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Stephanie 2011arrow

Stephanie 2011
American white oak
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Stephanie 2011
American white oak
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Paterson 2011arrow

Paterson 2011
American black walnut
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Paterson 2011
American black walnut
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Nola 2011arrow

Nola 2011
American black walnut,
porcelain
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Nola 2011
American black walnut,
porcelain
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Julian 2011arrow

Julian 2011
American black walnut,
copper
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Julian 2011
American black walnut,
copper
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Tobias 2011arrow

Tobias 2011
American black walnut
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Tobias 2011
American black walnut
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Rault 2011arrow

Rault 2011
American black walnut
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Rault 2011
American black walnut
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Bruland 2011arrow

Bruland 2011
American white oak
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Bruland 2011
American white oak
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Empathy: Khai Liew and
John Young
2 MAR - 1 APR 2011
Michael Reid at Elizabeth Bay, Sydney

In Empathy, Khai Liew and John Young combine to challenge the concept of the primacy of the individual. They urge viewers to consider cooperative efforts as both historically relevant and the contemporary pattern for creative behaviour. Empathy sees experienced thinkers Liew and Young take artistic creativity, in two distinct media, to a new, very contemporary interconnected level.

© Michael Reid, 2011

Spoehr 2011arrow

Northern Song #5 2007
John Young
Oil on linen
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Spoehr 2007
Khai Liew
American black walnut
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Northern Song #5 2007
John Young
Oil on linen
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Spoehr 2007
Khai Liew
American black walnut
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On Double Ground 

Khai Liew and John Young both arrived in Australia in 1971 and 1967, about 70 years after the systematic closing of its borders to Asian foreigners that began at the beginning of Australia’s nationhood.

While their work doesn’t respond to the direct impact of these political events, what we see in their work is a deep understanding of history and the role that different cultural influences play in a set of artistic practices located here.

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On Double Ground 

Khai Liew and John Young both arrived in Australia in 1971 and 1967, about 70 years after the systematic closing of its borders to Asian foreigners that began at the beginning of Australia’s nationhood.

While their work doesn’t respond to the direct impact of these political events, what we see in their work is a deep understanding of history and the role that different cultural influences play in a set of artistic practices located here.

John Young and Khai Liew both allude to the existence of a cross-cultural aesthetic. Which does not only mean the appearance of a variety of visual cultural references in their work, but a commitment to understand and interrogate the implications of an expanded vocabulary of cultural references. In the 1990s John Young developed an ongoing body of work called the Double Ground Paintings, paintings that had in the same painted frame a double field of vision. This visual strategy saw the possibility of multiple circles of influence that were concurrent, both in focus, neither in service of the other. When so much of the commentary about inter-cultural dialogue is defined by the need to exchange, cross-cultures and bridge, the double ground becomes a different framework to describe the floating historical and cultural contexts that appear in both these artists’ practices.

In a conversation with Liew, I asked him about the importance of his biography which I often read in relationship to the Malaysian race riots of 1969. He answers that their importance is unavoidable, as these things occurred during his adolescence and this event was one of the primary reasons he was sent to Australia to study – this experience is something he continues to hold with him. When Liew speaks about his work each piece is meaningful, and not just understandable in the context of its form, surface or construction. Each work is part of an historic legacy of furniture design as well as an observation about social and cultural histories. Liew’s work unravels a complexity of influences, from Egypt, to Scandinavian design, Donald Judd, colonial Australia and the emergence of local vernacular design traditions to the construction techniques of China.

For example, Liew describes a work (not in exhibition), called Remi (2000), as homage to the various Chinese cabinetmakers in Adelaide at the turn of last century. Located on Hindley Street, these workers produced cheap domestic pieces. Whilst their labour was being exploited, they faced discrimination and legal uncertainty as the White Australia Policy began to take effect. How Liew speaks is wonderful, these works, as well as being finely constructed, tease out aspects of a social history, which he in turn codifies and refines.

As well as a designer, Liew is a valuer and conservator, with a particular interest in the material history of Australia, and much of Liew’s work relates to an ongoing concern – the transition from frontier to national entity. He describes another early work, Jian (2000), which is based upon a nineteenth-century Barossa Valley German storage cupboard. The nineteenth-century piece is a rustic make-do box with legs of eucalyptus branches and was made and used by Barossa Valley German immigrants. Liew describes his interpretation, with its void non-utilised space below a primary cabinet form, as representing the luxury of leisure-time afforded by this shift from frontier to nation. Later I find out that these two works inspired by the social history of migration in Adelaide are named after his sons. It’s a quiet and also confident move that speaks to the importance with which the artist sees this history and its significance for the future.

Over recent years, John Young has created work that explores the implications of his Double Ground project. Recent work raises awareness of the history of cross-cultural knowledge to investigate the principles which arise from its practice. For example: Bonhoeffer in Harlem (2009, Berlin) a commemoration of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Safety Zone, (2010, Melbourne), concerning the complex history of Nanjing in 1937, and the heroic deeds of 21 foreigners in the city and against adversity. These works, insert into contemporary art a level of historical research and a personal political conviction in the importance of historical awareness and humanitarian cross-cultural action.

The works in Empathy are part of another ongoing body of work – Abstract Paintings, and extend the concerns of a cross-cultural aesthetic. Through a conceptual strategy and process, Young has developed works which contemplate the meaning of imaging in the 21st century, to make sense of the influences and stimuli in our contemporary environments which are produced at great speed aided by technology and resulting in a sheer over indulgence and access to imagery.

In arriving at the paintings the artist firstly collects 1000 images every day from a variety of online sources. These images are subsequently altered via a series of computer programs, which turns the found images into a series of ‘abstracts’. From these abstract images, one is selected, scaled and painted in an extremely precise and traditional manner into an oil painting. Young says: “The images I choose are not progressive at all, rather, they were chosen because they remind me or have resonance with Modernist Abstraction of the last century, works by say Arthur Dove, Morris Louis, Rothko, or even the music of Charles Ives.”

In this exhibition the paintings derive from two subsets of Young’s abstract works: Naïve and Sentimental Paintings (2005-present) and Northern Song Paintings (2007-present), which present both modernism and high Chinese landscape traditions together. His choice of influence indicates that Abstract Paintings are motivated to awaken a critical thinking about culture and its influences in the digital age based on observations of how we consume images. His reference to Ives and the Northern Song landscape point to two distinct attitudes towards the formation of highly codified bodies of knowledge. On one hand, the reclusive Charles Ives, whose progressive composition techniques incorporate a wide range of influences from popular culture, church music, to art music. His work with polytonality, micro-tonality and polymetrics were essentially experimental and integral in the formulation of a vision of American modernity at the beginning of the twentieth-century. Ives strove to articulate what was Modern about American life – what it sounded like and how these new visions could be represented. Young’s other reference to the colouration of the Northern Song painters points to the emergence of key principles in Chinese landscape painting during the tenth-century – a high regard for artistic pursuit through the idea of the ‘scholar painter’ and the subsequent development of a theory of painting through the stylised grammar which governs landscape painting. In processing found images through registers of American modernism and high Chinese landscape colouration, Young’s Abstracts investigate what these influences look like when they converge and also, how in a time of image excess, our twenty-first century attitudes towards image making requires different historical and aesthetic frameworks. Young suspects that how we imagine art in the twenty first century “is still driven by a sentimentality towards the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries.”

In their separate approaches and practices, both Young and Liew are deeply interested in aesthetics and history, contemplating its cross-cultural foundations and distilling it in their work with a quiet spirit. What results is not sentimental, heavy handed cliché or didactic. This is one of the empathetic touch points between Young and Liew – an attitude towards the efficacy of artistic practice to play a key role in knowledge production. Their work has wide ranging implications for the Australian community because it demands us to formulate a realistic conversation about history and aesthetics that relates to the experiences of Australian modernity emerging from migration and cross-cultural dialogue.

© Aaron Seeto, 2011
4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art

All quotations are taken from interviews with the artists