Ian Woo, Can You Hear Us?, 2015, acrylic on linen, 98 1/2 × 78 3/4".

Ian Woo, Can You Hear Us?, 2015, acrylic on linen, 98 1/2 × 78 3/4".

Ian Woo

Ian Woo, Can You Hear Us?, 2015, acrylic on linen, 98 1/2 × 78 3/4".

Although the title of Ian Woo’s most recent exhibition was “Falling Off Plastic Chairs,” the sensation created by its five large paintings and seven works on paper was more of a sense of slippage. At first glance, Woo’s paintings suggest a kind of organized chaos, a collision of choice and indeterminacy. For example, the largest work in the exhibition, Can You Hear Us? (all works cited, 2015), consisting predominantly of cold and muted greenish yellows and yellowish grays as well as flat white patches, has no image or obvious point of focus. It is composed of thinly painted brushstrokes, both fluid and stuttering, that create an impression of compacted, swirling energy. As in a fragmented Cubist composition, there is a sense of overlaying or a fitting together of parts, except that this Singaporean abstractionist’s paintings do not coalesce into depictions of any object or scene in the world, or form any pattern or system. Instead, gestural dynamism is simply punctuated by moments of flat color, mostly white, that become mere points on which the eye might pause amid this continuous fluidity.

Not unlike the early paintings of Fiona Rae, Woo’s work engages with the question of how to bring a painting into existence. But while Rae’s thick, gestural paint was theatrically pitted against geometry, Woo is engaged with an idea of “picture making”—a phrase he often uses in discussion. He seems to be bringing painterly elements together in an aborted attempt at pictorial logic and an exposure of its process. The result is a quality of searching, as if Woo—who is a fan of jazz music and plays bass guitar—were restlessly trying to organize, reorganize, and improvise a picture. In the case of Can You Hear Us?, the whitish punctuations disrupting the flow suggest both imagery and its failure to appear.

At about 8 1/4 by 8 1/2 feet, these are Woo’s largest paintings to date. The increased scale seems to have inspired him to introduce flat painted lines that also create a greater sense of depth. While Can You Hear Us?, like another of the new paintings, 25, is close in spirit to Woo’s works of the past few years, which use little or no drawing to create a claustrophobic atmosphere, three of the other new paintings use flat bold lines to delineate shape or demarcate space. They add another schema to Woo’s improvisatory repertoire. Drawing is used to frustrate any sense of completion.

For example, The Brain Is a Scroll seems to consist of distinct, layered instances. A spidery web or starburst of lines occupies the background, partially obscured by two white rectangles on which floats an ocher oval with a few semicircular, toothlike black forms, among other gestural events. None of these quite coalesces into a specific image or establishes a commanding logic; they are more like thoughts passing in the mind, as if hazy memories were being glimpsed at the very moment they slipped away.

Nothing is fixed in these paintings, and that is Woo’s point; as he says, “Composition is a search for system, a system of life inherent in every painting.” In art as in life, we strive to forge order out of chaos, but usually through choices that could easily have been made differently.

Sherman Sam