.The clearer figurations are Pang's way of rounding of his experience ofpainting in Italy. The entire series was made on residency in Desenzanodel Garda.
Pang attributes this new direction to his exposure to Renaissance and Flemish art. In studying these two periods, he has soughtthe expressive and bold strokes characterised by Italian painters of theRenaissance and the meticulous, jewel-like surfaces found in Flemishwork. Pang furthermore finds affinity with their philosophy of painting as anintense act of faith. Of his own practice of faith in his working method, Pang notes, "I have toacknowledge that the way I paint is governed by a fanatical set of rules forwhat a painting must be. Every stroke must contribute to the final picture.Nothing can be allowed to be superfluous. And you must show [eachbrushstroke] will contribute by painting it in a way which is transparent. If Ido the background layer, it is never erased. Its ghost must show underwhat covers it."Pang's subject matter is also treated by a rigorous set of rules. Althoughdream-like, delusional or of a superstitious quality, Pang strives to makefigures sit in chaotic environments. Of his subjects Pang says, "The characters must be perfectly comfortable in whatever absurd situation theyare in. Only their skin is uncomfortable. They aren't self-conscious either.They might be deformed or ugly or injured but they stand with a sort ofdignity, almost as if showing off their scars."One could say Pang's picture show takes place within, spilling out onto hiscanvas - a series produced through intravenous feeling. It is after all,directly produced from reflection on the modern condition of plugging intoand consuming media. Yet, the paintings in this series do not suggest passive viewership but rather invite the viewer to consider an activeimagination in riot of the feeding drip. Pang's goal is awaken a creativeprocess within an otherwise bleak view of our consumption patterns. In his own way, this is a form of healing.