Review of Liew Kwai Fei’s solo exhibition Paintings for All Ages/Paintings with Extended Space. Published in Off The Edge, Jan 2010.


If you attended public primary school in Malaysia, maybe you’ll remember a particular type of exercise book whose pages were divided in half – the top was blank, for pictures, while the bottom had red and blue lines, for writing. It was a personal favorite of mine, and I use them to this day. The two sections are like two worlds: the visual universe of color, shape, line, and texture hovering like a balloon above; the world of text and language – which is the domain of meaning – anchoring below.

As a kid, I was made to draw pictures and then write down what they meant. Many exhibitions today feel like a page ripped out from that book – the works hang on the wall or sit in space, and the words of the artist statement or curator’s essay explain what they mean. Art reviews also serve the same purpose – to make meaning of what we see. The lack of qualified art writing is constantly bemoaned in the art scene, and yet, conversations with audiences outside the art world circle – friends, family – lead me to understand that what is written about art today does little to increase appreciation of it.

Liew Kwai Fei’s Paintings for All Ages/Paintings with Extended Space is an exhibition that flips that exercise book page on it’s side, so that the visual and written worlds sit side by side, not one above the other. The paintings are graphic, multi-coloured geometric shapes, each one framed individually so that they become units that are arranged into configurations on the wall. Like stars, the units form constellations such as The Sun, The Flower and The People.

Liew’s paintings have been called Minimalist. No doubt they function on some level as a dialogue with the ideas of that 1960s modern art movement.  At the same time they remind me irresistibly of the paper stickers I used to play with when I was young. They were of geometric shapes in bright colors, and worked like stamps – you had to lick the back to make them sticky. I loved them. A red dot could be a planet, or the hole to hell; blue triangles mixed with green was the sky crashing into earth because Atlas could no longer hold up the world on his shoulders.

The exhibition is accompanied by text. Although the words are written by a curator, they do not form an essay that explains Liew’s work, or how it should be seen. Instead, Liew invited Simon Soon to write stories and personal reflections in response to each painting, which are shown alongside the works on sheets of A4 paper.

This bold and simple strategy effectively breaks down that stultifying exhibition structure that implicitly creates expectations in, and of the viewer. It’s the expectation that what we see has specific meanings, which we must decode (or have decoded for us by art writers, curators and critics) in order to appreciate art.

I speculate that in our (partly manufactured) anticipation of meaning in art exhibitions, we have forgotten how to practice the act of looking.  Looking is an enjoyable, enriching and educational activity, as intellectual as reading a novel, yet as natural and easy as breathing. Children can spend hours, whole afternoons, looking at something. The way dust floats in a pool of sunlight, or the delicate, minutely ruffled edge of a flower petal saturated with color… it’s often the up-close, sensuous nature of things that makes our eyes linger. However, long observation can reveal to us the huge, complex pattern of relationships that constitute our world.

By breaking up the idea of painting into neat modular units that make up a larger whole, Liew’s exhibition invites us to look again, as we did when we were children.  That is why it is called Paintings for All Ages. The accompanying texts remind us that looking opens up worlds of imagination, intellectualism and sometimes, wisdom. That is why it is also called Paintings with Extended Space.

Liew Kwai Fei’s solo exhibition “Paintings for All Ages/Paintings with Extended Space“, 26 Jul – 8 Aug 2009 at No. 19, Jalan Berangan.