Enter the Daiichi Art Space and you’ll find yourself stared at by a plethora of small faces. FACES, the new exhibition of paintings by Khoo Sui Hoe, is, well, what the title might lead you to believe: a lot of paintings of a lot of faces. But there is something enigmatic, playful and even slightly unsettling about them, each emitting a different mood.

His painting career spanning over 50 years, Khoo Sui Hoe is a well-established artist. After enrolling at Nanyang Academy of Fine Art (NAFA) in Singapore in 1959, he gained a scholarship to study contemporary art in the US and has remained there for the greater part of his working life. From 1965 onwards, he has held over 50 solo exhibitions in US, Asia and Australia — and this is not to mention the numerous group shows he has participated in.

Sui Hoe is known for his tendency towards natural imagery. While the FACES paintings are obviously not landscapes, the artist’s application of paint is undeniably organic in texture. This is true whether the colour is built up into irregular lumpy shapes or whether it is thin enough to reveal the texture of the canvas underneath. One painting even has a string of fibre lodged into the dried paint. The hanging of these pieces is consistent and immaculately done, each mounted with a burlap-like fabric which frames each piece with a similar sense of natural texture.

‘Girl from Bali’, 2014

While they are all consistently mounted, the majority of paintings are similar sizes and feature the same tightly-cropped facial imagery. This is a series that you might assume was produced in one go, over a few years. You’d be wrong, though: while a few were created this year, some of these paintings are dated as far back as 1995. This speaks to the artist’s consistency and commitment — and maybe even obsession — towards this subject.

Perhaps this is why critics tie Sui Hoe’s artworks so closely to his identity and psychological state. This is something the artist himself encourages, having said that ‘all the themes and variations come from the same source […] the poetry of human life experiences’. The works reflect this. The way the faces’ outlines are submerged into the backgrounds — although, Sui Hoe having collapsed any sense of space, what is background and foreground in these paintings, anyway? — their enigmatic expressions, their cropped nature that heightens their ambiguity: these faces have a dreamlike feeling about them.

‘My Lady’, 2016

Looking at these artworks, it is hard not to be reminded of Gauguin and Matisse, whether in colour, line or shape. It is interesting that this is the case, though, for these artists participated in a primitivist modernism that was tinged by imperialistic and orientalist sentiment. It is clear that the nationality and culture of Sui Hoe’s subjects are important to this series, for these artworks bear titles such as ‘Girl from Bali’, ‘Girls from Ubud’, ‘Dayak Girl’, and so on. A Malay artist himself, perhaps Khoo Sui Hoe is reversing this power dynamic.

While the FACES exhibition is very thematically structured, have a browse of the gallery’s books on Khoo Sui Hoe and you’ll understand that there is much more to this artist; I am a particular fan of his line drawings and more symbolist surrealist paintings, both of which are unfortunately absent in this exhibition. There are a few paintings of these kind, however, hanging in the restaurant downstairs as part of Daiichii’s permanent collection — I encourage you to see these as well, for they show the breadth of Khoo Sui Hoe’s practice and contextualise his FACES series. 

One of Sui Hoe’s paintings in the permanent collection of Daiichi, downstairs

Where? – Daiichi Art Space
When? – July 27th – August 25th 2019
How much? – Free