I visited Milica at her studio while she was working on her recent pieces, and had the chance to view the paintings while they were still clearly submerged in the thick of preparation. Previously, we collaborated on Milica's show presented by the Esplanade, of which I was the curator. I also followed her painting style and technical developments while she was executing the mural 'Blair Road’, at the Esplanade.
At that time it was unusual for me to see Milica arranging a big composition, polyptych showing a Peranakan couple in their traditional clothes (a part of the show "The Shape That Is" which took place at "Jendela" in March and will also be included in the coming December show), literally on the last day before the commencement of the show. This is because when a painting is made of pieces then the actual space in which it "comes to life" becomes instrumental to its understanding.
Assembling and reassembling, constructing and deconstructing, the processes that are traditionally in the core of painting itself, have been redefined by the position of the canvases. Milica’s final arranging of this work reminded me of a big jigsaw puzzle, which, in this case, had no supposed edge or blueprint, but was at the mercy of the artist’s sole judgment.
Such practices are clearly seen in genres such as collage and sculpture, while in painting they are usually obscured. Proceeding stages of an aesthetic struggle come to an end by a final solution which remains invisble, covered by the solved stage, and this is why the viewer is not privy to it. In collage, for instance, this procedure is more apparent, although the torn layers we can't see, as much as we can't guess the nature of the layers that cover each other and form a relief. Comparison goes back to a jigsaw as the artist directs the viewer to a realisation that the elements themselves decide about their interplay, conveying various meanings through the layering versus taking away.
All this explains why Milica was hesitant to stop and make a firm statement about her painting. (The relevance here is that the parts of this composition will be presented at The Arts House and I feel it will change into quite a different assembly of smaller and bigger panels of canvas). Her collage compositions are finally defined through the juxtaposition of their elements similar to a free puzzle which allows addition and subtraction at any specific time or reason, independent from the initial plan. This interplay of pieces also builds a strong architectonic visual.
Similar to the Peranakan culture: adding and subtracting of its elements, motifs and styles, continues to this day and will, I expect, continue this way for a very long time to come. Perhaps this is unusual in this day and age where many indigenous cultures are easily eroded by the onslaught of global culture... but Peranakan culture is still intact, has clear defined styles in itself but does evolve and develop, or one may say “plays along with it…”, i.e. it hasn't become a museum culture yet. The
Peranakans are a playful bunch, creative, not bound by formulas. This is reflected in their way of life,a cross fertilization of different styles: the Malay Peninsular meet Euro-Asian recipes, Victorian-looking decorations live along with Chinese ornaments, and the language became a mixture of English and Malay combined with Hokkien/Teochew/Hakka dialects (depending on a hybrid of a specific family). This boils back to a realisation that, actually, I have never had a problem understanding any of the regional dialects, since I grew up in the heart of a Eurasian/Peranakan-dense area of Katong, intermingling with many dialect groups. This "breeding" is visibly reflected in Milica’s work as her approach is playful, dancing, shifting, moving and adaptive, never quite inhibited to external influences, but borrowing these externals as a personification of her own style.
As I stood there looking at her new paintings of sleeping girls and the others of two cranes and traditional Peranakan playing cards, the two references she told me about became very plastic: one refers to her excitement when she was peeling off the wall paper in her first studio while she was still an art student. As there were several layers of the patterned wall paper, which blended together and produced new images, the whole process of the stripping away and revealing became the one of almost archaeological connotations. This is
one aspect quite evident in her work, defining her style and also technical procedures.Similar aesthetic impulse and emotion came across from the over three millennia old frescoes in the Heraklion museum in Crete. Again she was excited by the complex rendering and decaying surface quality of the paint.
Talking about the quality of paint in Milica's work, we can feel both of these influences. The texture of the paint is very layered, the colours are within the range used in frescoes and the overall effect is a bit chalky, giving the sense of blurring and fading like in old frescoes. She also uses paper and textiles and tears them in pieces sticking them on top of other canvas, even putsthe smaller canvases, if not next to each other in an assembly, then on top of each other, over-lapping, overlaying.
As for the subjects and content they are clearly derived from the artist's interest and exposure to this part of Asia: two proud figures, the male and female Peranakan, the statuesque cranes, a seductive princess of the Orient, a pair of delicate slippers – all these subjects are not too far from their actual sizes in reality, as if they too, will find placements in our surroundings. The cranes echo a familiar decorative motif found in ceramics, whether this is in the Peranakan tradition, or as it is in China, or European borrowed from Asia. Deeper, we may find the cross references between the Dutch, Portuguese, Chinese, Malay and to the Peranakan culture native to this region. Milica's earlier work had been using references from the Portuguese ceramic tiles (azulejos). It is a sequel to that inspiration which has risen from the facades of the colourful shop houses that Milica had been looking at daily while she lived in Emerald Hill. (Sophisticated patterns of the colored tiles adorn the shop houses and they are synonymous for both Peranakan and Portuguese traditions). There seems to be a lot of this, ceramic quality in Milica's work, although the aesthetic transition isn't at all literal, as she draws our attention to the beauty of designs per se and the fact that they can be found in so many aspects of the intricate Peranakan world. Perhaps too, the concept of tiles is pertinent here when considering the overall assembly of work and the individual pieces made up of individual canvases.
I will not be in town to see the final assemblage of this coming exhibition; but, in a way I am pleased to have witnessed the making of the set-up while still in process in the artist’s studio, bearing in mind, that this series of work, if ever they make the chance of returning to the studio, will not be an end, since I am confident that beyond the exhibition at The Arts House, another assemblage will (or is already) taking place somehow.
Tamares Goh is an artist born in Singapore and currently based in the UK. Apart from her various job titles and many achievements as an art manager, first and above all she refers to herself as an artist.