Malaysian artist Phuan Thai Meng’s photorealist paintings depict urban environments in unique and suggestive ways. He offers glimpses into the forgotten spaces of cities that lie between rapid construction and urban decay, relaying the relationship between these seldom-considered environments and local inhabitants. An educator and co-founder of the artist collective Rumah Air Panas (RAP), Phuan is an active member of the Kuala Lumpur art community whose practice extends beyond painting to include installations and multimedia projects that draw from daily life, local politics and urban development.
The Luring of [ ] . 流水不腐, 户枢不蠹 2012, a panoramic painting almost 10 metres long, presents a view through a number of freeway underpasses in Kuala Lumpur. A common sight in many cities around the world, these structures are so functional and ordinary that their visual effect is often overlooked; we can easily ignore their imposing scale, bleak ugliness and domination of public space. The work’s scale and perspective dwarfs us, capturing the massive bulk of these concrete giants. It also shows the quiet darkness and mildew-stained surfaces hidden underneath the roads on which modern society depends. In technically stunning photorealism, Phuan’s rendition of this urban environment is presented in a seamless fashion, but depicts a place rarely considered beautiful, contrasting the polish of the painting itself with the structural decay and grime of his subject.
Phuan further manipulates this seamless imagery by making unconventional modifications and adding details: a tear or cut, attaching a prop, or revealing a hidden support. Cutting into the canvas along the lines of the pylons, Phuan reveals the substrate of the work, destroying the illusion. The slashed canvas dangles limply in line with the concrete structures, accentuating their decay and neglect. The plywood visible beneath also evokes the structures of slums in urban Malaysia, contrasting the heavy concrete of mass development — a symbol of the country’s economic progress — with the cheap housing occupied by those who are yet to share in this success.
Specially commissioned for the Gallery’s Collection, the work is currently on display in ‘The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art’ (APT7) until Sunday 14 April.