This exhibition is a retrospective showing the entire career of Datuk Tang Hon Yin, a local Penangite who has been painting since he was young. It spans over two floors as you investigate 7 decades and is well worth the hike upstairs from the basement to the third floor. One of the highlights of the show is to see his early work, as it allows the audience to better understand the evolution of his painting style. The oldest painting in there is from 1959, when he was in Form 4 at school (aged 15) and it is easy to see that he had potential even then. I won’t, however, give too much more information about Tang Hon Yin himself as there is a fantastic quote from him in the show saying that he thinks every painting should speak for itself, and that the context of the artist only clouds the experience. There is also a very thorough monograph for sale in the gallery, should you want more information.
The curation here seems to be not by year or by theme (except his early work) but by colour, which complements his abstract style very well. My initial response to his work was to think of Rothko, but if Rothko had been an aerial photographer instead of a painter. These large abstract paintings envelope and absorb you in their colour and texture, but at a distance they look topographical. One tiny detail of the artist which I can’t help but share, because it links so nicely here, is that he was a geography teacher for many years. I definitely feel that this has informed his art practice.
The juxtaposition between flat and 3D is glorious, often teasing the viewer in a playful manner. There is strong use of negative space and removal of shape through sectional covering, which draws the eye in and forces it to playfully bounce around the composition. My personal favourites were the works from the 1980s which simultaneously looked like giant mountains but also scrunched up paper, and the colours were so rich I could eat them.
Another thing that really astonished me was how he managed to create such smooth paintwork. Being a child of the digital age I naturally assumed on first glance that these works were digital prints, yet on closer inspection I found that they were made in the early 1980s, long before digital prints at contemporary quality were ever imagined, and when 8bit was still the only option.
I honestly loved this show. It is a beautiful articulation of abstraction of consciousness and every painting is a joy to behold. As a passionate art lover, I could have easily spent an hour in solitude and contemplation with each of his post 1980s paintings. I am glad that the show is open for the next three months as I will be going again and again to enjoy it.
Datuk Tang Hon Yin – Retrospective
Open every day (except Fridays and public holidays) from 9am to 5pm, until 31st January 2019.
Penang State Art Gallery, Dewan Sri Pinang
By Lusy Koror