A quiet, pensive atmosphere permeates the spaces and subjects in the works by Joel Seow (b. 1997, Singapore). Characters are searching and longing for something vague and amorphous that has not yet taken shape in their minds, while in other works, human presence is substituted with a lingering want, a formless fear of something lacking. Spaces seem emptier than possible, transformed into unmoving personal enclosures.
At the same time, the paintings are also an exploration of intimacy, of the deeply personal. Traces of the autobiographical – loved ones, lived-in spaces, obscure memories and metaphors – weave their way into the environments of the paintings. However, the desire to convey their emotional significance to the viewer inevitably reaches a limit. There arises an acute awareness of the impossibility of achieving that intimacy with the subject matter, resulting only in a consciousness of our own isolation.
What is truly important, then, remains obscured from view. According to the Surrealist artist Rene Magritte, "Visible things always hide other visible things." In Seow's work, the recurring motifs of tarpaulins and construction sites function in a similar manner. A familiar sight in the urban environment, the blue and green tarpaulins are in essence metaphorical and physical layers that obscure what is yet to happen within. Their presence represents transience, impermanence. But in these paintings, the construction sites are frozen in time, forever prevented from reaching the object of longing. The tarpaulins, translucent and flowing, might as well be as opaque as the concrete constructs they hide.
In other paintings, human figures are enveloped in that same opacity, their expressions and intentions isolated and inaccessible. This echoes our contemporary mode of social interaction, which – inseparable from digital mediation and curation – comes with distance and opacity built in. In so many images and scraps of words, parts of a person are disjointed or left out, disparate objects and spaces are joined together. To the artist, the sense of dislocation that results is akin to a dreamlike state where the consciousness of being is never fully present, and one is unable to see themself wholly, only in fragments. In some paintings, parts – disembodied feet, a passing shadow – reveal the dislocated self.
But despite the paintings being a reflection of that contemporary condition of isolation, the tenderness with which the figures are painted simultaneously questions and undermines the impossibility of intimacy. Perhaps the paintings feel emotionally bleak or ominous, due to this strange dissonance between intimacy and isolation. Yet, they find meaning in the space where the distinction falls apart.